As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2021, service members, veterans and good Samaritans around the world raced to evacuate as many Afghan citizens as possible.
And while the U.S. military was able to evacuate around 130,000 refugees by mid-September, thousands of Afghans left behind attempted to obtain Special Immigrant Visas for their service to the U.S. during the War on Terror, for which there are only a limited amount.
From 2018 to 2020, Navy Reserve officer Jeromy Pittmann, 53, was allegedly accepting bribes for the coveted visas, according to a recently published press release announcing the charges against him.
Pittmann, a commander who lived in Pensacola, Florida, and Naples, Italy, appeared in federal court March 11 on charges of accepting bribes and conspiring to commit visa fraud after recommending unknown Afghan nationals for SIVs.
He faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of both charges.
According to court documents, Pittmann began receiving emails beginning around February 2018, from an unnamed co-conspirator, listed only as CC-1 and as being located in Kabul. The co-conspirator — believed to have worked alongside Pittmann during his deployment to Afghanistan between March 2014 and March 2015 — asked for Pittmann’s help in procuring SIVs for other Afghan citizens.
“I have been contacted some people they needed a recommendation letter from an American supervisor or engineer or COR [Contract Representative],” the Feb. 3, 2018, email read. “Do you think you can write them a recommendation letter for SIV? They will pay for it.”
Pittmann, according to court documents, allegedly responded by asking who the recommendation letters were for. His co-conspirator informed him the letters were for five of his cousins.
Email transcripts from the co-conspirator allege that at least some of the clients had worked for the U.S. government at North-Kabul Afghanistan International Airport, Bagram Air Base and Camp Marmal Mazar, but they were unknown to Pittmann. Court documents also allege that Pittmann asked how much the clients were willing to pay in response.
According to the affidavit of Special Agent Kevin Naylon, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Pittmann allegedly attempted to provide more than 20 SIVs between 2018 and 2020 in this fashion, receiving thousands of dollars in the process.
During one of the other alleged cases of bribery, the co-conspirator asked Pittmann for his passport number and signature, as required by the National Visa Centers for processing. According to court documents, while Pittmann originally denied, writing, “that is a big negative. I am not allowed to provide my passport number,” he ultimately did use that information to verify fraudulent letters submitted to the National Visa Center in New Hampshire after receiving emails from the government agency requesting it.
According to court documents, money was wired to accounts belonging to Pittmann for his letters and verifications, first to a Bank of America account in Hayward, California, and then to an account with USAA in Pensacola, for “family support.”
In response, Pittmann allegedly wrote back in his 2018 email, saying, “I got it today. Thank you and thank your friend for sending it. I just wish the money would keep coming. Ha. Maybe one day we will get a business started. It would be nice to pay off my debts.”
Pittmann also allegedly joked about making the fraud scheme long-term, emailing his co-conspirator in a separate instance, stating, “we need some contracts so we can make some real money.”
Separate court documents show that Pittmann and his wife filed for bankruptcy in 2019.
While records were not included in available court documents, Naylon alleged in his affidavit that not only has the investigation revealed Pittmann’s actions to be true, but that Pittmann himself has admitted to the charges against him.
Ret. Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney in Alaska who has spent years working to procure visas for Afghan refugees, commented on Pittmann’s alleged actions and the impact they may have on the many deserving Aghans seeking SIVs legitimately.
“All of the individuals who got letters from him are now permanently ineligible for any US visa,” Stock said in an email to Military Times. “Hopefully none of them were desperate for these fraudulent letters because they really did qualify for an SIV but simply weren’t able to find their old supervisors to verify their employment. Finding their old supervisors has been a big challenge for many Afghans who are legitimate applicants for the SIV program.”
Stock added that it appeared the U.S. government was able to flag all of the SIVs applications Pittmann had put forward.
“What Commander Pittmann did was very serious because he violated the trust that the American people placed in him as a military officer,” she said in an email to Military Times, adding, “it does not appear that there was any damage to U.S. national security and the scheme was quickly uncovered.”
Stock also noted that any Afghan citizens involved with the fraud scheme would also not be eligible for a visa, regardless of other qualifications such as military service.
SIGAR, Naval Criminal Investigation Service and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service are still investigating, while Attorney Matt Kahn of the Justice Department’s Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Dronzek are prosecuting.
Pittmann, like all accused U.S. citizens, is considered innocent until proven guilty.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran, Penn State alumna and Master's candidate at New York University for Business and Economic Reporting.