14 Accused of Arranging Sham Marriages in California

A federal grand jury in Sacramento has indicted 14 people on charges of arranging sham marriages to immigrants from Russia, Ukraine and Eastern European nations to help them stay in the United States, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said Tuesday.

The indictment was unsealed after the man charged with being the ringleader, Sergey Potepalov, 55, was arrested Monday at his home in the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights.

He and the others had "made a business out of marriage fraud" since 2002, arranging at least nine marriages to circumvent immigration laws, Wagner said. They attempted at least 39 marriages, although not all were included in the indictment, said Dan Lane, assistant special agent in charge of the Department of Homeland Security investigations office in Sacramento.

"We're not talking about downtrodden people that are looking for a way to get to a better life. We're talking about people making a profit," Lane said at a news conference. "It exploits our generous immigration system that's designed to help people with humanitarian reasons to come here, compassionate reasons."

Foreign nationals paid up to $10,000 to Potepalov and an associate, Keith O'Neil, 44, of Sacramento, to arrange for the marriages. U.S. citizens who agreed to the marriages were paid up to several thousand dollars, Wagner said.

The grand jury issued the indictments July 14, but the charges were not announced until Tuesday to give federal authorities time to arrest the key figures. Seven of the 14 are in custody, while the others are being sought. None had listed attorneys with the court.

The defendants include eight U.S. citizens and six foreign nationals in California, Florida and Massachusetts. The 14 are charged with conspiring to commit marriage fraud, make false statements and induce a foreign national to remain in the U.S.

Prosecutors said participants would marry in Sacramento, Reno, Nev., or Eastern Europe, then take wedding photos and set up apartments to give the appearance of legitimacy.

The investigation began in 2006 after the U.S. State Department alerted homeland security officials that Potepalov was filing fraudulent visa petitions on behalf of Russian and Ukrainian nationals. Potepalov ran an immigration consulting business called United International Inc.