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Uncovered: Sham Marriage Fraud Scheme

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Immigration consultant Sergey Potepalov, 57, of Citrus Heights, pleaded guilty recently to an immigration fraud scheme that involved sham marriages, United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.

U.S. Attorney Wagner said: "Mr. Potepalov's business of selling phony marriages is over, but our office remains committed to prosecuting aliens or U.S. citizens who would try to circumvent our immigration laws through fraud and deceit."

"Schemes like this undermine the integrity of America's legal immigration system and rob deserving immigrants of benefits they rightfully deserve," said Daniel Lane, assistant special agent in charge for HSI Sacramento. "HSI will continue to aggressively pursue those who perpetrate immigration fraud for their own enrichment, with no regard for the harm they cause."

According to court documents, Potepalov, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Russian descent, was the leader of a scheme with 13 other defendants who were charged in July 2011, with conspiring to commit marriage fraud, to defraud the United States, to make false statements, and to induce an alien to enter and remain in the United States.

The elaborate immigration fraud scheme involved foreign nationals from Eastern Europe and Russia who paid up to five-figure fees to enter into sham marriages with locally recruited U.S. citizens in an effort to legalize their immigration status. For foreign nationals, marriage to an American citizen is one means of obtaining lawful permanent residency in the United States. To initiate that process, aliens who are outside the country must apply for a fianc visa that enables them to travel to the United States to marry the citizen spouse. Alternatively, foreign nationals who are already in the United States and entered the country legally may wed here and apply for lawful permanent residence based upon the marriage. Upon entry to the United States, they might also apply for political asylum.

According to affidavits filed in the case, in 2002, Potepalov arranged for Keith O'Neil to enter into a sham marriage with an alien from Russia who had been denied naturalization in 2009. Between 2003 and 2005, O'Neil accompanied Potepalov on three trips to Moscow and filed petitions for fianc visas for four other aliens. These women were from Russia, Uzbekistan, and Armenia. All of the petitions were ultimately denied. In 2007, O'Neil entered into a second sham marriage with an alien from Romania.

The other defendants charged in the indictment include six foreign nationals who attempted to obtain fianc visas and "green cards" through the scheme and six local U.S. citizens who agreed to "marry" the aliens in return for promised payments of up to $5,000. For example, the indictment alleges that on August 7, 2007, Dumitru Sisianu, a citizen of Moldova, entered into a sham marriage with Marla Brennan. That same day, Sisianu's girlfriend, Alina Turcan, a citizen of Moldova, entered into a sham marriage with Richard Vargas, a U.S. citizen.

Some of the participants in the scheme received immigration benefits before they were caught. For example, Yuriy Korzhov, an alien from Ukraine, married a U.S. citizen in Russia and gained entry to the United States on a spouse of a U.S. citizen visa. Likewise, Veranika Koushal, an alien from Belarus, entered into a sham marriage with a U.S. citizen, Anthony Rivera in 2003. Koushal ultimately became a naturalized citizen based on that marriage, although that naturalization may be revoked if proven to be based on fraud.

Likewise, another defendant, Aleksandr Krivokhizhin, an alien from Ukraine, entered into a sham marriage with a U.S. citizen, and, based on that marriage, was able to bring his son into the United States too.

In June 2009, ICE HSI agents executed federal search warrants at Potepalov's home and business, seizing numerous boxes of documents relating to immigration applications as well as computer files. Documents filed in the case reveal that participants in the scheme went to significant lengths to make the sham marriages appear legitimate: posing for wedding pictures together, establishing apartments in both spouses' names, and rehearsing false answers for interviews with immigration officials.

According to documents filed in the case, ICE HSI first began investigating Potepalov's activities in 2006 after receiving information from the U.S. Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service indicating Potepalov was filing fraudulent visa petitions on behalf of Russian and Ukrainian nationals. As the investigation progressed, HSI agents worked closely with personnel from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's (USCIS) Fraud Detection and National Security Unit (FDNS) in Sacramento to identify aliens who may have sought to benefit from the scheme. Assistant United States Attorney Daniel S. McConkie is prosecuting the case.

Potepalov is scheduled to be sentenced by United States District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. on August 15, 2013. He faces a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory sentencing factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.

The statuses of the remaining defendants are as follows:

  • Keith O'Neil, 46, of Sacramento, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months prison;
  • Marla Brennan, 32, of Sacramento, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months prison and six months of home confinement;
  • Richard Vargas, 40, of Sacramento, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 months prison;
  • Olga Nekrasova, 27, of San Francisco, has pleaded guilty and was deported after serving four months in prison;
  • Brian Barnes, 33, of Sacramento, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 months prison;
  • Marlena Colvin, 29, of Sacramento, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 months home confinement;
  • Anthony Rivera, 37, Sacramento pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing;
  • Veranika Koushal, 34, of West Palm Beach, Fla., pleaded guilty to making false statements and is awaiting sentencing.
    The charges against the following defendants are only allegations, and they are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt:

Pavel Berezenko, 55, of Sacramento, has a status conference on March 28;
Aleksandr Krivokhizhin, 40, of Southampton, Mass. is a fugitive;
Yuriy Korzhov, 49, of Roseville, is a fugitive;
Alina Turcan, 27, of Jacksonville, Fla., is a fugitive;
Dumitru Sisianu, 27, of Jacksonville, Fla., is a fugitive.