U.S. diplomat caught taking bribes for visas

A U.S. diplomat was charged on Friday with accepting trips with exotic dancers, jewelry and entertainment in exchange for issuing visas to 21 people linked to an international jewel distributor.

U.S. Foreign Service officer Michael O’Keefe, 59, and international jeweler Sunil Agrawal were indicted by a grand jury in Washington on three counts of conspiracy and bribery.

O’Keefe, a 22-year State Department veteran who was working at the U.S. Consulate in Toronto as the deputy non-immigrant visa chief, was arrested on Thursday in Washington, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Agrawal remains at large.

The indictment said between 2004 and 2006 Agrawal gave round-trip airline tickets to O’Keefe and two exotic dancers to travel to New York and Las Vegas. Agrawal paid for hotels, expensive meals and entertainment during the trips.

Agrawal also gave O’Keefe jewelry, other gifts and a job reference, the indictment said. In exchange, O’Keefe helped expedite visa requests for employees of Agrawal’s company, STS Jewels Inc. He issued visas to 21 people sponsored by Agrawal.

“U.S. Consular officials are on the front line of our border protection,” said U.S. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein. “A consular official who violates the rules for personal gain not only erodes public trust in our visa system, but seriously jeopardizes our national security.”

The indictment included excerpts of e-mails between O’Keefe and Agrawal detailing plans for their trips and requests for O’Keefe to help STS employees obtain U.S. visas.

One e-mail shows O’Keefe overruled a co-worker who wanted to deny a visa to an Agrawal employee out of concern that al Qaeda uses the jewelry industry to raise money.

“Needless to say I overruled the decision and explained to them that major gem importers such as STS are not being used by al Qaeda,” said the e-mail written by O’Keefe to Agrawal.

If convicted on the charges, O’Keefe and Agrawal face between five and 15 years in prison.

© Reuters 2006