A wanted fugitive, who helped run a profitable Chinese birth tourism scheme in Southern California, is scheduled to be sentenced in absentia on Sept. 30 inside Orange County’s Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse.
After accepting a guilty plea deal in June 2016 for immigration fraud, marriage fraud and failure to file an honest income tax return, Chao Chen decided two months later to violate his pact with federal prosecutors, hide assets and flee back to China through Mexico.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles E. Pell has argued that while sentencing hearings generally require the presence of the defendant, that condition is not necessary when the government’s target voluntarily fails to appear.
To indefinitely delay sentencing in such situations would be tantamount to allowing a fugitive defendant to benefit from his own misconduct, Pell advised U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna this month.
But Karren Kenney, Chen’s appointed defense attorney, believes her client’s constitutional rights will be trampled if Selna proceeds with the sentencing, in part because she blames prosecutors for stalling the case.
“Mr. Chen informed his counsel he had security concerns for his family and himself after the government delayed in proceeding on the voluminous amount of information and substantial assistance he provided to the government,” Kenney told the judge. “There is a legitimate question as to whether or not his absence is in fact voluntary and was not as a result of necessity or duress.”
In a bizarre move, Chen initiated a 21-minute, Feb. 2018 communication with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Santa Ana, where he told a prosecutor, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and an IRS Criminal Division official that he wanted to resolve his case and expressed frustration that he wouldn’t be rewarded for sharing birth tourism scam information.
“Chen said that during the whole process, while he was still in the United States, he cooperated,” according to a HSI memorandum originally marked “sensitive.”
Using a Mandarin interpreter during the telephone call, Chen said he didn’t know if fleeing had been the right move but argued he’d left because he was “scared” of a potential 18-year prison sentence as well as of retribution for cooperating with the government in its investigation.
“Chen said that he was fearful and that there was no ‘security’ for him if he stayed in the United States,” the HSI memo states.” [He] said that so many people in China are doing ‘this business’ so it bothers him that he has to face up to this matter.”
The call ended after Chen, who sometimes uses the first name Edwin and was born in 1984, asked if he could return to the U.S. but was advised he would be arrested immediately.
Charging pregnant Chinese tourists between $30,000 to $80,000 each, Chen and others accused in the conspiracy allegedly used Orange County-based YouWinUSA Vacation Services Corporation to lure the women usually to Irvine to give birth to children who would automatically become U.S. citizens.
Their services included advising how to falsify visa requests, tipping which airport to use for arrival (Honolulu, not Los Angeles International Airport, where security was perceived as tighter), securing temporary housing, providing transportation for medical appointments and obtaining birth certificates before their return to China.
The scam produced millions of dollars in revenue and allowed the conspirators to purchase multi-million houses and high-end luxury vehicles.
Chen—who lived in Henderson, Nevada—fell into a trap in June 2014 when he agreed to sell birth tourism services to an undercover HSI special agent for $38,000. During subsequent months, he unwittingly helped the officer fabricate a related visa request from Shenyang, China. He suggested the request identify a fake two-week “vacation” as the purpose of a visit to the Long Beach area. He also advised on ways to dupe U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents upon arrival.
According to the plea deal, Chen faced a maximum punishment of 10 years in federal prison, but that was before the addition of a contempt of court charge.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas F. McCormick released the defendant from custody in May 2016 after he posted an unsecured $10,000 appearance bond, declared he’d surrendered his passport and promised to return to Orange County for all future court hearings.
HSI, which is a wing of the Department of Homeland Security, busted multiple Chinese “maternity house” or “birthing house” schemes in March 2015 after the execution of 35 search warrants and an intense international probes that produced at least 19 indictments.
Irvine’s Dongyuan Li, one of Chen’s partners, pleaded guilty last week to charges of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and visa fraud; she faces a maximum punishment of 15 years.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.