A Hmong pitchman who promised his people a new homeland in Southeast Asia has been arrested by federal authorities at Los Angeles International Airport and will be extradited to Minnesota.
Seng Xiong, 48, has been charged with wire fraud by U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger. A criminal complaint alleges Xiong stole $1.3 million from elderly Hmong residents through an “affinity fraud” or identity group scheme that promised them they could reunite with friends and family in a country that does not yet exist.
Xiong was arrested Thursday at LAX, where he was attempting to board a plane to Thailand. He made his initial appearance the next day before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Chooljian in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
He was placed in custody and denied bail pending his transfer to Minnesota, according to a statement from Luger’s office.
The FBI has been meeting with Twin Cities Hmong elders for months to discuss Xiong’s aggressive marketing tactics, which were presented online under the names “International Fund for Hmong Development” and “Hmong Tebchaws.”
Websites linked to the organizations claimed that Hmong Tebchaws was working with the White House and the United Nations to secure land, and that China, Japan, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam all had set aside land for the Hmong people. The websites were traced to an address in Fresno, Calif.
STARTS WITH A TIP
On Sept. 14, police in Appleton, Wis., received a tip that Hmong seniors were being directed to deposit $3,000 to $5,000 in a bank account in Xiong’s name. In exchange, they were “promised 10 acres of land, a house and many other benefits in a future country that would be established as a Hmong homeland somewhere in Southeast Asia,” according to a statement from Luger’s office.
Depending upon the level of donation or investment, Hmong elders were guaranteed free healthcare, education and government financial assistance for people older than 65.
Authorities determined that Xiong had opened a Wells Fargo bank account in New Brighton in July 2013 using a state-issued Minnesota ID. Between September 2014 and September 2015, more than $1.35 million was deposited into his account through wire transfers, personal checks and other means, according to the federal complaint.
Authorities received tips about Xiong from sources in St. Paul and made contact with a Minneapolis man who said he had given the organization $3,000.
A witness from North Carolina, who was described in legal documents as K.X., said he had participated in six conference calls between Hmong Tebchaws and Hmong elders, or “potential investors,” between April 4 and Sept. 21 of last year.
Xiong and another member of the Hmong Tebchaws organization — referred to by the initials S.M. in the criminal complaint — allegedly told elders that they would take no more than 3,000 initial investors and they needed financial commitments by Sept. 20.
DREAMS OF RETURNING HOME
An October 2015 article in the Pioneer Press described Hmong Tebchaws pitchman Steve Moua in a YouTube video, dressed in traditional Hmong clothing and asserting the many benefits of relocating to a future Hmong homeland.
Moua was not identified by name in the federal complaint against Xiong. The Hmong TV news channel reported last year that Fresno, Calif. police were looking for Moua, and a police alert indicated his organization was suspected of bilking seniors in 18 states.
The pitch, while striking many Hmong as far-fetched, also resonated with some Hmong leaders in the Twin Cities.
ChuPheng Lee, a board member and former president of the Lao Family Community of Minnesota organization in St. Paul, said he sensed nothing suspicious when he first met Xiong more than a decade ago. Back then, Xiong was part of another organization calling for Hmong self-rule — the Congress of World Hmong People.
“I’m surprised to hear he had been arrested by the authorities in California. From the beginning, I thought they probably knew what they were doing,” said Lee, referring to Seng Xiong and Steve Moua. “I happened to meet Seng Xiong maybe 15 years ago. He seemed to be a legitimate person. He seemed to know the law very well, and to know U.S State Department procedure.”
Affinity fraud schemes prey on members of a particular religious, ethnic or professional group and are perpetrated by someone is who is or is pretending to be a member of that group. The criminal complaint against Xiong indicates that Hmong Tebchaws manipulated victims by playing on a longstanding dream of reuniting with family separated by war and relocation.
Under the tutelage of the CIA, Hmong soldiers fought Communist forces in Laos at the same time the U.S. fought Communism in Vietnam. When both efforts failed in 1975, the Hmong fled government reprisals in Laos by escaping through jungles and across the Mekong River into Thailand, where many spent years living in refugee camps.
From the camps, they were relocated with the help of the United Nations to countries as far-flung as the U.S., Australia, France and Germany. Some 40 years later, many elders still dream of reuniting with relatives in a land they can call their own and bemoan the continued persecution of the Hmong in Laos.
“It’s not a majority, only a small percent of the Hmong community, but those people will support him,” Lee said.
Xiong’s next court appearance has yet to be scheduled. The FBI and Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force are attempting to reach more victims. Anyone with information is asked to email email@example.com.
The FBI and the task force worked with the St. Paul Police Department, the U.S. Secret Service and the Appleton Police Department on the investigation, as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California.
ST. PAUL SEARCH WARRANT
On Nov. 20 of last year, federal investigators searched a Holiday Inn hotel room in St. Paul where Xiong was staying and seized his computer. At the time, Xiong told them he was a human rights advocate and not employed, according to the criminal complaint.
He allegedly stated “that he does not have a permanent address but that he lives in hotels, he had collected donations to help people who were suffering, and that he had done nothing wrong.”
In a file on his computer, authorities found the names of two St. Paul police officers who were investigating his case, as well as a list of all the Hmong officers on the St. Paul Police Department and the name of a Hmong officer who had been interviewing his alleged victims.
Authorities were unable to find that Xiong had any contacts at the White House, though he had made 11 calls to the United Nations’ visitor center over a two-week period.
On Sept. 5 of last year, he took a group of Hmong visitors to the visitor center for an informational meeting about the work of the U.N., but at no time did the subject of a Hmong homeland come up, according to the complaint.