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Chinese billionaire pleads guilty to straw donor scheme in New York and Rhode Island

NEW YORK (AP) — A Chinese billionaire pleaded guilty Monday to violating U.S. election laws by funneling illegal straw donations to a New York City official, a member of the U.S. House and a congressional candidate.

Hui Qin, a Chinese film magnate with homes in Manhattan and Long Island, admitted to using his fortune to recruit and reimburse people who made political donations on his behalf, beginning with a New York City race in 2021.

Court papers filed Monday by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn don't identify the candidates backed by Qin. But there were only a handful of citywide races in New York that year, including the election of Mayor Eric Adams.

When asked, an attorney for Adams, Vito Pitta, said: “As the federal government made clear today, the campaign had no knowledge of a straw donor scheme — and no member of the campaign has been charged with or accused of any wrongdoing."

Qin was previously included on the Forbes list of billionaires, with an estimated net worth of $1.8 billion from his stake in film and entertainment companies, including the Honk Kong-based SMI Culture. He has been in U.S. custody since his arrest last October on charges of using a fake identification.

A phone call to his attorney was not immediately returned.

Campaign finance records show Qin, who is a Chinese citizen with a U.S. green card, donated $2,000 to Adams in March of 2021. Under the city’s campaign finance rules, green card-holders can contribute to races and participate in the city’s generous matching funds program, which caps donations at $2,100.

Nine months after he donated to Adams, federal prosecutors say Qin began working “to find individuals to make more than $10,000 in straw donor contributions” to an unnamed New York City candidate.

At least one person donated $1,000 on Qin’s behalf on Dec. 9, according to prosecutors. The following day, Qin spoke with an unnamed co-conspirator, who told him they expected to be able to obtain up to $20,000 in straw donor contributions for the candidate.

Adams, a Democrat, is currently facing a federal investigation for his fundraising practices that prompted the FBI to seize his cell phones last year. Earlier this month, agents raided the homes of one of his top aides, Winnie Greco, as part of an investigation led by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn.

An investigation by Manhattan prosecutors into an alleged straw donor scheme over the summer resulted in the arrest of six people, who were accused of seeking to divert public money into Adams' campaign to gain political favors.

Prosecutors say Qin engaged in similar straw donor schemes to funnel donations to a U.S. representative in New York and a congressional candidate in Rhode Island.

Federal Elections Commission records show Qin donated $2,900 in 2022 to the campaign of Allan Fung, a Republican former mayor who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Rhode Island. Fung didn’t respond to messages seeking comment Monday.

Records also show that a man named Jonathan Chau, who provided Adams’ transition committee with $1,000 on December 9, 2021, gave $5,800 to a committee supporting Fung, and $2,900 to a committee backing Rep. Andrew Garbarino, a Long Island Republican.

Prosecutors said Qin hid his illicit funding efforts from the officials they were intended to benefit, causing them to unknowingly file false campaign reports.

Chau could not be reached for comment. Garbarino did not respond to an emailed request.

As part of the plea deal, Qin also admitted that he filed a false application for lawful permanent residency status in the U.S. 2019 when he claimed to have never used an alias. In fact, prosecutors said, he was provided the alias “Muk Lam Li,” along with accompanying identification documents, by an official in the Chinese government in 2008.

He used that identity to transfer more than $5 million to a U.S. bank account, spending some of it on a luxury apartment in Manhattan, according to prosecutors.

Qin will give up his right to live in the U.S. and be deported as part of his plea deal, prosecutors said.

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Associated Press reporter Philip Marcelo contributed to this report.