The groom was a U.S. citizen strapped for cash. The bride was Chinese and in search of a green card.
One month after their first meeting, they tied the knot at Dynasty Wedding Studio in Temple City. Among the guests were his boyfriend and her husband.
The phony marriage — which included a fake honeymoon in Las Vegas and the exchange of thousands of dollars — was one of dozens arranged by a Santa Fe Springs man and his daughter who were arrested Wednesday after a three-year investigation and sting operation, according to federal officials.
Jason Shiao, 65, and Lynn Leung, 43, are suspected of orchestrating more than 70 fraudulent immigration applications over nearly a decade.
The two allegedly commanded sums as high as $50,000 from Chinese clients hoping to obtain legal immigration status, pairing them with indigent individuals who were desperate for money — some of whom were homeless.
Authorities allege that the father-daughter team would help stage the weddings and honeymoons — complete with photo shoots — tend to the proper paperwork and coach the couples on how to appear legitimate. A few couples went to great lengths to deceive, holding wedding ceremonies in China.
On Wednesday, federal investigators seized documents and electronic equipment from a Pasadena office that they say Shiao used while falsely posing as an immigration attorney.
Federal officials named a third person, Shannon Mendoza, 48, who they said is wanted for arrest in the case.
Marrying solely to obtain legal residency is a decades-old scheme, but investigators said the scope and methods employed by Shiao and Leung were elaborate.
“Usually they are much more underground or covert, not arranging as many marriages,” said Claude Arnold, who works in the investigative division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“They had this phony law firm and this actual office. Because of that professional face on their organization, they were able to charge more.”
At the upscale office building on Lake Avenue housing mostly law and finance firms, little notice was taken of those who came and went from Zhengyi & Associates on the fifth floor. But behind the brown wooden door of Suite 555, false marriages were arranged, investigators said.
Authorities began looking into Shiao and Leung in September 2012 after an anonymous informant alerted ICE. Investigators said they found dozens of fraudulent immigration applications filed between October 2006 and July 2015.
At least 23 U.S. citizens admitted to being a part of the scheme that included referral bonuses for those who could bring in a new potential spouse, according to an affidavit filed in federal court by investigators.
Mendoza, investigators said, helped recruit U.S. citizens as willing spouses who were typically promised a total payment of up to $10,000, though many later complained that they never received what they were promised.
Sometimes, foreign nationals came to Shiao and Leung after reading an advertisement in a Chinese-language newspaper, the affidavit said. Once the couples were paired up, Shiao and Leung instructed them to memorize personal information, including birthdays, occupations and other identifying details about each other, according to the affidavit.
Staged wedding photos and bogus honeymoons — during which the couple would not even stay in the same room — were standard practice. Meanwhile Shiao and Leung went to work creating fraudulent marriage certificates, tax returns, bank statements and leases, authorities alleged.
Shiao and Leung used a multitude of addresses on the forms, all of which involved properties or mailboxes rented or owned by them or their employees, the affidavit said. Authorities believe that helped them control the correspondence needed for the immigration application and possibly continue to collect money from clients as paperwork was held hostage.
In August 2014, ICE launched an undercover investigation and sent a confidential informant with a wire to pose as a Chinese citizen in need of legal status.
According to the affidavit, the informant was told that it would cost $5,000 to retain Shiao as a lawyer and $10,000 for the marriage. Multiple payments as high as $5,000 were expected after various steps in the immigration application were completed.
The total amounted to more than $43,400.
Shiao told the informant that he would not be able to communicate with his new wife in private and that the two should not consummate the marriage or live together.
“You don’t need to. We are against it. Even if you want to live together, we won’t even let you,” he said, according to the affidavit.
A few weeks later, the informant was introduced to his future spouse and was told he could get married in a few days.
Shiao asked if the informant was OK with his potential wife’s looks, then said, “Husband and wife, have a hug,” and laughed, according to the affidavit.
Later, when the informant asked if the age difference between him and the woman would be a problem, Shiao replied that Americans don’t care about that sort of thing.
“An 88-year-old marrying a 20-year-old is normal,” Shiao said, according to the affidavit.
Over the years, authorities said, Shiao and Leung led lavish lifestyles, drove luxury cars and netted up to $3.5 million from their business.
Shiao, Leung and Mendoza have been charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud.
If convicted, they each face up to five years in federal prison. Federal officials said the investigation is continuing.
Leung’s attorney said he was surprised that prosecutors had not charged the foreign nationals involved in the marriages. He said it was too early to speak to the charges against Leung.
“I can’t even tell you that even if it was committed, that she knew it was illegal,” Errol H. Stambler said outside court before the arraignment.
A federal judge ordered Leung and Shiao released on bond and ordered them to surrender their Australian passports.
Marriage fraud cuts across all nationalities, investigators said. There is no evidence Chinese nationals are committing marriage fraud more than other groups, Arnold said.
Thomas Mayer, a San Gabriel immigration lawyer, said he is approached every few months by people looking for help with a green card marriage scheme.
Sometimes, a foreign national and a U.S. citizen come in together.
Other times, a foreign national comes alone hoping that Mayer will help find a citizen willing to get married for money. Some are Chinese, while others come from Latin America, Vietnam or South Korea.
He said he advises them that what they are proposing is against the law and sends them on their way.
“It says ‘attorney,’ not ‘dating service,’” Mayer said of the sign on his door.
Those who find a way to marry often want to know what they should do after a green card is secured. According to the affidavit, when the informant asked this of Shiao, his advice was simple.
“Get a divorce!” Shiao said. He added that he could do it for him in an hour.
Times staff writer Irfan Khan contributed to this report.
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