NEW YORK — Two major Trump donors from Long Island ran a multimillion-dollar immigration fraud scheme, tricking foreigners into believing they’d get green cards and political access for investing in an upstate real estate project, federal prosecutors charge.
Sherry Li and Lianbo “Mike” Wang, who pumped more than $600,000 into President Donald Trump’s failed reelection campaign, were charged Monday in Brooklyn federal court.
Li was photographed with Trump and first lady Melania Trump at a 2017 fundraiser. She and Wang are accused of running the $27 million real estate scam and acting as straw donors to help foreigners skirt bans on U.S. political contributions and gain access to politicians.
Li, 50, and Wang, 45, donated $600,000 to the Trump Victory Fund to get a dozen people from China and Singapore into a June 28, 2017, fundraiser at Trump’s D.C. hotel, according to a criminal complaint.
The money allegedly came from the foreign nationals – a violation of federal law barring foreign contributions to U.S. politicians.
There’s no indication in the criminal complaint that Li and Wang got anything more than fundraiser face-time with Trump in exchange for their donation.
Li and Wang used the appearance of that access, though, to bolster their claims to investors that plans to build an educational complex in upstate New York would go through, even though they didn’t even have the necessary local permits, prosecutors allege.
“Tens of millions of dollars came in from investors and straw donors, who expected their money would bear fruit. However, only one promise came to fruition, the access to political power,” Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement. “Foreign money pollutes our immigration and democratic processes, and we must do all we can to protect them.”
When one Chinese citizen asked in December 2018 how much it would cost to get a picture with the president, Wang sent along the photo of Li with the first couple and pushed the real estate project.
“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, congresspeople, etc.,” Wang explained, according to the complaint. “Donation is definitely necessary. Our company can do that and it is legal.”
Representatives of the former president and the Republican National Committee – which received more than $350,000 in donations from Li and Wang – did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
The duo, who live together in Oyster Bay, raised $27 million from about 150 investors into their company, Thompson Education Center, prosecutors allege.
That amount included $16.5 million from people who were hoping to take advantage of the EB-5 Visa Program, which offers the possibility of permanent resident status to foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in new businesses in high-unemployment or rural areas.
None of them ever received green cards, despite promises from Li and Wang, the feds allege.
Another $11 million allegedly came from investors promised that they’d hit it big when the educational center announced an initial public offering, which never materialized.
Li and Wang had initially proposed in 2011 a sprawling Chinese cultural theme park in upstate Sullivan County that Li referred to as a “Chinese Disneyland” – complete with an amusement park, a college, homes and an estimated 1.5 million visitors a year, according to court documents.
The plan met resistance from upstate residents and officials, so they scaled it back and instead announced they’d build the Thompson Educational Center in Thompson, New York. They proposed a “multi-phase” project, starting with a $150 million complex that included college classroom buildings, a sports facility, student activity centers and a half-dozen dorm buildings.
They paid for architect plans and minor construction work, but little else – instead using the money on expensive clothes and jewelry, fine dining and vacations, prosecutors allege.
All the while, the government was rejecting the investors’ green card applications, since immigration officials didn’t find their business plan credible, according to the complaint.
In their marketing material, Li and Wang said the education complex had all the necessary zoning approvals, but that turned out to be a lie, federal prosecutors say.
Li also sent bogus updates to one investor’s mom, along with photos of an entirely different construction site as proof that the project was moving along, prosecutors allege.