Contra Costa Co. sheriff’s deputy fired for lying about “fake marriage," police records show

FILE ART - West County Detention Facility in Richmond no longer contracts with ICE and detainees have been transferred elsewhere. 

The Contra Costa County Public Defender's Office is now reviewing years of cases involving  a sheriff's deputy who was found to have lied about a so-called "green card marriage" to figure out if his conduct had any impact on their clients. 

Contra Costa County sheriff’s deputy Steve Cho worked at the correctional facility where detained immigrants were once held. He was fired in 2014 after his superiors learned he had been investigated by the Department of Homeland Security for marrying a Japanese woman just to keep her in the country and then lied about it,  newly released police transparency records show.

And now, even though he doesn't work there anymore, the Public Defender's Office is examining the cases that Cho might have touched over the years to determine whether the impact of his "fraud and  misconduct" affected any defendants they represented. Cho used to work at the West County Detention Center in Richmond. 

"We are concerned that we are just now learning about misconduct of Deputy Cho," Public Defender Robin Lipetzky told KTVU in a statement Friday. "This misconduct calls into question Deputy Cho’s credibility and the integrity of any criminal investigation in which he played a role. "

Cho's attorney, Julia Fox, at Rains, Lucia and Stern, declined to comment. Cho’s sister returned a phone call from KTVU earlier this week, saying she’d pass a message along to her brother, but he has not called back for comment as of publication time.

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It is unclear what Cho is doing now for a living. Also, the detention center in Richmond is no longer used as a housing facility for undocumented immigrants as Contra Costa County ended its contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in 2018.

This week, more than 100 pages of Cho’s files were released to KTVU, which filed a Public Records Act a year ago for files now made public under SB 1421. The law now mandates that police release personnel files to the public when officers are found to have lied, or were involved in sexual assaults or officer-involved shootings. In Cho’s case, his superiors, Sgt. Ron Hoekwater and Lt. Roxane Guenheid, found that he had lied about his “sham marriage,” the documents show, and violated internal policies by not telling superiors he was the subject of a federal investigation. They also found that his behavior was “unbecoming” and “unlawful.”

While Cho’s marriage and Homeland Security investigation date back more than a decade, the documents into his Internal Affairs investigation were just made public on Tuesday.

Lipetzky also finds this nearly decade-long delay in transparency troubling.

"This is yet another example of the need for measures such as SB1421 to ensure appropriate and timely disclosure of law enforcement misconduct so as to maintain public trust and the integrity of the criminal process," she said. 

Who is release police transparency records and who is not

Highlights of the IA investigation revealed:

  • Cho married a “Japanese national” on Oct. 7, 2008 at San Francisco City Hall. A records search there did not yield a marriage certificate, which means they could have gotten the license elsewhere. The woman was a friend of a friend from his days at UC Berkeley. Cho either stood to earn up to $3,000 or $10,000 for marrying her and keeping her in the country, according to what his colleagues told superiors. However, when he was interviewed by Internal Affairs, Cho denied it was a sham wedding and said he married the woman, whose name was redacted, because he “cared for her,” the documents show.
  • An ex-girlfriend of Cho’s, who also was a deputy and whose name was redacted from the report, started dating him in 2009, and they moved in together in April 2010. At one point, the girlfriend found tax information and a marriage certificate showing Cho was married to someone else, the documents state. She was shocked because she had no idea. She called the Department of Homeland Security on Dec. 31, 2010 to say Cho had entered a “fraudulent marriage,” documents show.
  • Cho and his Japanese wife submitted a joint petition to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services on May 5, 2011 and the wife was granted permanent resident status in November 2011, the documents show.
  • Following the girlfriend's tip three years earlier, in 2013, ICE began its own investigation into Cho. Documents show that the Japanese wife filed for divorce in October of that year, shortly after the federal agents began asking questions. Cho never told his superiors that he had been the focus of an ICE criminal investigation following his Oct. 21, 2013 interview with federal agents, his superiors found.
  • It is unclear what happened to the Japanese wife as a result of this investigation. But as of 2014, the federal investigation into her remained open. Cho was never charged by the Department of Justice, despite ICE’s conclusion that his marriage was fraudulent and that he provided false immigration documents under penalty of perjury, the documents state.
  • The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s office began investigating Cho in March 2014. He denied the allegations. In one interview with sheriff’s investigators, Cho said: “I mean people can make personal decisions that probably aren’t the best. I know definitely I haven’t made very good personal decisions and said a lot of stupid things, but that doesn’t mean I was in a fraudulent marriage.” Cho also accused his ex-girlfriend of being out to get him and making “wild accusations” because she felt like she had been “jilted,” documents show.

However, the Internal Affairs investigators didn’t believe his account, and pointed to federal accusations and other evidence that his marriage was for show.  Cho was placed on administrative leave in March 2014 and was fired in September of that year.