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Oct 27, 2009 11:17 AM by Kevin Maurer

Soldiers accused in marriage scam for benefits

Sgt. Jason Hawk and his bride met for the first time when he picked her up at a bus stop near his Army base a day before their wedding. Prosecutors say the speedy romance was echoed by a fast honeymoon: Ayna Ivanova returned to New York soon after.

Two other paratroopers who served with Hawk and three women now each face up to five years in federal prison when sentenced for their roles in what authorities say was a marriage scheme that garnered U.S. citizenship for Russian brides and coveted housing allowances for junior enlisted men. Prosecutors said the marriages cost the government at least $200,000 in wages and benefits.

Attorneys for the former soldiers and the women either did not return calls or declined comment on the case, which prosecutors contend stems from the work of Pavel and Alexander Manin, two brothers from Kazakhstan who joined the U.S. military. Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, was part of the Soviet Union until independence in 1991 and still has a large Russian population.

Alexander Manin came to New York in 1998 to attend school. He joined the Marine Corps soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, served three years and received an honorable discharge. He then moved back to New York and opened an international car shipping business.

His brother, Pavel, came to the United States in 2001 and joined the Army in March 2005. While in the Army, prosecutors say Pavel Manin recruited soldiers when he was stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., to take part in the scheme. As junior enlisted soldiers, they couldn't live off post unless they were married or had a family.

The Manins' scheme was simple, according to court documents.

All the soldiers had to do was marry the women, who returned to New York City after the nuptials, and file immigration papers stating that they were married. In exchange, the soldiers would get more than $600 a month as a living allowance from the Army and permission to live off post.

Back in New York, Alexander Manin allegedly recruited women seeking immigration status and solicited between $1,000 and $5,000 per marriage from the women. Prosecutors allege the brothers took part in at least three other fraudulent marriages between the Manins and other women.

Chris Grey, an Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesman, said this type of fraud case happens "very infrequently" and housing fraud cases usually don't involve false marriages. Most deal with soldiers receiving benefits they're not entitled to for reasons such as not reporting they are divorced or saying their rent requires all of the money and doesn't.

Besides Hawk, Sgt. Wesley Farris, 23, agreed to marry Svetlana Kaloshina and Sgt. Stephen Schneider, 23, married Tatyana Urazova in 2005, according to court documents. Like Hawk, Farris and Schneider filed immigration applications for the women and received a housing allowance, allowing them to move off post into a house.

Federal agents were alerted to the alleged fraud in June 2008 by the Army Criminal Investigations Division. Army investigators contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI.

Hawk, prosecuted by military authorities, was ordered to pay a fine of $20,000, imprisoned for 4 months, demoted from sergeant to private and discharged from the Army. He does not face federal charges.

The Manin brothers are in custody in Edgecombe County, N.C., awaiting trial next year on charges of marriage and visa fraud, conspiracy and stealing public money. U.S. District Court Judge Louise Wood Flanagan deemed both brothers a flight risk. Pavel Manin had an airline ticket to Kazakhstan when he was arrested.

Farris and Schneider pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy to commit marriage fraud. Both await sentencing next year. Details of Farris' and Schneider's plea agreements weren't immediately available, but court records indicate that coconspirators will testify against the Manin brothers. Urazova, Schneider's wife, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit marriage fraud as part of a plea agreement. Kaloshina also pleaded guilty in August and is awaiting sentencing.

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