PHOENIX (AP) — Sonia Iris Falcone, wife of Angolan ambassador to UNESCO and accused arms dealer Pierre Falcone, was arrested Friday on immigration fraud charges, authorities said.
Falcone, a former Bolivian beauty queen, pleaded not guilty to the charges later Friday in the U.S. District Court of Arizona.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Falcone at her home in nearby Paradise Valley without incident Friday. They turned her over to agents of the U.S. Marshals Service before her initial court appearance in the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse in Phoenix.
Authorities said Falcone, 40, is accused of unlawful possession of an immigration document, attempted unlawful procurement of naturalization, making a false statement in an immigration document and perjury.
All four are felonies and carry a combined maximum sentence of 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
"(This) shows immigration fraud is something the United States takes very seriously," said Mary Beth Pfister, the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of prosecuting the case. "No one is above the law."
Neither Pfister nor Sandy Raynor, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix, would divulge details of the crimes of which Falcone is accused, except to say that it involves marriage fraud to her former husband, whose name they did not release.
They did say the charges do not involve her current husband, Pierre Falcone.
ICE arrested four other people Friday on suspicion of immigration violations, but agency spokesman Russell Ahr would not say how the arrests were related to Sonia Falcone's.
"There is an ongoing investigation," Ahr said. "This isn't over."
Court Magistrate David K. Duncan released Falcone on Friday after federal agents seized her passport, green card, and the passports of her three children. Duncan ordered Falcone to pay a $50,000 secured bond by the end of Tuesday, and prohibited her from leaving the state.
Her trial is scheduled for April 4 before U.S. District Judge Roslyn O. Silver.
In the courtroom Friday, Falcone swiveled in her chair, the restraints on her designer jeans occasionally chinking just above her high heels.
Falcone, who is fluent in English, said nothing during the proceeding.
Her attorney, Jordan Green, declined comment on the case. "I have absolutely no information whatsoever," he said, adding that he learned of the accusations just hours before the court appearance.
Since she moved to Paradise Valley, Sonia Falcone has cemented her role in the local community as a socialite and savvy businesswoman.
She is the founder and president of Essante Inc., a health and wellness company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and has donated to nonprofit organizations including the American Heart Association, the Phoenix Children's Hospital and the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.
Her French billionaire husband, Pierre Falcone, has been in the international spotlight for years for his alleged role in what the French media have dubbed "Angolagate."
The name refers to the sale of $500 million in illegal arms to Angola. Late French President Francois Mitterrand is alleged to have received $1.8 million between 1993 and 1998 — in the midst of Angola's civil war — from Pierre Falcone, who allegedly acted as a weapons purchaser for the Angolan armed forces.
The sale was illegal because it lacked a license from the French government.
In 2003, Angola granted Pierre Falcone a diplomatic passport and appointed him as ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, providing Falcone with diplomatic immunity in France.
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Essante Inc.: http://www.essante.com/