The Hmong elders of St. Paul and elsewhere in the country had survived war, communist rule, life as a refugee, and relocation across the world. It all left them eager to believe the sweet sales pitch of Seng Xiong.
The Maplewood man was promising a paradise. Through word of mouth and ads online, he claimed to be creating a new Hmong homeland somewhere in Southeast Asia, with the help of the White House and the United Nations.
For $3,000 to $5,000, investors would get 10 acres of land, a house, free health care, free education, plus extra benefits for the elderly at a locale to be determined. And if you couldn’t afford that, a $20-a-month plan could at least secure your spot in this wonderful new nation.
But you had to move fast before space ran out, Xiong said. At least 400 people sent money.
The deal, of course, sounded much to good to be true. And so it was. There was no new country, no piles of free stuff, nor were the White House or the United Nations even remotely involved.
The scam ran from 2014 to 2016. When St. Paul Police came calling, they found a Wells Fargo account in Xiong’s name with more than $1 million in deposits from would-be citizens.
Last year, he was found guilty of mail and wire fraud and sentenced to seven years in federal prison. U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson also ordered $1.2 million in restitution from money seized by police.
“It (was) these folks’ lack of assimilation in this country, their lack of healing over this horrific past, that Mr. Xiong preyed upon,” she said at sentencing in October.
Yet months later, the elders have yet to receive a dime. And this is where the plot twists.
Though overwhelming evidence suggests Xiong flat-out screwed his investors, he continues to have dozens of supporters among them. They protested twice on his behalf in St. Paul last year, and were at it again on Monday, demanding their restitution so they could continue with his work.
Lawyer Paul Applebaum says he’s representing 200 plaintiffs in a class action suit to get the money back, though he has yet to file the case. The feds would be happy to do it. The problem is that Xiong is appealing his case, and the feds can’t start kicking back money until the case is final, due to the unlikely scenario that the conviction is reversed.
Which means the fate of a Hmong homeland still rests in the hands of Seng Xiong.
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