Fresno businessman Steve Moua says he was working with a Minnesota man to collect donations that they vowed would be used to create a country for Hmong refugees in Southeast Asia.
He went on Hmong television to solicit tens of thousands of dollars for the project.
But prosecutors say Moua’s associate in Minnesota, Seng Xiong, was actually scamming elderly Hmong people in Fresno and elsewhere out of $1.7 million by falsely promising them a country he could not deliver.
Xiong, 49, has been sentenced to prison, leaving Moua to deal with accusations that he, too, was a key player in the scam.
On Friday, Moua, 46, bristled at the accusations, saying the homeland dream is still alive – even though Xiong purportedly says in a YouTube video that Moua wanted the money for himself.
“I have nothing to hide,” Moua said. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
This month, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota announced Xiong, of Maplewood, Minn., was sentenced to seven years and three months in prison and ordered to pay $1.22 million in restitution to hundreds of victims of his scheme called “Hmong Tebchaws,” which translates to “Hmong Country.”
Under the scheme, Xiong promised to use the money to create a Hmong homeland in Southeast Asia for refugees longing for their own country. Instead, he kept the money for himself, prosecutors in Minnesota said.
They gave us the money freely. We didn’t put a gun to their head.
Fresno businessman Steve Moua
They call Moua a close associate of Xiong. Court records in U.S. District Court in Fresno say federal agents in November 2015 searched Moua’s home in Fresno in hopes of linking him to Xiong and Hmong Tebchaws, but Moua was never charged.
In an interview last week, Moua said he doesn’t fear being charged criminally. He said he and Xiong did nothing wrong, even though Xiong was convicted. “They gave us the money freely. We didn’t put a gun to their head,” Moua said, adding that the donations to Xiong’s cause is similar to someone giving money in church.
Moua said he pitched Xiong’s idea on Hmong television and collected money for him because he believes in Xiong’s dream of creating a Hmong homeland. He said Xiong was truly working to create the country, studying the United Nations charter and meeting with high-level U.S. government officials. Some of the donated money paid for those trips and meetings, he said.
Xiong’s plan, however, was foiled, he said, by followers of the late Gen. Vang Pao, who had a similar idea in the 1980s called the United Lao National Liberation Front, or Neo Hom. Under Neo Hom, Hmong families donated money to fund a resistance movement to reclaim Laos for the tens of thousands of refugees who were forced to leave after the Vietnam War because they had fought on the side of the U.S.
Moua said the general’s Neo Hom plan was itself a scam – a common theme among Vang Pao’s critics who contend contributions to Neo Hom were used to support the general’s and his associates’ lavish lifestyles.
“Ours is real,” Moua said of Xiong’s plan. “He did the work to make it happen.”
Moua cpntacted The Bee because he said followers of the late general have defamed him on YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites, and framed Xiong on trumped-up charges. He also said his enemies have turned Xiong against him.
Moua arrived at The Bee office with a copy of his search warrant, which remains sealed in the Fresno federal courthouse, and a copy of a United Nations document that he says gives the Hmong people the right to create their own homeland.
He said his goal is to let Xiong’s followers know that he and Xiong have not given up their dream of creating a Hmong homeland.
But Moua said a YouTube video, which purports to be Xiong speaking from jail to his followers, has put a damper on his plans to clear Xiong’s name. In the video, which is in the Hmong language, Xiong allegedly says Moua wanted the money for himself. According to Moua, the video also shows Xiong allegedly claiming that Moua was behind his arrest and indictment, and that the FBI is investigating Moua.
“Lies. All lies,” Moua said. “They are turning Seng against me so they can take over our plan to create a Hmong homeland.”
Creating a Hmong homeland in Southeast Asia has been haunting Hmong refugees ever since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, said Seng Alex Vang, who teaches ethnic studies at California State University, Stanislaus, and is a lecturer at the University of California, Merced.
“They are vulnerable because that’s been their dream to return,” Vang said of the tens of thousands of Hmong refugees living in the United States.
Con artists know refugees long for their homeland, “so they use their language skills and close family ties to make a connection,” Vang said. “And many times, the victims trust them because they don’t have the education or critical thinking skills to ask how it will happen.”
I am an honest person. I have dedicated my life to the liberation of the Hmong people.
Seng Xiong, who convicted of defrauding elderly Hmong people
Because many of the victims speak little or no English, they turn to Hmong television to get news about their homeland. “But many of them don’t realize that Hmong television is not legitimate news because these people bought air time,” he said.
