A University of Minnesota official was engaged in questionable ethical behavior when he allegedly aided the legal defense of a Chinese billionaire being sued for rape by a U student, according to claims made by the woman's attorneys in court documents.

Attorneys for the student, Jingyao Liu, who is now 25, are suing Richard Liu (no relation) and his company, JD.com, for the alleged rape in 2018. A hearing on the case was held last month in Hennepin County District Court, with a trial set for Oct. 3. The Hennepin County Attorney's Office earlier had decided not to prosecute.

Court documents released in May and June show that Haitao "Tony" Cui, a deputy associate dean and marketing professor at the Carlson School of Management, helped Liu secure a Minneapolis attorney, Jill Brisbois. Cui allegedly sat with Brisbois and listened as she phoned the student — who had no attorney at the time — in a call that her lawyers say was intended to coax her to seek a financial payoff, which would discredit her allegations.

Jingyao's attorneys questioned Cui's "honesty and integrity" during his deposition. "I have been acting with integrity and … fairness all the time," he responded.

Cui taped the call to Jingyao Liu but didn't let her know he was there, he acknowledged in the deposition. Portions of the call subsequently circulated on social media in China in an effort to shame the plaintiff, according to her attorneys. According to his deposition, Cui said he did not know how the tape of the call leaked out.

Cui played "an active role as part of defendant Liu's defense team," the plaintiff's attorneys wrote. Cui, who has denied the allegation, did not respond to a request for comment.

Carlson School Dean Sri Zaheerdeclined to comment, and U public relations director Jake Ricker said the school's practice is not to comment on active litigation.

However, Ricker wrote in an e-mail that the U "fully and appropriately responded to this situation when it arose in 2018 and we disagree with any allegations to the contrary. The university's response was consistent with the rights of victim-survivors, due process and all applicable university policies. By law, we are prohibited from sharing information about specific allegations or investigations."

The lawyers for Jingyao Liu have filed a formal notice with the U, a requirement of state law if a suit is being contemplated. So far no such suit has been filed.

Joseph Daly, an emeritus law professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, denounced Cui's behavior as described by the alleged victim's attorneys.

"Professor Cui seems to have taken the role of protecting Mr. Liu instead of protecting Ms. Jingyao Liu," he said. "Protecting the $75,000 paid by CEO Mr. Liu and the other executives from China in the U of M program seemed more important than protecting Ms. Jingyao Liu."

DeShayla Strachan, a visiting professor at Mitchell Hamline and former staff attorney for the Florida Council against Sexual Violence, said it doesn't look good for a U official to help secure a lawyer for the alleged assailant. "It feels like these were intimidation tactics," she said.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman declined four years ago to charge Liu with a crime. "There were profound evidentiary problems which would have made it highly unlikely that any criminal charge could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt," he said at the time.

Differing stories

Richard Liu's company, JD.com, is an e-commerce site similar to Amazon with more than 400 million customers. Liu, who founded the company, is worth $10.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine, making him one of the richest men in China. It was reported in April that he was stepping down as CEO at JD.com, but would remain board chair. In late June, news broke that since stepping down, he has sold 1 billion dollars of JD.com stock.

Liu came to the Carlson School in 2018, paying the U $75,000 to attend the doctoral program. According to her suit, Jingyao Liu was recruited by Cui to be an unpaid volunteer in the global study program with Liu and "over 40 titans of Asian industry, almost exclusively middle-aged Chinese men," for a residency program that ran from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1, 2018.

Jingyao Liu, then a 21-year-old undergraduate who had attended St. Olaf College in Northfield and enrolled at the U to study music and linguistics, was among a number of students enlisted to accompany the Chinese executives on their morning runs.

Her attorneys said she was instructed by another CEO billionaire in the program to attend a dinner at Origami restaurant in Minneapolis to honor the volunteers. But she became uneasy when she learned she was the only female volunteer told to attend.

Video from the restaurant shows Chinese executives directing her to sit next to Richard Liu. During the dinner, the suit says, he offered her a job with JD.com and plied her with wine; his attorneys, on the other hand, say she drank of her own accord. Her suit says she was drunk; Liu's attorneys disagree.

Her attorneys say there were many toasts by the executives. "In Chinese drinking culture, Jingyao refusing a toast, or not drinking as instructed, would bring shame to defendant Liu and the other powerful executives proposing toasts and cause them to culturally 'lose face,'" according to claims by her attorneys.

Jingyao pleaded with one of Liu's assistants to get her a ride home. The limo Liu had rented was brought around and Liu "kind of pushed her into the car," the paid driver said.

According to the suit, she was driven to a mansion on Pillsbury Avenue rented by the Chinese executives but refused to go in. She maintains that inside the vehicle she was manhandled by Liu, then driven to her apartment building where he followed her to her apartment and allegedly raped her, her attorneys say. Video shows her walking arm in arm as they approached her apartment without apparently resisting, which Liu's attorneys say shows she was not coerced.

At various points in her contacts with police, Jingyao said both that she was raped and not raped. Her attorneys said her reluctance at times to claim she was assaulted was based on her fear that Liu was very powerful and could endanger her family in China.

Richard Liu's attorneys insist that Jingyao is a liar who was never sexually assaulted and repeatedly contradicted herself in interviews with authorities.

'A breach of ethics'

Brisbois, Richard Liu's attorney, obtained Jingyao's phone number from Minneapolis police Sgt. Matthew Wente. According to a document from the defense lawyers, Jingyao wanted money from Liu, which Wente felt could be extortion. However, Wente "was willing at plaintiff's request to put plaintiff in touch with Mr. Liu's attorney so 'she could pursue an apology that way.' "

Wente said in a deposition that he had handled some 1,600 sexual assault investigations and may have possibly provided the phone number of an alleged victim to another defense attorney, but couldn't remember which case.

Minneapolis police spokesman Garrett Parten said Wente was no longer with the department and that he couldn't comment on Wente's actions because of ongoing litigation. Minneapolis spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said the city's human relations and city attorney departments have determined Wente's reasons for quitting are private.

When contacted, Wente said he had retired but could not comment on the case because of the litigation.

Daly said police shouldn't give the phone number of an alleged victim to the alleged assailant's attorney, "because of the danger a sexual assault victim is in if the alleged perpetrator can make contact with the victim while the case is being investigated."

Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza, who reviewed documents in the case, said that Wente's decision to give Jingyao Liu's phone number to Richard Liu's attorney was "a shocking breach of legal ethics and obviously wrong."

At a court hearing last month before Hennepin District Judge Edward T. Wahl in Jingyao Liu's suit, attorneys for both sides vigorously argued their case. JD.com has a motion seeking to be dismissed as a defendant in the suit, and Jingyao's attorneys have asked the court for permission to seek punitive damages from JD.com and Richard Liu.

Richard Liu, who previously had been deposed over video, did not attend the hearing. Jingyao Liu sat quietly next to her attorneys while about a dozen Chinese students who support her looked on.