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Document and Benefit Fraud

Seattle-area restaurant owner pleads guilty to immigration fraud scheme

SEATTLE - The owner of a chain of popular local Thai restaurants pleaded guilty in federal court on Friday to one count of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and three counts of immigration-document fraud, following an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Varee Bradford, 44, of Sammamish, Wash., admitted in her plea agreement that she recruited U.S. citizens to enter into illegal sham marriages with Thai nationals. She owns six "Thai Ginger" restaurants, and some of those involved in the marriage fraud scheme worked for her.

According to court documents, starting in 2002 and continuing for five years, Bradford offered to pay U.S. citizen employees $20,000 if they agreed to marry a Thai national and help their "spouse" gain legal status to live in the United States. Two of the Thai "spouses" involved in the marriage scheme were relatives of Bradford.

In late 2007, Bradford offered to pay $20,000 to a U.S. citizen, who was actually an undercover ICE agent, to marry a Thai national. However, before the wedding, the "wife" in the scheme had to return unexpectedly to Thailand.

Bradford then introduced the undercover agent to a second Thai national, and counseled him on how to prepare for the immigration interview which is required to receive immigration benefits. She reassured him that the marriage had to last only two years.

"Marriage fraud undermines the integrity of our nation's legal immigration system and potentially robs deserving immigrants of benefits they rightfully deserve," said Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in Seattle. "Today's guilty plea demonstrates that those who engage in these schemes can face criminal charges for their actions."

Bradford is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 22. She faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the conspiracy count, and 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine on the fraudulent immigration documents charges.