Joe Phouthavongsa thought he could do in the United States what people do in his native Laos.
And that includes bribing public officials.
"I thought it was like my country, where you can buy anything," he told U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara on Tuesday.
Phouthavongsa, 49, of Rochester, pleaded guilty to bribing an undercover immigration official in Buffalo as part a scheme intended to help two other Laotian immigrants gain citizenship here.
As part of a plea agreement, he admitted giving the undercover agent $3,600 to help his two associates with their English language exam. He also kept $1,400 for himself.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell T. Ippolito Jr. said the bribes occurred on two separate occasions in July after Phouthavongsa initiated contact with another immigration official in February.
The official informed his supervisors of Phouthavongsa's offer and they recruited another official to pose undercover as an immigration official, Ippolito said Tuesday.
During questioning by Arcara, Phouthavongsa admitted that he knew what he was doing was wrong and that he initiated the bribes shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen.
"You took an oath to support the constitution of the United States and then you got involved in something like this?" the judge asked him.
"I tried to help my people," he said.
"But you knew you were doing something illegal," Arcara asked him a few minutes later.
"Yes," Phouthavongsa said.
Ippolito said the government was prepared to move forward with a trial if the defendant refused the plea offer, and that the evidence included testimony from U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials and audio tapes of Phouthavongsa's conversations with the undercover agent.
Phouthavongsa, the father of two children, faces significant prison time when he is sentenced next year.