Thursday, March 3, 2016
Chinese Magnate Is Accused of Lying About Millions in Cash He Brought to U.S.
When Ng Lap Seng, a Chinese real estate magnate, travels to the United States, he tends to do so in style — either flying commercial or on one of his private jets. And, the authorities say, he often comes with cash.
Federal prosecutors say that on 11 such trips since 2013, Mr. Ng brought more than $4.5 million into the United States, with some stays lasting just a few days.
What did Mr. Ng do with the money? Prosecutors are not saying. But they have charged the businessman with lying to the authorities about the cash.
Mr. Ng, whose name surfaced in a 1990s Democratic campaign fund-raising scandal, declared the cash on his arrivals, in amounts ranging from $200,000 to $900,000, and said the money would be used to buy art, antiques and real estate, or to gamble, according to a federal complaint.
But, the complaint says, investigators surveilled Mr. Ng during his trips and reviewed records of his purchases and activities and they say the money was rarely used for such purposes. Mr. Ng’s crime involved “the deception of United States authorities,” a prosecutor, Janis Echenberg, told a federal magistrate judge in Manhattan at his bail hearing on Sept. 21.
Mr. Ng, who is in his late 60s, has a net worth of about $1.8 billion, earns about $300 million annually, owns private airplanes and has passports from at least three countries, Ms. Echenberg told the judge, Sarah Netburn. When he was arrested on Sept. 19, he was wearing a gold watch, encrusted in diamonds, worth about $200,000, the prosecutor added.
“This defendant is exceptionally wealthy, I think beyond what we are even used to seeing in this court,” Ms. Echenberg said at the bail hearing. Mr. Ng had so much money, she said, that no amount was enough to ensure he would return to court.
The judge ordered Mr. Ng held without bond, and on Tuesday, she ordered his personal assistant, Jeff C. Yin, 29, detained on the same charge.
Mr. Ng remains a mysterious figure in the United States, perhaps best known for his role in the campaign finance scandal.
A 1998 report of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs said that Mr. Ng and a former Little Rock, Ark., restaurateur, Yah Lin Trie, “collaborated” in a scheme to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign funds to the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Trie, known as Charlie, pleaded guilty to a false statements charge and a lesser misdemeanor count. The donations were returned; Mr. Ng was not charged.
The report also said Mr. Ng visited the White House 10 times between 1994 and 1996. He was also photographed with President Clinton, investigators found.
During those investigations, the prosecutor told Judge Netburn, Mr. Ng stopped visiting the United States. “We think that is indicative of his unlikeliness to return now that he himself has been charged,” Ms. Echenberg said.
In an unrelated investigation in 2014, Mr. Ng was subpoenaed by the government and failed to appear or to respond, according to the complaint, which is signed by Ryan Carey, a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mr. Ng and Mr. Yin are each charged with one count of conspiracy to obstruct the function of and to make false statements to Customs and Border Protection. Under the law, individuals must declare if they are bringing into the country, or leaving with, more than $10,000, the complaint said.
Mr. Ng’s lawyer, Kevin Tung, argued at the Sept. 21 bail hearing that the charge stemmed from a “misunderstanding.”
“If you look at this complaint on its face,” Mr. Tung said, “people carrying money in or out without filling out a form, may be in violation of something, but this is not really a crime.”
Mr. Ng’s wealth had no relevance, he continued, and did not make his client “a criminal.” He suggested his client’s bond could be partially secured by a $3.8 million apartment Mr. Ng owned in New York.
Judge Netburn, in denying bail, said, “Obviously, being wealthy is not, in and of itself, a crime, and I don’t think anybody is accusing your client of criminal activity merely because of his wealth.”
But his resources, she said, included citizenship in various countries, some of which might not cooperate with the United States government if Mr. Ng were to flee and take refuge there. “I don’t believe I can release your client and be satisfied that he will appear in court,” she said.
Mr. Ng’s co-defendant, Mr. Yin, a naturalized American citizen from China, served as Mr. Ng’s “right-hand man in all of his American-based operations,” another prosecutor, Daniel C. Richenthal, told the judge in a hearing on Sept. 19. “They are practically at each other’s hip at all times.”
Judge Netburn originally imposed a $1 million bond on Mr. Yin. But on Friday, she ordered his release stayed until after hearing further arguments.
The office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, told her on Tuesday that a search by the Federal Bureau of Investigation of a safe deposit box to which Mr. Yin had a key had found more than $430,000 in cash as well as figurines and pottery, apparently of great value.
Mr. Yin’s lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, argued that the money was Mr. Ng’s, had been declared to the government and that her client had no lawful access to it.
But in denying bail, Judge Netburn cited a newly discovered Chinese passport that Mr. Yin had not initially disclosed, and said that even if he were a “low-level player” in a broader scheme, there was incentive for him to flee if he were released.