HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A Houston woman accused in an international marriage fraud scheme pleaded guilty on five counts Thursday.
Ashley Yen Nguyen, AKA "Duyen," was identified by prosecutors as the mastermind behind the scam in May 2019. As part of her plea, a U.S. Attorney's Office stated the 55-year-old woman admitted to conspiring to engage in marriage fraud, mail fraud, immigration fraud, money laundering, and making false statements in a tax return.
Federal prosecutors say nearly 100 people were charged in the scheme, and Nguyen's family in southwest Houston is at the heart of the indictment.
A federal grand jury indicted 96 people in the alleged scheme with operations in Houston and Vietnam.
Prosecutors say Nguyen operated a Houston-based organization out of her home on High Star Drive and had associates operating throughout Texas and Vietnam.
The scam involved the creation of sham marriages in order to illegally obtain immigration status, prosecutors say.
"These arrests mark the culmination of a comprehensive year-long multi-agency investigation into one of the largest alleged marriage fraud conspiracies ever documented in the Houston area," said Special Agent in Charge Mark Dawson of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations. "By working together with our partners from various federal law enforcement agencies, we have sent a resounding message that we are united in our effort to disrupt and dismantle criminal organizations that seek to circumvent U.S. law by fraudulent means."
ORIGINAL STORY: Nearly 100 charged in massive Houston marriage fraud scheme
According to U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick's office, Nguyen also admitted to arranging at least 40 sham marriages in which a Vietnamese national would pay her group $50,000 to $70,000 to marry a wife or husband in the United States to fraudulently obtain lawful permanent resident status.
The spouses would also pay an additional amount for each immigration benefit they received, such as admission into the United States, conditional permanent resident status and full lawful permanent resident status.
In addition, Nguyen and others recruited other United States citizens to act as petitioners in the sham marriages, according to the indictment.The U.S. Attorney's Office stated that Nguyen falsely represented herself as an attorney too.
The petitioners received a portion of the proceeds received from the beneficiary spouses. Several individuals that were recruited as petitioners soon after became recruiters themselves, according to the allegations.
The criminal organization also allegedly prepared fake wedding albums that were provided to the petitioner and beneficiary spouse that included photographs to make it appear as if they had a wedding ceremony above and beyond a simple courthouse marriage.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Nguyen and her criminal organization provided fabricated facts to the fake spouses to study and recite details to falsely establish the pair was living together and familiar with each other's daily habits.
She also purchased multiple residences with the criminal proceeds, which she used as part of the scheme to either collect, distribute the proceeds and/or stage some of the rooms for the times when authorities indicated they would conduct a site inspection. The rooms were set up to appear as if they belonged to the fake spouses.
The U.S. Attorney's Office added that Nguyen acknowledged the fake spouses did not live together and did not intend to live together, contrary to documents and statements submitted to federal authorities. At her instruction, the spouses only met briefly, immediately before they obtained their marriage license or not at all.
The indictment further alleges the criminal organization provided false tax, utility, and employment information to help ensure the false immigration forms were approved.
"The government in these detention hearings always tries to make these salacious kind of statements and arguments," said Nguyen's defense attorney Mar Carter at a court appearance last year. "They were also making a point to let the judge know she is a naturalized citizen that is somehow less than someone born here."
Nguyen faces up to 20 years in prison and a possible $250,000 maximum fine.
The video above is from previous reporting.