Crime - Sacto 911

Citrus Heights man sentenced to 2 years in prison in marriage fraud scheme

A Citrus Heights man was sentenced Thursday in Sacramento federal court to two years and three months in prison for directing an international marriage fraud scheme.

Sergey Potepalov, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Russian descent, pleaded guilty last year to orchestrating an elaborate immigration fraud involving foreign nationals from Eastern Europe and Russia who paid up to five-figure fees for sham marriages with U.S. citizens recruited by Potepalov and his cohorts.

Marriage to an American citizen is one means of obtaining lawful permanent residency in the United States.

Potepalov, 58, was the last of the case’s nine defendants to be sentenced. The others are either foreign nationals who attempted to obtain so-called “fiancé visas” and residency documents, or U.S. citizens who agreed to enter into phony marriages with undocumented individuals in return for promised payments of up to $5,000.

When they were indicted in 2011 by a federal grand jury, Daniel Lane, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in Sacramento, said Potepalov had masterminded 39 of the fraudulent unions, commonly called “marriages of convenience.”

“Immigration scams ... are a cruel insult to those who wait patiently to immigrate, respectful of our laws,” said Mari Carmen Jordan, district director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service in Sacramento.

“We’re proud of the work our Fraud Detection and National Security unit did to reveal this scheme, including site visits, interviews and in-depth research,” Jordan said in a prepared statement.

Court papers show that participants in the scheme went to great lengths to make the marriages appear legitimate; posing for wedding pictures, establishing apartments in joint tenancy, and rehearsing false answers to standard interview questions from immigration officials.