An Irvine-based immigration attorney went on trial in Santa Ana Tuesday on charges of obstructing justice in a case involving a crackdown on a scheme to help Chinese nationals give birth in America to establish U.S. citizenship for their newborns.
Ken Zhiyi Liang is charged in a three-count indictment with conspiracy to obstruct justice. His attorney said his client is innocent, and he will try to prove that prosecutors cherry-picked damaging comments out of context to make their case.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford, who is presiding over the case without a jury, will hear wiretap recordings of the defendant that prosecutors say are about 3 1/2 hours long.
Liang, 38, is accused of taking a $6,000 bribe to help a witness leave the country illegally. To avoid prosecution, the witness agreed to help investigators, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Yang.
Prosecutors also allege Liang helped two other witnesses — Long Jing Yi and Jun Xiao — “abscond from court supervision,” but he is not charged with those offenses. Prosecutors want to use evidence of that to bolster their case against him regarding the alleged bribe.
Prosecutors also allege the defendant made “misrepresentations on an EB- 5 immigrant visa application” and then made “subsequent misrepresentations to the State Bar regarding his receipt of $500,000 in funds from the client.”
Liang went to “great lengths” to help a former client “get back to China under a judge’s nose,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Widman told Guilford.
“The meat and potatoes of the evidence, and perhaps the side dish, too, are the recordings,” Widman said.
Homeland Security investigators made a “big splash” in the news by serving search warrants on so-called “birth tourism” operations in Irvine and elsewhere. This prompted many of the women who were trying to gain U.S. citizenship for their babies to “lawyer up,” Widman said.
Prosecutors decided to have many of the pregnant women and new moms testify against the people who ran the scheme as witnesses who would be granted a chance to post bail and stay free pending trial, Widman said. Many of those witnesses and suspects, however, left the country.
Liang, who represented one of those witnesses, was ultimately removed as her attorney in April when he came under investigation, although he did not know that at the time, Widman said. Liang objected to being removed from the case, the prosecutor added.
That witness then decided to cooperate with prosecutors and used a ruse to reestablish contact with Liang, Widman said. He initially told her it would be impossible for her to go back to China as she wished. Bbut then when she told him she still had her passport, he “got a lot more optimistic,” Widman said.
Liang advised the woman that he could help her get back to China through the “legal method,” or they could try “something sneaky,” Widman alleged.
Liang told the woman to “name a price,” and when she responded, “$6,000,” he told her they had a deal and that he was “100 percent sure” he could help her get back to China, Widman alleged.
“That’s the call that gets the ball rolling,” Widman said.
Liang offered multiple tips to the woman on how to evade authorities, Widman said. He told her not to tell her babysitter or taxi driver where exactly she was going, the prosecutor said.
Liang is accused of talking about hiring a trustworthy middleman to help arrange for a ride to the airport. He allegedly told the woman to keep in contact with court officials to stonewall them from finding out she left the country, Widman said.
Liang also offered a “false story” the woman could tell authorities such as, “Your mom forced you to leave, you fell asleep and the next thing you knew you were on a plane,” Widman alleged.
On May 8 and May 12, Liang is accused of instructing the witness to delete text and messages, from an application called WeChat, on her phone. On May 12, Liang instructed his client to communicate through WeChat and to get a prepaid cellphone, according to prosecutors.
On May 14, he directed the witness to buy an airplane ticket from an airline based out of the U.S., the indictment alleges.
Liang’s attorney, James Riddet, said the woman complained about her attorney, his replacement and even the federal prosecutors she worked with. He said she persisted in her desire to return to China.
Liang legitimately tried to help the woman reach her goal by promising to ask a judge for permission to leave the country or by appealing to prosecutors, Riddet said. The woman bristled when Liang said his services required more money, the attorney said.
Riddet intends to show email correspondence between Liang and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandy Leal to back up the claim that Liang was trying to work out the problem legally.
The attorney said it was “very interesting” that prosecutors did not want to play a tape-recording of the defendant’s interview with investigators following his arrest.
Riddet acknowledged that some of his client’s comments in the undercover recordings could be “viewed unfavorably,” but only if “taken out of context.”
Riddet added, “This is talk, nothing more. There will be no evidence of action and talk without more is insufficient to convict for obstruction of justice.”
—City News Service
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