A pair of naturalized U.S. citizens from China are accused of funneling a portion of investors’ money intended for a China-themed park to the re-election campaign of then-president Donald Trump in 2017.
Sherry Li, 50, and Lianbo Wang, 45, were arrested in Long Island, New York, and charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, as well as wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy.
Prosecutors say the pair illegally used $600,000 from Chinese and Singaporean investors who thought they were funding a park to be built in upstate New York.
According to court records, Li and Wang never completed the park despite raising $27 million in foreign investments.
A portion of this amount was used to make large political donations to be seen with Trump and other prominent politicians. Prosecutors alleged that at least $2.5 million of the investors’ money was spent by Li, Wang and others on jewelry, vacations and exorbitant meals, among other personal expenses.
On June 28, 2017, Li and Wang reportedly contributed funds in their own names to a committee hosting a fundraiser for Trump. The amount, however, came from 12 foreign donors who each paid the pair $93,000 to attend the event.
Election law expert Kenneth Gross noted that while campaign finance laws in the U.S. prohibit foreign individuals from contributing to political candidates, they are not barred from attending fundraisers.
Prior to their arrest, Li and Wang were business partners who lived in the same home on Long Island, along with some of Li’s relatives.
For years, the pair had been seeking investor support for a development project that started as a proposed cultural theme park called the China City of America. When local officials later told Li that zoning would not allow the planned “Chinese Disneyland,” the project was turned into a proposal for a for-profit college campus. The project, called the “Thompson Education Centre,” also was rejected by local officials in 2017.
Despite the rejection, Li and Wang reportedly told investors that the project was still pushing through development, and they even shared images of a construction site. The photos turned out to be from a house Li was having built at a different location.
To appear more credible to investors, the pair tried to foster an image of power and influence by showing themselves rubbing elbows with politicians, according to reports.
A photo the pair took during the June 2017 event, in which Li is seen smiling with Trump and then-first lady Melania Trump, was purportedly used to solicit investment for the theme park project.
Trump and other politicians, including Democratic then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, were also featured along with Li or Wang in brochures distributed to potential investors.
The large political donations from Li and Wang drew journalists’ attention in 2017 amid the number of donors linked outside the U.S. who were supporting Trump’s administration at the time.
Following their first appearance at a federal court in Brooklyn, Li and Wang are now being held without bail. Their lawyers may file an argument for bail in succeeding hearings.