Over four decades, many people have taken advantage of Hmong people, Vang said. With the conviction of Xiong, Vang said, “Hopefully, the Hmong people learn from this.”
Moua, who wore traditional Hmong clothing on Hmong television, said he pitched Xiong’s plan because “we are the indigenous people of Asia. That is our home.” He denied taking advantage of anyone: “People have a right to donate. We never harmed anyone.”
Moua said millions of Hmong refugees worldwide want to establish their own country. His said his upbringing is similar to their stories.
Born in Laos in December 1970, Moua said his parents died in the war fighting alongside U.S. soldiers. He recalled walking among relatives and strangers while crossing fields, jungles and rivers to reach refugee camps in Thailand.
He said he arrived in the United States in 1988, first settling in Long Beach. “I could barely speak English,” he said. He said he moved to Fresno around 2000. He and his wife have six children. He said he has made a living dealing cards in a casino, working in real estate and selling herbal supplements.
Prosecutors believe the scheme ran from at least mid-2014 to March 2016.
Fresno County Superior Court records say Moua has no criminal record; just traffic tickets.
But Moua said he has been in trouble before. In the 1990s, he said, he was part of a scheme to swindle a blackjack player out of $100,000. Moua said he admitted wrongdoing and spent three months in a federal prison in Taft, in Kern County. A man named Seng Xiong was also involved in the blackjack scheme, but Moua said that was not the same person who was convicted in Minnesota and recently sentenced to prison.
Seng Xiong is a common Hmong name. Moua said he had to explain the difference between the two Seng Xiongs – the one caught cheating at blackjack and the other one wanting to create a Hmong homeland – to jurors in Xiong’s trial in St. Paul, Minn.
Moua said he met Seng Xiong of Minnesota in March 2013 through a conference call in which Xiong explained his idea of creating a Hmong homeland. Over the years, Moua said he traveled to Minnesota to meet Xiong. He said Xiong also would come to Fresno.
Moua said he believes in Xiong because he has a firm grasp of Hmong history, culture and its future. “He’s a genius. No one can compare to him,” he said.
Prosecutors in Minnesota said Xiong was running an affinity fraud scheme that pledges to reunite a group of people with friends and family in a country that does not exist.
In September 2015 law enforcement officials in St. Paul received a tip that Xiong was conducting a scheme called Hmong Tebchaws through his organization called “International Fund for Hmong Development.” Law enforcement found a website that said the group’s mission was to pursue Hmong self-rule “in the mainland of Asia in accordance with international law.”
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota, Xiong said his organization was working with the White House and United Nations to secure land for the Hmong homeland and that China, Japan, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam “have all agreed to acknowledge the Hmong people and have saved a piece of land for the Hmong people.”
Under the scheme, members of the Hmong community were directed to deposit $3,000 to $5,000 into Xiong’s bank account, Minnesota federal prosecutors Amber Brennan and Surya Saxena said in a news release. In exchange, the victims were promised 10 acres of land, a house and other benefits, the news release said.
Evidence in Xiong’s trial showed that he promoted his scheme in the Hmong language through a series of YouTube videos and nationwide conference calls.
Seng Xiong took the Hmong people’s tragic history of war and displacement and manipulated that for his own benefit.
Minnesota prosecutor Amber Brennan
Prosecutors believe the scheme ran from at least mid-2014 to March 2016.
Xiong was preparing to board a flight bound for Thailand when he was arrested on March 24, 2016. On Jan. 26 this year, he was convicted of mail and wire fraud. He was sentenced on Oct. 11 in front of dozens of supporters.
“I am an honest person. I have dedicated my life to the liberation of the Hmong people,” Xiong told the judge, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper. “This is politically motivated. It has nothing to do with fraud … everybody knows that.”
But Brennan, the assistant U.S. Attorney, said: “Seng Xiong took the Hmong people’s tragic history of war and displacement and manipulated that for his own benefit. We hope (the) verdict sends a message that the United States will protect those who have been defrauded.”
In all, “Xiong stole approximately $1.7 million and approximately $1.4 million of that was seized and applied toward court-ordered restitution for the victims,” Tasha Rose Zerna, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in St. Paul, said Thursday.
Moua said he never received a dime from the donations. He also said he has kept in touch with Xiong and will continue to work on his plan for a Hmong homeland. “He is my friend,” he said.