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.”
The naturalised US 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 Centre has never materialised, 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 Centre” 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 used a photograph taken at the June 2017 event of Li smiling with Trump and then-first lady Melania Trump to solicit investment for the theme park project, prosecutors said.
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 $US2.5 million of their investors’ money on jewellery, 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 favour with the new Trump administration.
The US 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.”
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