Three men, including a vicar, have today been found guilty of being behind a massive scam to organise hundreds of sham marriages in East Sussex.
Reverend Alex Brown, Ukrainian national Vladymyr Buchak and immigration lawyer Michael Adelasoye were all convicted of conspiring to facilitate braches of immigration law following an eight week trial at Lewes Crown Court.
Brown had earlier pleaded guilty to a charge of carrying out marriage ceremonies without banns of matrimony being published.
Their convictions follow one of the biggest ever investigations by the UK Border Agency’s South East region immigration crime team, a specialist unit of agency investigators and officers seconded from Sussex Police.[vsw id=”LFRhOHU_-bA&playnext=1&videos=PC3-Bfh75IQ&feature=grec_index” source=”youtube” width=”200″ height=”250″ autoplay=”no”]Between them, the trio were found to be involved in around 360 weddings at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, between July 2005 and June 2009. Reverend Brown officiated at all the ceremonies. In the vast majority of these cases the reason for the marriage was to assist applications for residency in the UK.
Many of the weddings involved Eastern European nationals, who Buchak supplied through his contacts at factories and food processing plants around the south coast, and West Africans, whom Adelasoye would represent and process immigration applications for. Many of his clients were immigrants who had exhausted all other methods of staying in the UK.
Buchak and Adelasoye referred their clients to Brown’s church, where the weddings would take place, usually at times where they would not be noticed by the regular congregation or church wardens. Following Brown’s arrest, the parish church warden told police that she thought only around 20 weddings had taken place in the previous six months. In actual fact, it was around 170.
Suspicions were raised after UK Border Agency caseworkers noticed a high number of immigration applications involving people who had got married at the same church.
Detective Inspector Andy Cummins, from the UK Border Agency’s South East region immigration crime team, said:
‘This was a long and complex enquiry into what was an organised and sophisticated attempt to cheat the UK’s immigration laws.
‘It was also an unprecedented investigation, involving a church minister who was prepared to abuse his position and the trust placed in him by the Church and his community.
‘The members of this conspiracy were happy to exploit and take advantage of other people’s desperation for their own ends.
‘I hope this prosecution sends out a message that we will not tolerate abuse of our immigration system. Those who facilitate sham marriages are breaking the law and will be held accountable for their actions.’
Ken Goss, of the Crown Prosecution Service South East complex casework unit, said:
‘This was a carefully planned massive immigration fraud as far as we know, it was the largest sham marriages scam that we have prosecuted.
‘Unusually, in Reverend Brown’s case, we prosecuted under the Marriage Act 1949, saying that he deliberately failed to follow the correct procedures, which had the effect of concealing the true scale of what was happening from the regular congregation. He also failed to make periodic returns to the church authorities, which would have alerted them to dramatic increase in the number of weddings being conducted by him.
‘However, he continued to assure the church authorities that all was in order and use his knowledge to flout the checks in place. After his arrest the weddings between foreign nationals at St Peter’s church came to an abrupt halt.
‘This painstaking investigation and successful prosecution has halted a deliberate and systematic abuse of the immigration laws of this country. It is an excellent example of partnership working between the UK Border Agency and the Crown Prosecution Service.’
Approximately 150 applications from those married at St Peter’s for some form of leave to stay in the UK remain outstanding, and have been frozen, pending the outcome of this prosecution.
The beneficiaries who had already gained some form of leave to remain in the UK face having their cases reviewed in the light of this prosecution.
Gareth Redmond, South East area director for the UK Border Agency, said:
‘Tackling sham marriage is a top priority for us. We are working closely with registrars and the Church to identify suspect marriages. If there is evidence to suggest that a wedding may be bogus we very quickly investigate, and, where necessary, intervene to stop it happening.
‘Let’s be clear. A marriage certificate alone does not give foreign nationals the right to live and work in the UK. Their relationship has to be genuine. If it’s not, they will face prosecution or deportation.
‘Applications for the right to stay in the UK from those involved in these weddings have been on hold since the investigation began. They will now be reviewed.’
The trio are due to be sentenced on Monday 6 September.