Courts - Ohio Marriage scam paired immigrants, poor brides

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- It was a lucrative gig while it lasted. For a $17,000 fee, leaders of a fraud ring arranged sham marriages for Russian and other Eastern European nationals seeking permanent residence in the U.S. Their brides were typically young, poor women desperate for cash.

Dmitry Pani, fellow ringleader Hasan Salohutdinov and seven co-defendants were scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday on federal fraud charges. While prosecutors documented 11 fake marriages, they say Pani may have perpetrated substantially more.

In all, 11 people were indicted in the plot, accused of arranging fraudulent marriages to evade immigration laws. All 11 have pleaded guilty. Two already have been sentenced.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say more than 800 people nationally have been convicted in similar marriage fraud schemes since 2006.

Pani, a native of Estonia, started the scheme in 2007 by recruiting Russians who were looking to stay in the country permanently, the government said in a court filing earlier this month.

Pani would arrange marriages at a Columbus wedding chapel -- ceremonies from $60 to $275, photos extra -- and advise the women who agreed to participate how to file immigration papers on behalf of their new husbands, the filing said.

Pani, who faces deportation, is remorseful and wants to avoid criminal activity in the future, his lawyer said in a July 20 court filing.

Salohutdinov, a native of Uzbekistan, joined Pani after the scheme was under way and helped recruit other Uzbeks to participate, the government said in a court filing.

Salohutdinov, who accepts responsibility, took "desperate steps" to remain in the U.S. after he was stabbed while in the Uzbek army, his attorney, Dave Thomas, said in a July 14 court filing.

One of the Uzbeks recruited for the scheme was Sobithon Mirzaev, who pleaded guilty in March to one count of marriage fraud. He agreed to be deported as part of his conviction.

Mirzaev participated in the fraud solely to stay in the country he considered home and to avoid returning to Uzbekistan where opportunities were limited, his lawyer, Andrew Sanderson, said in a court filing last month

The woman Mirzaev married, LaDawna Tackett of Columbus, received three years of probation last month from U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley after pleading guilty to one count of marriage fraud in March.

Tackett was an 18-year-old single mother working as an exotic dancer when she agreed to marry Mirzaev in 2007, according to a June filing by her attorney, Richard Cline. The marriage was never consummated and Tackett received only about $1,300 in the scam, the filing said.

"This offense was born of economic desperation," Cline wrote. "For LaDawna, the crushing poverty that has marked her entire life cannot be overstated."

The co-owner of Columbus Wedding Services Chapel said she was disappointed by what happened. But Marge Butler, a nondenominational minister, said the couples arrived with valid marriage licenses.

"We're not here to judge. We're not here to check backgrounds or anything else," Butler said. "We're here to provide a service -- that's it."

Published: Thu, Jul 29, 2010

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