The ex-wife of China's third-most-wanted government official will forfeit an estimated $28 million in San Gabriel Valley property after pleading guilty this week to defrauding immigration officials as part of a scheme to escape to the U.S. with stolen Chinese public funds, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced Tuesday.
Shilan Zhao, 53, of Newcastle, Wash., falsely claimed that she was still married to her ex-husband Jianjun Qiao, 53, during the application process for an EB-5 visa, a program that allows immigrant investors to obtain visas for themselves and family members in exchange for $500,000 or $1 million investments in U.S. enterprises. Zhao and Qiao were once married, but they registered a divorce in China in 2001, according to court records
Zhao also lied about the source of the money she was investing as part of the visa program, according to the release. She claimed the money came from her ownership stakes in two flour companies, Shoukou Luwang Flour Co., and Huaiyang County Huihua Flour Co., but she had no involvement in either, according to court records.
Qiao, who is still at large, is the former director of the Zhoukou Municipal Grain Reserve, a Chinese government agency responsible for purchasing and selling grain in Henan province, according to a federal grand jury indictment unsealed in 2015. Qiao made illicit deals with the Chinese government's grain and used the embezzled proceeds to buy property in the U.S., the indictment said.
When Qiao and Zhao came to the U.S. in 2009, federal investigators say, they transferred about $4 million in embezzled funds from China to banks in the U.S.
A federal grand jury indicted Zhao and Qiao in 2014 on charges of transporting stolen money and lying on their visa applications. Zhao was arrested in 2015 in Washington.
Qiao is now third on a list of 100 most-wanted corrupt officials that was created in 2015 as part of a crackdown on government corruption called "Operation Sky Net."
Two Chinese law enforcement agencies, The Supreme People's Procuratorate and the Ministry of Public Security of the People's Republic of China, assisted the investigation, but U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Thom Mrozek declined to say how the agencies were involved.
As part of the plea deal, Zhao will forfeit ownership of a home in Newcastle, a condo in Flushing, N.Y., and four properties in Monterey Park that include Hong Kong Supermarket, a Best Western Inn, an apartment complex on Chandler Avenue and the empty lot next to it.
The properties will be used to pay restitution and whatever monetary penalties a judge rules appropriate, according to the release.
The Washington home was purchased with stolen money, according to the indictment. And Mrozek said some of the money from the illicit grain deals was also used to purchase the Monterey Park properties. County records show the properties have a combined assessed value of more than $28 million.
Zhao, who has agreed to assist the ongoing investigation, faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. Her attorney, Kirk Davis, declined to comment on Tuesday.
Zhao's sentencing is scheduled for November.