SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A Sacramento-area man who orchestrated an elaborate marriage fraud scheme aimed at aiding foreign nationals from Eastern Europe and Russian who wanted to legalize their immigration status was sentenced Thursday to two years and three months in prison.
Sergey Potepalov, 58, of Citrus Heights, was the last of the nine defendants to be sentenced on charges resulting from a probe by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). The penalty was imposed by U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr.
According to court documents, Potepalov, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Russian descent, charged foreign nationals up to five-figure fees to enter into sham marriages with locally recruited U.S. citizens. 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 fiancé visa that enables them to travel to the U.S. 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 court documents, co-defendant Keith O'Neil, 47, of Sacramento, entered into two sham marriages and accompanied Potepalov on three trips to Moscow. He filed petitions for fiancé visas for four women from Russia, Uzbekistan, and Armenia; all of the petitions were ultimately denied.
The other defendants sentenced in the case were either foreign nationals who attempted to obtain fiancé visas and "green cards" or U.S. citizens who agreed to enter into sham marriages with the aliens in return for promised payments of up to $5,000. 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. All have pleaded guilty and were sentenced as follows:
- Keith O'Neil, sentenced to 18 months in prison;
- Marla Brennan, 33, of Sacramento, sentenced to six months prison and six months' home confinement;
- Richard Vargas, 39, of Sacramento, sentenced to one year in prison;
- Olga Nekrasova, 29, of San Francisco, sentenced to four months in prison;
- Brian Barnes, 35, of Sacramento, sentenced to 10 months in prison;
- Anthony Rivera, 38, Sacramento, sentenced to two years in prison;
- Veranika Koushal, 35, of West Palm Beach, Fla., sentenced to two years' probation; and
- Marlena Colvin, 30, of Sacramento, sentenced to 10 months' probation.
"Potepalov essentially built a business out of phony marriages between U.S. Citizens and persons who sought citizenship," said U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner. "Our office is committed to prosecuting those – aliens and U.S. citizens alike – who try to profit from circumventing our immigration laws through fraud and deceit."
"Marriage fraud and other immigration benefit fraud schemes undermine the integrity of our legal immigration system and potentially rob deserving immigrants of benefits they rightfully deserve," said Daniel Lane, assistant special agent in charge of HSI Sacramento. "America's legal immigration system is not for sale – and as this sentence makes clear, HSI will aggressively target those who conspire to corrupt the integrity of that system simply for personal profit."
According to documents filed in the case, HSI first began investigating Potepalov's activities in 2006 after receiving information from the U.S. Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service indicating the immigration consultant 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.
"Immigration scams meant to circumvent our laws are a cruel insult to those who wait patiently to immigrate, respectful of our laws," said Mari Carmen Jordan, district director of USCIS Sacramento District. "We're proud of the work our Fraud Detection and National Security unit did to reveal this scheme, including site visits, interviews and in-depth research."
This case is the product of an investigation spearheaded by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with substantial assistance from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michele M. Beckwith prosecuted the case.