Organizer Of Sham Marriages Sentenced

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 23, 2006

A ringleader in a massive marriage fraud scheme was sentenced to nearly 3 1/2 years in prison yesterday by a judge who criticized the man for saying he had arranged more than 100 phony marriages only to help fellow Ghanaian immigrants stay in the United States.

"That's a mansion you built," U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said to Samuel Acquah, holding up a picture of Acquah's $775,000 house in Bowie. "You did this for greed. You didn't do it to help anyone. So get that notion out of your head."

Acquah, a longtime patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office who admitted pocketing $200,000 from the fake marriages, was sentenced to 40 months in prison. "Sham marriages, the number that you engaged in, the scheme that you engaged in, do serious injury to the proper administration of our immigration system," Ellis said.

It was one of the longest sentences handed down in the investigation of one of the Washington region's biggest and most brazen immigration scams. Centered in the area's little-noticed but rapidly growing community of immigrants from Ghana, the scheme involved an estimated 1,000 fake marriages between immigrants and U.S. citizens willing to tie the knot for money.

Immigrants would pay as much as $6,000 to be introduced to a "spouse," usually on the day of the marriage. They would then be coached on how to lie to immigration inspectors to make the marriage seem real. Immigrants who marry U.S. citizens can get a visa to stay in this country immediately, instead of having to wait years, and can shorten the route to citizenship by several years.

Since an undercover federal and state investigation broke up the fraud ring in September, 20 of 22 people charged have pleaded guilty in federal court in Alexandria. Most have been sentenced to probation or to prison time already served, but another man identified by prosecutors as a ringleader, Mark Owusu, yesterday received 21 months in prison. Most of the immigrants will be deported.

The case is part of an intensifying federal crackdown, triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, on marriage and other immigration document frauds.

Most of the local marriages were performed in Arlington and attracted Ghanaians from as far as New York and South Carolina. There are no waiting periods for couples applying for marriage licenses in Virginia, as there are in Maryland and the District. Arlington, with its proximity to the Metro system and the District, was especially convenient, people involved in the scheme have said.

An Arlington County Circuit Court clerk triggered the nearly four-year investigation when she spotted couples coming in for marriage licenses who acted as if they didn't know each other. A man named "Sam" often escorted them, the clerk said in a recent interview.

Sam turned out to be Acquah, a Ghanaian immigrant who has master's and law degrees and worked in the chemical engineering section of the patent office until October.

"It was essentially a marriage fraud mill," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeanine Linehan said yesterday as she urged a tough sentence for Acquah. "He would run people through the Arlington courthouse, two to three in the course of a week."

Prosecutors and Ellis yesterday identified Acquah, who pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy to commit immigration fraud, as one of two key ringleaders.

According to court documents and Acquah's statements in court, he charged immigrants $3,000 to $3,500. Several employees were Acquah's "contacts" and helped find U.S. citizens willing to get married for money. Acquah would split the profit with his contact, who would pay the U.S. citizen $500.

Acquah ran the fraud ring partly out of his government office, using his fax machine there to communicate about illicit marriages, court documents said.

Yesterday, in the comment that aroused the judge's ire, Acquah said he had intended to help his fellow immigrants. But mostly, he expressed regret. "This is a country that I love very much," he told Ellis. "The job that I had with the federal government for over 20 years is over. The career that I created for the 33 years I have been in this country is gone.''

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