The federal government is unlawfully keeping about $1.2 million from hundreds of people who donated the money to create a new country for Hmong people, according to a lawsuit.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota asked that the money be forfeited to the federal government after Maplewood resident Seng Xiong was convicted last year of soliciting the funds, said St. Paul attorney Paul Applebaum, who is filing the suit.
The government should return the money to about 200 people who each gave Xiong from $2,000 to $5,000, Applebaum said.
“They did nothing wrong,” said Applebaum, adding that paper trails easily identify the victims and their donations.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not return messages seeking comment Monday.
Several dozen people from as far away as Alaska, California and North Carolina rallied outside the federal courthouse in downtown St. Paul on Monday afternoon to demand their money back, but also to support Xiong, who is serving a seven-year prison sentence. Xiong also was ordered to pay $1.2 million in restitution to his victims.
Jurors convicted Xiong in January 2017 of wire fraud and mail fraud. He created an organization called “Hmong Tebchaws,” which translates to “Hmong Country,” and solicited money through YouTube videos, conference calls and appearances on Hmong radio stations.
Tapping into a long history of political upheaval that led many Hmong to migrate from China to several parts of Southeast Asia, the United States and elsewhere, Xiong pledged to give each of his victims a new Hmong homeland in Southeast Asia. He also promised them 10 acres of land, a house and free health care, among other benefits. He claimed that he was working with the White House and United Nations to create the country.
“If you don’t have land, then there’s no life,” said 48-year-old Plia Yang of Milwaukee, who gave Xiong $5,000 and continues to support him. “When you have a homeland of your own, everything is there for you. There is no struggle.”
Dao Moua, a Brooklyn Park man who gave Xiong $5,800, is the only plaintiff named in the suit so far. Moua said he tried to meet with someone at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis last August about returning the money, did not receive an audience after waiting 45 minutes and left a letter instead.
“They really need the money back to function,” Moua said of the donors.
Moua said many donors are struggling with bills and mortgage payments, but he also noted that he expected nearly all of them to reinvest their money in the cause, which he said was being taken up by donors in Xiong’s absence. Moua, who has had regular contact with Xiong since his imprisonment, estimated that about 5 percent of the donors have since rejected the cause.
Asked if the money could be used in other ways to support the Hmong community, Moua said people can support whichever causes they wish.
“It’s for them to decide what to do with their money,” Applebaum said.
The suit alleges violation of the Fifth and Fourth Amendments protecting against violation of due process and unreasonable seizure.
Xiong ran his scheme from at least September 2014 to March 2016, until he was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport while trying to board a flight to Thailand.