By Larry Neumeister
NEW YORK (AP) - A business tycoon long sought by the government of China and known for cultivating ties to Trump administration figures including Steve Bannon was arrested Wednesday in New York on charges that he oversaw a $1 billion fraud conspiracy.
Guo Wengui, 54, and his financier, Kin Ming Je, faced an indictment in federal court in Manhattan charging them with various crimes, including wire, securities and bank fraud. Guo was charged in court papers under the name Ho Wan Kwok.
U.S. prosecutors said the indictment stemmed from a complex scheme in which Guo lied to hundreds of thousands of online followers in the United States and around the world before misappropriating hundreds of millions of dollars.
Kin Ming Je, 55, has not been arrested. Guo was expected to appear in court Wednesday. His attorney did not immediately comment.
In court papers, prosecutors asked that Guo be held without bail as a "significant risk of flight and the danger he poses to the community." They say Guo has harassed critics and would face more than 100 years in prison if convicted of all charges. They also say he claims less than $100,000 in assets even though he lives lavishly.
The top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, said in a release that Guo was charged with "lining his pockets with the money he stole, including buying himself, and his close relatives, a 50,000 square foot mansion, a $3.5 million Ferrari, and even two $36,000 mattresses, and financing a $37 million luxury yacht."
Guo was once believed to be among the richest people in China. He left in 2014 during an anti-corruption crackdown led by President Xi Jinping that ensnared people close to Guo, including a top intelligence official. Chinese authorities have accused Guo of rape, kidnapping, bribery and other offenses.
Since then, has been highly sought by that nation’s government, relying on the U.S. for protection.
As he lived in New York as a fugitive he became an outspoken critic of the ruling Communist Party and developed a close relationship with Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former political strategist. Guo and Bannon in 2020 announced the founding of a joint initiative they said was aimed at overthrowing the Chinese government.
Guo has long argued that the allegations against him in China were false, saying they were intended to punish him for publicly outing corruption there and criticizing leading figures in the Communist Party.
For years, his case was the subject of a debate over whether China was abusing international law enforcement cooperation efforts, including Interpol, in seeking his arrest. He sought political asylum in the U.S., saying he feared that if he were forced to leave the country, it might lead to his arrest in a nation with less power to resist Chinese demands.
It was on Guo’s 150-foot (45-meter) yacht that Bannon was once arrested on federal charges. Just before he left office, Trump made the case against Bannon dissolve with a pardon.
U.S. prosecutors accuse Guo of lying to his victims, promising them outsized returns if they invested or fed money to his media company, GTV Media Group Inc., his so-called Himalaya Farm Alliance, G’CLUBS, and the Himalaya Exchange.
Williams said that, between September 2022 and this month, the U.S. government has seized approximately $634 million from 21 bank accounts, representing the majority of the proceeds of Guo’s alleged fraud.
He said law enforcement on Wednesday also seized assets that were purchased with proceeds of the alleged fraud, including a Lamborghini Aventador SVJ Roadster.
In court papers, prosecutors said Guo was arrested Wednesday at his Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment in Manhattan, which he purchased for $68 million. They said he also owns a mansion in Mahwah, New Jersey, that he bought for about $26 million in 2021 with proceeds from his fraud, along with a Connecticut residence that cost several million dollars in 2020.
"According to witnesses, Kwok has surrounded himself with around-the-clock armed security guards who are formally employed by an entity that is funded by proceeds of Kwok’s fraud scheme. In addition, Kwok appears to travel among his residences in a caravan of luxury automobiles,’’ the court papers said.
The Securities and Exchange Commission also brought civil charges against Guo on Wednesday, saying in a Manhattan federal court filing that Guo led others in committing multiple frauds since April 2020.
The SEC said Guo targeted retail investors through online and social media posts and videos, deceiving them with lies such as a claim that a crypto asset security called "H-Coin" was backed by gold reserves.
The SEC said Guo and Je raised about $452 million through an unregistered offering of GTV common stock from April 2020 to June 2020, claiming they would "build the most popular and safest social media and transaction platform independent of the Chinese government’s censorship and monitoring, allowing the people of China and the world to realize the freedom of speech and trade."
In court papers submitted in their detention request, prosecutors cited dozens of civil lawsuits Guo has been engaged in since arriving in the United States.
They wrote that he has "aggressively used litigation and pressure tactics to confront his critics. Indeed, he has fomented unrest directed toward those who have opposed and criticized him.’’
Prosecutors also noted that Guo initiated a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case in Connecticut, maintaining that he has up to $500 million in debts and no more than $100,000 in assets, "despite living in luxury properties, surrounded by luxury cars and lavishly expensive furniture."
They wrote that he has publicly harassed the court-appointed trustee in the bankruptcy case and publicly attacked his critics, turning "the ire of his hundreds of thousands of followers against them."
And they said he encouraged his online followers to flood the bankruptcy docket with claims regardless of their merit in a bid to obstruct the proceedings and to force the trustee to incur unnecessary costs and expenses.
In 2020, prosecutors said, Guo "mobilized his followers" to protest outside a Canadian journalist’s home, leading to a physical assault on one of the journalist’s friends, who was kicked in the head, suffering a facial fracture, swollen-shut eyes and a lost tooth.