An exiled Chinese businessman with ties to former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon has been charged in the US with orchestrating a conspiracy to defraud his online followers out of more than $1bn.
Authorities said Guo Wengui cheated thousands of followers since 2018 by promising “outsized” investment returns, then using the money to fund a lavish lifestyle.
He allegedly bought himself and his family a $37m yacht, a 50,000 square-foot mansion in New Jersey, a $3.5m Ferrari for his son, a $62,000 TV and two $36,000 mattresses, according to authorities.
Guo, 52, was charged with 12 counts including wire fraud, securities fraud, bank fraud and money laundering.
He was arrested on Wednesday, and pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court. The judge ordered him to be detained without bail.
On the day of his arrest, Guo’s apartment in a Manhattan hotel was found on fire, NBC reported a source familiar with the matter as saying.
An FBI spokesperson said officers were at the apartment when the fire broke out, after Guo was already in custody.
US attorney Damian Williams said in a statement Guo had been “lining his pockets with the money he stole”.
The US government has seized $634m from 21 bank accounts associated with Guo, as well as assets including a Lamborghini.
Guo’s financial adviser, Kin Ming Je, was also charged with the same counts, as well as obstruction of justice.
Je, who lives in London and is also known as William Je, has not been arrested yet.
Guo, who has used other names including Ho Wan Kwok and Miles Kwok, has been a business associate of Bannon, who was arrested in a fraud case in August 2020 while aboard Guo’s yacht.
Trump pardoned Bannon in the final hours of his presidency.
Guo was once believed to be among the richest people in China. He left in 2014 during an anti-corruption crackdown led by President Xi Jinping. Chinese authorities have accused Guo of rape, kidnapping and bribery.
Guo has argued the allegations against him in China were false, and were meant to punish him for publicly outing corruption and criticising leading figures in the Communist Party.
Guo’s next court appearance is on 4 April.