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Document and Benefit Fraud

Seattle restaurateur sentenced for marriage fraud

SEATTLE - The co-owner of a chain of local Thai restaurants was sentenced to six months in federal prison and two years of supervised release after an investigation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) revealed that she had recruited U.S. citizens to enter into sham marriages with some of her employees and relatives.

Varee Bradford, 44, of Sammamish, Wash., pleaded guilty in October 2009 to one felony count of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and three felony counts of fraud relating to immigration documents. Bradford and her husband co-own five Thai Ginger restaurants in the Seattle area.

According to Bradford's plea agreement, starting in 2002 and continuing for five years, Bradford offered to pay multiple U.S. citizen employees $20,000 if they agreed to marry a Thai national. The marriage would be used to help the "spouse" gain legal status to live in the United States.

At one point during the investigation, Bradford asked an undercover ICE agent to enter into a sham marriage, offering him $20,000. The "wife" was changed midway through the scheme when the original woman had to return 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.

"Those who falsely believe our nation's immigration laws don't apply to them should take note," said Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge for ICE's Office of Investigation in Seattle. "Marriage fraud is nothing more than an illegal shortcut to U.S. citizenship and ICE will aggressively investigate those who engage in this activity."

In sentencing documents discussed at today's hearing, the prosecutor pointed out that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) had investigated Bradford for violations of overtime laws. The investigation concluded that she had required her employees to work more than 40 hours a week without additional compensation.

To settle the case, Bradford agreed to pay almost $80,000 in back wages to employees. Despite the outcome of the DOL investigation, the prosecutor noted that she "continued to flagrantly ignore the laws, by engaging in the marriage fraud scheme. She benefitted from the scheme."

Due to the fraudulent marriages, Bradford's employees were allowed to legally remain in the United States and work for Thai Ginger. This prevented Bradford from having to incur the expense of recruiting, hiring and training new employees.

U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez also referenced the DOL investigation during the court proceedings, saying that as part of the settlement, Bradford agreed to comply with all laws in the future. He said, "American citizens have rights and responsibilities. While those responsibilities were fresh in her mind, she engaged in the criminal activity that brought her here today."

Judge Martinez concluded by telling Bradford, "You used your money and position to circumvent the law. This mocks the efforts of immigrants who work hard and wait years to obtain citizenship."