Thai Ginger owner sentenced for immigration scheme

February 23, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

A judge sentenced the owner of the Thai Ginger restaurant chain, Issaquah resident Varee Bradford, to six months in prison last week for her role in what authorities described as a long-running immigration scam.

Bradford, 44, recruited U.S. citizens to enter sham marriages with Thai citizens in order for the immigrants to obtain legal status to stay in the United States. She pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and three counts of fraud relating to immigration documents. Agents arrested Bradford for the immigration scheme last June at her Issaquah home.

“You used your money and position to circumvent the law,” U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo S. Martinez told Bradford in court Feb. 19. “This mocks the efforts of immigrants who work hard and wait years to obtain citizenship.”

Thai Ginger operates restaurants in Klahanie, Bellevue, Redmond and Seattle.

Authorities said Bradford offered male and female employees up to $25,000 to enter sham marriages with her Thai relatives for immigration purposes. Bradford and a former restaurant employee were charged with crimes stemming from four instances from 2001 to 2007 in which marriages were set up between Thai Ginger employees and her relatives.

The former employee, Porramin Tangchaiwanna, pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and was sentenced to four months in jail last year.

The marriage scheme unraveled when Bradford and Tangchaiwanna met an undercover federal immigrant agent in February 2008 at one of Bradford’s Seattle restaurants. Bradford introduced the agent to a woman and said she would pay the agent $20,000 to marry the woman.

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

U.S. Department of Labor officials had earlier investigated Bradford for violations of overtime laws, prosecutors wrote in sentencing documents. Authorities said she required employees to work beyond their shifts without additional compensation. Bradford agreed to pay almost $80,000 in back wages to settle the issue.

Yet, the restaurant owner “continued to flagrantly ignore the laws, by engaging in the marriage fraud scheme,” the prosecutors, assistant United States attorneys Jill Otake and Ye-Ting Woo, wrote in their sentencing memo. Martinez referenced the Department of Labor investigation during the sentencing hearing. Bradford and her husband had agreed to obey laws as part of the overtime settlement.

“American citizens have rights and responsibilities,” Martinez said. “While that response was fresh in her mind, she engaged in the criminal activity that brought her here today.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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