SANTA ANA, Calif. – An Irvine-based immigration attorney has been arrested and charged with attempted witness tampering after agreeing to help a Chinese national flee the United States after the woman had been designated as a “material witness” in a criminal investigation into “birthing houses” operating in Southern California.
Ken Zhiyi Liang, 38, of Irvine, was arrested Friday afternoon by special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) after accepting $6,000 from the witness in exchange for helping her abscond to China. In a criminal complaint filed Saturday, Liang was charged with attempted witness tampering, a charge that carries a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison. Liang is scheduled to make his initial court appearance Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court. The probe into the birthing houses is being conducted by HSI and IRS – Criminal Investigation.
The Chinese national had been designated as a material witness in the federal investigation, meaning she was subject to a court order preventing her from leaving the United States without authorization from the government or court. Liang had represented the witness in the matter until the court removed him as attorney of record, over his objections, on April 17.
The federal investigation, which became known when authorities executed dozens of search warrants in early March, focuses on so-called birthing houses that “provided services to Chinese nationals, who travelled into the United States from China, for the purpose of giving birth to children so that the children could obtain United States citizenship,” according to the affidavit in support of the criminal complaint against Liang.
The affidavit, which was written by a special agent with HSI recounts several video and audio-recorded calls and meetings between Liang and the witness. During these conversations, Liang outlined a plan in which he would assist the witness by having her board a commercial airliner in the United States without travel documentation, so she could escape to China undetected by federal authorities. At one of the meetings, Liang told the witness that he could guarantee her safe return to China in exchange for a $6,000 fee for himself, and up to $3,000 to pay for help provided by three others.
During the meetings detailed in the affidavit, Liang refused to provide a written contract to the witness and requested that she pay him in cash, delete text messages and call logs, and begin using a prepaid cellular phone for all future communications.
Unbeknownst to Liang, the witness was cooperating with federal agents, who were monitoring the conversations between Liang and the witness. Liang was arrested by federal authorities as he was walking with the witness towards his car, supposedly to begin a trip to a coffee shop in Corona, where he was going to introduce the witness to the co-conspirators, who are not identified in the affidavit. After his arrest, Liang led agents back to his office, where he returned the $6,000 he had accepted from the witness.
According to the affidavit in Liang’s case, the attorney provided assistance to two other material witnesses – LongJing Yi, and her husband, Jun Xiao – who fled to the U.S. on April 4 and were subsequently charged in relation to their flight from the U.S. Another material witness who allegedly received help from Liang was intercepted at Los Angeles International Airport April 15.