Los Angeles, Dec. 25: Authorities have charged a 45-year-old woman with brokering dozens of sham marriages for men from the Middle East and north Africa seeking US citizenship.
While neither the Los Angeles Police Department nor the FBI have raised suspicions that Sharon Whiteside was involved in anything other than a phony document ring, they have taken an interest in the case because similar scams have been linked to suspected terrorists establishing residence in the US.
“We have no indications that any of these people have terrorist connections,” said LAPD lieutenant Adam Bercovici. “But it is an area we are looking at because we know other people, with similar operations, have been linked to terrorism.”
Citing the ongoing probe, Los Angeles FBI spokesman Matthew McLaughlin declined comment. He did say the FBI is concerned about foreign nationals gaining US citizenship by any phony means, including sham marriages, particularly “if there is even a possibility they are doing it to forward a terrorist effort”.
During a brief appearance in Van Nuys Superior Court, Whiteside was arraigned on three counts of filing a false document and held on $100,000 bail after pleading not guilty. At the same time, $100,000 bench warrants were issued for three men — two from Tunisia and one from India — who allegedly took part in the phony marriages.
Whiteside, who is next scheduled in court on January 6, was arrested without incident last Thursday at her home in the San Fernando Valley by LAPD detectives and FBI agents assigned to a Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The arrest, authorities said, culminated a months-long investigation of Whiteside for allegedly arranging phony marriages between low-income women in the US and men from overseas, almost all of them from the Middle East and north Africa. Over the course of several years, Bercovici said, the alleged scam may have involved as many as 200 phony marriages, sometimes three or four in the same day.
He said women would sign statements indicating they had been living with the men as husbands and wives, even in cases where they had only met hours before. The fee for arranging the bogus marriages ranged from $4,000 to $10,000, with the women also receiving as much as $1,000 a month while the men waited a year before they could end the marriage and still keep their citizenship, authorities said.
“It seems like she was doing a pretty lucrative business,” Bercovici said. “Based on what I have seen so far it seems as if it was a profit-driven operation.”