NEW YORK (AP) — Two Chinese American businesspeople were charged Monday with funneling foreigners’ money into political donations that bought entry to an exclusive dinner with then-President Donald Trump so the duo could impress and swindle Chinese investors.
In a complex financial scheme with political tentacles, prosecutors say, Sherry Xue Li and Lianbo “Mike” Wang raised $27 million for a grandiose development plan that never got close to approval, then siphoned off millions of dollars for personal expenses.
To project the sway to keep their promises — which often included visas to live in the U.S. — they used investor money and foreign nationals' cash to make big-dollar donations and be seen with Trump and other prominent politicians, prosecutors said in court documents.
“Together we can build a better, stronger and healthier community and ‘Make America Great Again!’” read one of their business' press releases trumpeting that Li and Wang had attended a pre-inaugural reception featuring various figures in the incoming Trump administration.
Prosecutors didn’t allege any criminal wrongdoing by the political action committees that accepted donations from Li and Wang.
Li, 50, and Wang, 45, were being held without bail after their first appearance in a Brooklyn federal court, though their lawyers can argue for bail later on. The two are facing various federal conspiracy charges.
They weren't asked to enter a plea, but Wang volunteered, through a Mandarin interpreter, “I did not do this thing.”
Li’s lawyer, Nora Hirozawa, declined to comment. A message seeking comment was left for Wang’s attorney, James Roth.
The naturalized U.S. citizens are business partners who share a Long Island home with some of Li's relatives, including her 15-year-old son.
Li has been promoting plans for a development near New York’s Catskill Mountains for nearly a decade; Wang worked with her as general manager. Initially envisioned as a cultural theme park called “China City of America,” it morphed into a proposal for a for-profit college campus after local officials told Li that zoning wouldn't allow the “Chinese Disneyland” she first planned.
The “Thompson Education Center” has never materialized, either. Local officials denied the necessary sewer service in 2015 and then told Li flat-out in 2017 that the project wasn't approved, according to prosecutors' court papers.
But she and Wang continued to tell investors the project was a go, sometimes sending them photos of a construction site. That site was actually a house she was having built somewhere else, prosecutors said.
Many backers had been lured with promises of investor visas, which ultimately were denied because of immigration officials' doubts about the viability of the “Education Center” project, according to court papers.
To bolster those promises, Wang and Li sought to create an image of influence with prominent U.S. politicians.
In some cases, the image was literal.
Li and Wang solicited money from foreigners to give over $600,000 of donations — converted into Wang’s and Li’s names — to attend and bring guests to a June 2017 fundraising dinner with the then-president, prosecutors said. A photo from the event shows Li with Trump and then-first lady Melania Trump.
It is against the law for foreign nationals to contribute to American political campaigns, and prosecutors say Li and Wang knew it.
“It’s unlawful for businessmen in China to make donations. But these businessmen can invest in our company and become our shareholders. We can then arrange for them to meet with the president. Donation is definitely necessary. Our company can do that and it is legal,” Wang told a prospective investor in December 2018 after sending the photo of Trump and Li from the fundraising dinner, according to court papers.
Other investors or prospects also got brochures featuring Li or Wang with Trump and other politicians, including Democratic then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, prosecutors said.
Meanwhile, Li, Wang and unnamed co-conspirators spent at least $2.5 million of their investors' money on jewelry, vacations, fancy dining, nannies, traffic tickets and other personal items, according to prosecutors. They said some investor money also went to the defendants' political hobnobbing campaign, including donations and hiring a private plane to bring a Chinese national to a Trump event in October 2017.
The unusual campaign contributions by Li and Wang caught the attention of journalists in 2017 amid scrutiny of numerous donors with ties to other nations who were, at the time, trying to curry favor with the new Trump administration.
The U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, Breon Peace, said Monday his office was “committed to protecting our democratic process from those who would expose it to unlawful foreign influence.”