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Military vet accused of passport fraud weighs offer

By Phil Gast and Greg Botelho, CNN
  • Sen. Bill Nelson outraged at potential sentence veteran could face
  • The Navy and Army vet is now in federal custody after being charged with passport fraud
  • His arrest comes after he failed to say he had previously submitted a passport application
  • His supporters call it an innocent oversight, albeit one that may spur a long sentence

(CNN) -- A U.S. Navy veteran behind bars for alleged passport fraud has until Friday to accept or turn down an offer that could lead to the dismissal of criminal charges, his attorney said Wednesday.

A federal indictment says former U.S. Petty Officer 2nd Class Elisha Leo Dawkins failed to acknowledged that he'd once applied for a passport when filling out a new application, something his lawyer Clark Mervis calls an innocent oversight -- albeit one punishable by up to 10 years in prison, if Dawkins is convicted.

Adding to the complexity of the case is the fact that Dawkins may not be a U.S. citizen -- something that, according to his attorney, he learned only recently and that did not factor into his arrest. Dawkins had been told by his mother, who is from the Bahamas, that he was born in Miami, and he had a Social Security number and birth certificate, according to a friend who is a former Navy pilot.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida made a pretrial diversion proposal that was revealed at a Tuesday court hearing, said Mervis. The attorney would not comment on what his client, held in the federal detention center in Miami, may do.

"It's rarely used," Mervis said of the federal version of the program.

If a supervised program is successfully completed, criminal charges will be dismissed, according to Mervis. Unsuccessful participants are returned for prosecution, according to guidelines. The U.S. Probation Service administers the program.

U.S. attorney's office spokesman Todd Mestepey said he could not comment on specifics of the offer.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, took to the Senate floor Wednesday to demand more information from the federal government about its case against Dawkins.

Nelson, in prepared remarks, cited positive performance evaluations of the veteran and the possible sentence he faces.

"All John Dillinger served in prison was eight and a half years on a conviction for assault and battery with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit a felony," Nelson said.

The senator argued for passage of the Dream Act. The bill -- which was defeated in December 2010 -- would have given children who have grown up in the United States an opportunity to earn citizenship despite their family's immigration status.

The case has triggered an online and letter-writing campaign from Dawkins' supporters, including an effort to raise $10,000 for his release on bond.

"He put his life on the line," said friend Dianne Rinehardt, a veteran herself who met Dawkins in nursing school. "I am not going to allow anyone to belittle his service to his country."

Dawkins wants to be a U.S. citizen and also is interested in possibly re-enlisting, Mervis said.

Barring a resolution of the case, Dawkins, 26, faces a July 12 trial, his attorney said.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, one purpose of pretrial diversion is to "save prosecutive and judicial resources for concentration on major cases."

The grand jury indictment claims that Dawkins "did knowingly and willfully make a false statement" on an April 2006 passport application completed in Miami-Dade County. Specifically, Dawkins said that he had never before requested a U.S. passport, "when in truth ... and as the defendant ... knew, he had previously applied," according to the indictment.

The U.S. State Department calls passports "the most highly valued travel document in the world." The department opened 5,282 investigations into passport and visa fraud worldwide last year, leading to 1,680 arrests.

"Flash" Gordon Schwartz, a Jacksonville accountant and a former Navy pilot, said that his friend Dawkins started filling out a passport application in 2004 but didn't finish it. When he filled out another application two years later, Dawkins checked "no" next to the question about whether he'd completed an application previously -- assuming that was the right answer, since his previous attempt wasn't complete.

He got the passport. But five years later, in March, a warrant was issued for Dawkins' arrest -- at the same time he was at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, working as a military photographer, according to Schwartz. He returned to the United States on April 10, and was arrested nine days later, Rinehardt said. Dawkins had just taken photographs of scenes at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

His friend Schwartz said he fears that, if Dawkins is released on bond, or even if he's exonerated on the passport fraud charge, he'll be detained and possibly deported to the Bahamas, where his mother hails from. But Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, said that the agency doesn't have a detainer for Dawkins, which would be used to keep him in federal custody on immigration charges.

The questions of his citizenship notwithstanding, Dawkins has served in the U.S. military since graduating from high school, said Schwartz. That includes one tour of duty in Iraq as an Army photographer, before he switched to the Navy Reserves -- in part so he could attend nursing school, in hopes of eventually putting those skills to work in the military, Schwartz said.

A document, provided to CNN by Schwartz as authorized by U.S. Navy Vice Adm. M.E. Ferguson III, indicates that Dawkins had secret clearance while at Guantanamo. In an evaluation report, one superior lauds Dawkins as "a team player ... with a strong work ethic and desire to learn" and recommends him for promotion.

CNN's Dave Alsup contributed to this report.