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State Department official swayed by exotic dancers, jewels and trips!

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TORONTO -- A U.S. State Department official in Toronto is accused of taking strippers on holidays and choosing jewellery for his wife as payment to push through visa applications, in a bribery scandal that suggests U.S. border security was breached by one of its own.

Behind the grey facade of the U.S. consulate in Toronto, Michael John O'Keefe Sr. (the deputy nonimmigrant visa chief) was allegedly fast-tracking visa applications and reversing visa refusals for 21 people at the behest of Sunil Agrawal, the CEO of STS Jewels Inc., an international manufacturer and distributor of jewellery and gems.

As thanks, Mr. Agrawal funded luxurious trips to Las Vegas and New York for Mr. O'Keefe and two exotic dancers, sent jewellery and gift baskets, and even invited Mr. O'Keefe to attend charity functions as an honoured guest, U.S. prosecutors say.

Linking these two men is a rare African gem called tanzanite, which was once believed to have been smuggled by terrorist groups including al-Qaeda to fund their activities.

Mr. O'Keefe was appointed to an international task force formed in 2002 to monitor tanzanite trade, and Mr. Agrawal is one of North America's leading tanzanite sellers.

"U.S. consular officials are on the front line of our border protection," said U.S. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein. "A consular official who violates the rules for personal gain not only erodes public trust in our visa system, but seriously jeopardizes our national security."

U.S. federal prosecutors yesterday formally charged the two men with bribery and conspiracy. They have yet to answer the charges in court, but if convicted, they would face up to 15 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.

Mr. O'Keefe was the deputy non-immigrant visa chief at the Toronto consulate during the time of the alleged offences, between Feb. 1, 2004, and Aug. 18, this year.

A 22-year veteran with the State Department, he was arrested by diplomatic security special agents in Washington on Thursday and appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Kay in that city yesterday.

According to The Associated Press, authorities seized his diplomatic passport, but a federal magistrate said Mr. O'Keefe could not be released until his tourist passport could be located. A hearing was set for Monday.

Mr. Agrawal was still at large last night.

In the 22-page indictment prosecutors quote e-mails and communication between Mr. O'Keefe, 59, and Mr. Agrawal, a 47-year-old Indian national now residing in the United States. The e-mails in the indictment portray a friendly relationship, with the men discussing family and work issues as they allegedly arranged visas for Mr. Agrawal's employees.

In one series of e-mails, Mr. Agrawal agrees to write a reference for Mr. O'Keefe's job application to a U.S. university, saying Mr. O'Keefe seemed "stressed out" with his position.

Mr. O'Keefe allegedly replied he was growing tired of constant arguments over visas, and that vice-consuls "seem to be determined to find problems" with applications.

"I know your company to be strong and you to be an honourable man, so I have no problem with these cases," Mr. O'Keefe wrote in the same e-mail.

STS Jewels is based in New York and, according to its website, has offices in Canada, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Brazil, Dubai and Britain.

The commercial address for STS Jewels Canada Inc. is a semi-detached, two-storey home in a newly developed Mississauga neighbourhood.

The home was formerly owned by Paramjeet and Sarabjeet Bhatia.

About Jan. 12 last year, the indictment states, Mr. Agrawal e-mailed Mr. O'Keefe asking him to oversee the visa process for "P--, S-- and B-- from Bhatia Consultancy of Toronto."

About four months later, the federal document states Mr. O'Keefe issued visas to P.S.B., S.K.B. and I.S.B., listed in the indictment as "an employee and family members sponsored by defendant Sunil Agrawal."

The young family that bought the house two months ago said it was empty when they first viewed it, and there had been an STS Jewels Canada sign in a side-door window. The new owners said Mr. and Mrs. Bhatia used to rent the house out to an STS Jewels employee.

The indictment alleges Mr. Agrawal would give Mr. O'Keefe the names of STS Jewels employees who needed visa interviews.

Mr. O'Keefe would then schedule meetings outside the regular times and, when he could, he would make sure that he was conducting the interview.

According to the indictment, after Mr. O'Keefe received one gift -- a $3,000 (U.S.) ring -- he e-mailed Mr. Agrawal to lament the fact he'd had to pay $262.65 in Canadian customs and duties to pick it up.

"I should have asked you to send it to a U.S. address that we use," the e-mail read.

Mr. O'Keefe and Sunil Agrawal were indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges last week.

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