An ex-NYPD sergeant and two other individuals are being charged for allegedly acting as agents on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party to repatriate a former Chinese government official accused of corruption.
Michael McMahon, a retired NYPD sergeant who now works as a private investigator, Zheng Congying and Zhu “Jason” Yong stood trial in the Brooklyn federal court on Wednesday. Zhu and McMahon were arrested on Oct. 28, 2020.
The recent trial was reportedly the first federal trial in the United States related to “Operation Fox Hunt,” a global operation allegedly orchestrated by China to coerce Chinese nationals living abroad to return to their home country through harassment.
The three men are charged with acting as agents for China and are accused of stalking, harassing and threatening Xu Jin, a former Chinese official who now lives in New Jersey. Xu is allegedly facing bribery and embezzlement charges back in China.
According to Assistant United States Attorney Irisa Chen, a prosecutor in the trial, the three men played a role in the purported operation.
Prosecutors alleged on Wednesday that Zhu hired McMahon as a private investigator in 2016 for a surveillance job that involved Xu.
Xu was initially referred to as John Doe-1 in the case before his sister-in-law Liu Yan reportedly identified him by his name as the recent trial’s first witness.
Responding to the allegations, Lawrence Lustberg, McMahon’s defense attorney, argued in his opening statement that the former NYPD sergeant was unaware that the job was allegedly tied to “Operation Fox Hunt.”
“He had no idea in performing normal functions as a private investigator that he was working for China,” Lustberg said. “He certainly didn’t know he was involved in a campaign called Fox Hunt or Skynet that involved transnational repression.”
The lawyer noted that his client was only told that he would be working for a Chinese construction company seeking to recover assets. He also claimed that his client even notified law enforcement about his activities.
Chen, however, argued that McMahon knew what the job entailed when he took it, accusing him of “[looking] the other way.”
According to the prosecutor, McMahon met with a Chinese official at a Panera Bread branch in Paramus, New Jersey, at one point. He also purportedly searched for Xu’s social security number and phone number to locate him and his family.
McMahon, Zheng and Zhu harassed and stalked Xu and his family for around three years, prosecutors said.
Zheng was accused of posting an intimidating letter on Xu’s front door in 2018, which read: “If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right.”
In her statement, Liu recalled an incident during Thanksgiving in 2016 in which two strangers went to her home in Short Hills, New Jersey, and asked her to relay a message to Xu.
The message, according to Liu, was: “If you don’t go back to China, you and your family will be in trouble. If you want to resolve this issue, there’s only two ways: either you go back to China on your own and admit the crime or you disappear.’”
Liu said one of the men also told her, “Right now, this is no longer a normal issue. It’s a political issue.”
McMahon, Zheng and Zhu were also accused of using Xu’s elderly father as bait. He was reportedly flown from China to the U.S. in an attempt to coerce the former Chinese official to return to his country.
According to Liu, Xu’s father visited her home unexpectedly in 2017. He was purportedly given a “task” to convince Xu to return to China. During her testimony, Liu said she could not “believe the law enforcement of China’s government was using an elderly man to meet their goal.”
The three men pleaded not guilty to charges of interstate stalking and acting as Chinese agents without alerting the U.S. government.
In a statement, Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, called the charges against the three men “nothing but rumors and slanders.” He also noted that they are not law enforcement.
“Repatriating corrupt fugitives and recovering illegal proceeds are a just cause widely recognized by the international community,” Liu said.