A billionaire from Macau once linked to Clinton-era campaign finance scandals has been arrested and charged in federal court in Manhattan with lying about $4.5 million in cash he brought into the United States in a tantalizing complaint made public this week.
Ng Lap Seng, 68, and interpreter Jeff Yin, 29, are accused of bringing six-figure chunks of money into the country 11 times since 2013, declaring it and telling border agents it was for art, real estate or gambling -- but then using it for a different, still-secret purpose.
Real estate tycoon Ng was arrested on his latest trip Saturday after bringing $500,000 he said was for real estate and visiting the Long Island home of a "business associate" prosecutors described as an "extraordinarily wealthy connected Chinese businessman."
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued no news release on the charges against the Chinese billionaire on the eve of a U.S. visit by China's president. But court filings indicate surveillance of Ng's trips dates back at least 17 months, and the case is being handled by Bharara's public corruption unit.
Although the government hasn't said what it suspects Ng's cash was really for, prosecutor Daniel Richenthal said at a Saturday bail hearing that Yin admitted after his arrest "that among other things that cash was sent to people to engage in unlawful activities."
Ng, who was linked to Chinese businessman Charlie Trie's effort to funnel foreign cash to Democrats for the 1996 election, is being held without bail after the government told a judge that his enormous wealth made him too much of a flight risk.
Prosecutor Janis Echenberg said he was worth more than $1.8 billion, made $25 million a month, had private planes worth $30 million, had wired $20 million into the United States since 2010, and when arrested had 20 credit cards, three phones, $30,000 in Hong Kong currency and a gold and diamond encrusted watch worth $200,000.
She also told Magistrate Sarah Netburn that Ng had previously dodged a grand jury subpoena in a different case, and had absented himself from the United States for five years after his name surfaced in the probe that led to Trie's conviction on campaign finance charges.
"We think this is indicative of his unlikeliness to return if he is released," Echenberg said.
Kevin Tung, a Queens lawyer representing Ng, told the judge Ng had a $3.2 million Manhattan apartment he could post to secure his return, as well as cash, and would agree to electronic monitoring. He told the judge that "being rich" didn't make Ng a criminal.
In an interview, Tung said Ng should be presumed innocent, noting that he declared all his cash when he entered the United States and might have just changed his mind after telling agents his plans. Tung said he didn't know what his client actually used the money for.
Yin, the translator, had a $1 million bond set with $250,000 in cash required, and also was still in custody. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Oct. 5 if an indictment has not been returned.
According to the complaint, Ng and Yin have been coming to the United States multiple times a year since 2007, often by private plane, for short stays -- from a couple days to a week. On the trips since 2013, Ng has declared amounts from $200,000 to $900,000.
The person he visited on Long Island last week -- called "Business Associate 2" -- was one of four unnamed individuals described in the 13-page criminal complaint who traveled with Ng or were seen with him while he was under surveillance.
On a visit in July, the complaint said, Ng declared $900,000 when he entered the United States, and said it was for gambling. He left in the company of "Business Associate 2" a few days later and customs agents found $100,000 cash in Associate 2's carry-on.
Yin, the complaint said, told agents that the money belonged to Ng, and it was "leftover cash" from a home renovation that Ng was paying for.