Pair charged with making straw donations to Trump committees

Jul 18, 2022, 1:28 AM | Updated: 4:41 pm

The complaint and affidavit in support of an arrest warrant against Sherry Xue Li and Lianbo "Mike"...

The complaint and affidavit in support of an arrest warrant against Sherry Xue Li and Lianbo "Mike" Wang is photographed on Monday, July 18, 2022. The two have been charged with funneling foreigners' money into political donations that bought access to an exclusive dinner with then-President Donald Trump. One of the photos contained in the affidavit shows Trump and first lady Melania Trump posing for a photo with Li during a fundraiser on June 28, 2017. (Department of Justice via AP)

(Department of Justice via AP)

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.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


OpenAI's CEO Sam Altman, the founder of ChatGPT and creator of OpenAI gestures while speaking at Un...

Associated Press

ChatGPT maker downplays fears they could leave Europe over AI rules

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman on Friday downplayed worries that the ChatGPT maker could exit the European Union

1 day ago

File - Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, left, and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman arrive to the White House for a ...

Associated Press

Regulators take aim at AI to protect consumers and workers

As concerns grow over increasingly powerful artificial intelligence systems like ChatGPT, the nation’s financial watchdog says it’s working to ensure that companies follow the law when they’re using AI.

3 days ago

FILE - A security surveillance camera is seen near the Microsoft office building in Beijing, July 2...

Associated Press

Microsoft: State-sponsored Chinese hackers could be laying groundwork for disruption

State-backed Chinese hackers have been targeting U.S. critical infrastructure and could be laying the technical groundwork for the potential disruption of critical communications between the U.S. and Asia during future crises, Microsoft said Wednesday.

4 days ago

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House, May 17, 2023, in Washington....

Associated Press

White House unveils new efforts to guide federal research of AI

The White House on Tuesday announced new efforts to guide federally backed research on artificial intelligence

5 days ago

FILE - The Capitol stands in Washington D.C. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)Credit: ASSOCIATED...

Associated Press

What it would mean for the economy if the US defaults on its debt

If the debt crisis roiling Washington were eventually to send the United States crashing into recession, America’s economy would hardly sink alone.

6 days ago

FILE - Bryan Kohberger, left, looks toward his attorney, public defender Anne Taylor, right, during...

Associated Press

Judge enters not guilty pleas for suspect in stabbing deaths of 4 University of Idaho students

A judge entered not guilty pleas Monday for a man charged in the stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students, setting the stage for a trial in which he could potentially face the death penalty.

7 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Internet Washington...

Major Internet Upgrade and Expansion Planned This Year in Washington State

Comcast is investing $280 million this year to offer multi-gigabit Internet speeds to more than four million locations.

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.

Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.

SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.

Comcast Ready for Business Fund...

Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Pair charged with making straw donations to Trump committees