A Marine's 2013 conviction for arranging a "contract marriage" to earn extra military benefits was overturned this month after an appellate court found insufficient evidence he had committed fraud.
A Marine's conviction for arranging a "contract marriage" that for military benefits in 2013 was overturned this month after an appellate court found insufficient evidence he committed the fraud.
Cpl. Ronald Lovos was sentenced to 15 months' confinement and a bad-conduct discharge, with forfeiture of rank, pay and benefits, on Nov. 6, 2013, after a Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, military court found he had conspired to steal from the government through a sham marriage that allowed him to collect more than $500 in benefits and allowances. The marriage also and gave his spouse, an immigrant from Ghana, the opportunity to apply for a green card granting permanent resident statuscitizenship.
His court-martial came as Marine officials prosecuted an entire conspiracy ring of these alleged marriage-for-green card conspiracy ringscams at Lejeune and other Carolina bases, orchestrated by several Marines originally from Ghana, including Lance Cpl. Addae-Mensah.
But the decision by Aug. 18 decision published by the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals to overturn Lovos' conviction, published Aug. 18, highlights the difficulty of proving what differentiates a real marriage from a sham one before the law. The case — and may also provide an example of a nervous Marine being pressured into a confession by overzealous investigators.
According to court documents, an Aug. 18 decision published by the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, Lovos, is aA Salvadoran national, who joined the Marine Corps as a motor transportation mechanic in 2010. In his unit, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, Lovos met Mensah, his fire team leader at 2nd Marine Logistics Group, who mentored him and invited him to his home on over for weekends at his home. On one of those occasions, these weekends, Lovos met Mensah's cousin Georgia, who was in the U.S. legally attending school in Maryland. Lovos and Georgia Mensah were married five months later, according to court documents.
Lovos told investigators he was immediately attracted to Georgia, who was eight years his senior, court documents show. Their relationship quickly turned intimate, he said. In September. 2010, he testified that he purchased an $800 ring and proposed to her. The wedding took place five weeks later in a local courthouse.
The following next January, Lovos applied for basic allowance for housing, a sum given to married Marines to cover the cost of living outside the barracks. He also gave Georgia a general power of attorney and later filed a joint income tax return with her, according to the appellate decision. The couple also gave each other gifts, including a dress for her and a rice cooker for him. But when Lovos deployed to Afghanistan in April 2011, the marriage appeared to take a sour turn.
Lovos testified that Georgia became persistent in her requests to begin a green card application and stopped showing affection for acting affectionate toward him. Though the couple leased an apartment together when he returned in October, Georgia kept a residence near her school in Maryland, and their marriage continued to deteriorate.
In August 2012, six months after Lovos had sponsored Georgia for an immigration interview, he was contacted by agents from Camp Lejeune's criminal investigation division, who questioned him extensively about his marriage and then instructed him to have no further contact with his wife.
During Lovos' two-hour interview with two CID agents, he first denied his marriage was a sham, then expressed doubt, then confessed.
When he was informed that there was '"a whole circle of people marrying people from Ghana," he said he felt like he "messed up," and may have entered a contract marriage, according to the court decision. When agents accused Lovos of lying, he broke down and began to confess more, saying he married Georgia to "help her out to get citizenship," that they planned to divorce after his 2011 deployment, and that they had not been intimate since their marriage and he did not consider her a friend.
However, the appeals court found multiple reasons to doubt Lovos' confession. Investigators were not aware that Lovos struggled to speak and understand English, the court found, and the confession statement they produced contained a word the Marine didn't know and was "rife with implications that were demonstrably false." And Lovos later testified he felt badgered into his confession by agents who frequently interrupted him and repeated questions multiple times. Moreover, the court found it unlikely that Lovos would grant power of attorney to a spouse he didn't like or trust.
While Lovos did earn BAH through the marriage, theat money had stayed in the bank, the court found. And he stood to lose much more than he could gain, as a foreign national whose naturalization process would be endangered by a bad-conduct discharge.
It's not clear what's next for Lovos; his attorney, Navy Lt. Jonathan Hawkins, declined to comment on the case when reached by Marine Corps Times.
But the case does highlight an ongoing challenge for the military: policing efforts to obtain fraudulent benefits from sham marriages. A 2013 Marine Corps Times investigation found Marines can rack up $20,000 or more per year in pay, allowances for housing and food, and separation pay just by getting married. Troops advertise on Craigslist for willing partners in these contract marriages, setting terms and conditions as they would for a business partnership. And the Marine Corps has found it difficult to audit or police no way of auditing or policing these scams, officials said, due to the challenge of ascertaining motive.
During a March 2013 court-martial in which Lance Cpl. Donald Mitchem was accused of engaging in a benefits-and-green-card marriage exchange with Stella Ampofo, a Ghanaian woman, Mitchem's military attorney, Capt. Zachary Spilman, emphasized the challenge.
"Marines get into stupid marriages. That's reality," he said during the court-martial. "Is [Mitchem] guilty of being a knucklehead lance corporal? Yeah, we got that. Is he guilty of larceny? No. Let's assume the worst: He got married for the money. That is not a crime."
Mitchem was ultimately convicted of violating the U.S. immigration statute against marriage fraud for citizenship but found not guilty of stealing from the government. He , receiveding fines and hard labor as punishment.
At least four other Marines were charged in that alleged marriage fraud scheme.