Federal 'maternity tourism' case grows with arrest of O.C. attorney

Attorney is accused of trying to help a Chinese woman involved in maternity tourism case escape the US

Federal agents have arrested an Irvine attorney on suspicion of trying to spirit a Chinese woman out of the U.S. in violation of a court order that she remain in the country as part of an investigation into illegal immigration of pregnant women, authorities said Monday.

Ken Zhiyi Liang, 38, was taken into custody on Friday and faces a charge of attempted witness tampering. During a court appearance Monday, a magistrate judge set bail for Liang at $100,000, despite a request from prosecutors that he be kept in custody, said a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office. Liang was expected to remain behind bars at least until later in the week, when a U.S. District judge hears prosecutors' appeal on the bail issue, the spokesman said.

The arrest stems from an ongoing investigation into so-called maternity tourism in Southern California. In March, scores of federal agents raided properties associated with three alleged operators, who typically bring pregnant Chinese women into the country on tourist visas so their children will be born U.S. citizens.

After searching apartment complexes in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties where operators were suspected of housing pregnant women, authorities named several people as material witnesses in the case and barred them from leaving the country.

Four of the witnesses hired Liang to represent them. In early April, two of them — a husband and wife — fled back to China, evading detection by purchasing tickets shortly before takeoff through a Chinese travel company, according to court records.

Days later, another of the witnesses represented by Liang was caught at LAX trying to board a nonstop flight to China with her husband and infant child.

Suspecting that Liang was involved in the efforts to flee, federal agents sought help from the remaining witness, a woman identified in court records by her initials D.L., authorities said.

The woman approached Liang for help in getting out of the U.S. and agreed to pay $6,000 for the job, court records show.

She made video and audio recordings of several telephone and in-person conversations with Liang, in which he pressed her for payment and stressed the need to keep his involvement a secret.

Among other promises, Liang told the woman that for an additional charge, he could arrange with associates to get her aboard a flight to China without any immigration paperwork, officials claimed in court filings.

In an interview with agents after his arrest, Liang denied any wrongdoing, saying he was not trying to assist the woman to escape the U.S. illegally and that he did not, in fact, know of people who could help clients get on planes without paperwork, court records said.

Liang could not be reached for comment. A person who answered a call to his office declined to comment.

Last month, federal prosecutors filed charges against 11 Chinese nationals in the case, accusing 10 of them of fleeing the country in violation of a court order to remain and provide information to investigators.

Most were also accused of lying on their visa applications so they could give birth to children who would automatically become U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. attorney's office. Prosecutors said the defendants, who were believed to be in China, were considered fugitives.

For more federal court news from Los Angeles, follow @joelrubin. He can be reached at joel.rubin@latimes.com. 

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