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.
Sherry Xue Li and Lianbo “Mike” Wang were being held without bail after their first appearance in a Brooklyn federal court. They are facing various federal conspiracy charges in what prosecutors portrayed as a complex financial scheme with political tentacles.
They weren't asked to enter a plea, but Wang volunteered, through an interpreter, “I did not do this thing.”
Messages seeking comment were sent to attorneys for the two.
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, 50, has been promoting plans for a development near New York's Catskill Mountains for nearly a decade. Initially envisioned as “China City of America” cultural theme park, 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, and prosecutors say little work on it has been done.
But according to federal prosecutors' court papers, Li and Wang, 45, lured investors to pour at least $27 million into the project, partly by dangling phony promises of investor visas. The two backed up those assurances by creating an image of influence with prominent U.S. politicians.
In one case, that image was as literal as a photo with Trump.
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. Prosecutors didn’t allege any criminal wrongdoing by the political action committees that accepted donations from Li and Wang.
Meanwhile, Li, Wang and unnamed co-conspirators spent at least $2.5 million of their investors' money on personal expenses, including jewelry, vacations and fancy dining, according to prosecutors.
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.”
Jennifer Peltz, The Associated Press