A California attorney was convicted of obstructing justice in September after accepting $6,000 to help a material witness in a federal grand jury investigation into birth tourism flee the United States to China.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford in California found the attorney, Ken Zhiyi Liang, guilty of one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and two counts of obstructing justice. Liang, 38, chose to be tried by judge and could face up to 60 years in federal prison when sentenced on Dec. 14.
Liang’s attorney, James D. Riddet, filed a motion on Sept. 24 for a new trial and for judgement of acquittal. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 9.
The case began in early March when authorities raided maternity hotels in Southern California, where wealthy expectant mothers from China paid upwards of $50,000 to stay for several months before and after giving birth.
A woman, identified in court documents as "D.L." who was staying at one of the birthing houses, became a material witness in the government’s investigation, and along with three other material witnesses hired Liang as their attorney, according to court documents.
The court documents also state that two of the witnesses—a husband and wife—managed to fly back to China on April 4 without court permission, while a third was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on April 15 for attempting to do the same. Around that time, according to court documents, authorities had received information that Liang may have helped the husband and wife, Jun Xiao and Long Jing Yi, flee and began investigating the attorney.
“Long Jing Yi is friends with D.L., and she told D.L. that basically why are you still there and we got the attorney to help us, he drove us to the airport, $6,000 was what it took, you should do the same and help yourself,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry C. Yang told NBC News.
According to Yang and court documents, D.L., who admitted she came to the U.S. to have her child, agreed to cooperate with federal authorities and to speak and meet with Liang, whom the court removed as attorney for the material witnesses after suspecting he was involved in helping Yi and Xiao flee. D.L. wore an audio and video recorder, and her conversations with Liang, almost exclusively in Mandarin, were transmitted to agents and translated in real time by a court-certified interpreter, court documents said.
May 7 was the first time D.L. reached out to Liang, telling him on the phone that she was concerned her visa would soon expire, court documents said. One day later, the two had a 40-minute phone conversation, during which Liang told D.L. he could help with her immigration case, according to court documents. But D.L. said she would rather leave the country.
“I can give you some legal advice, no problem,” Liang is quoted as having said, according to court papers. “But if I helped you evade the U.S. legal procedures, then I might be penalized with several thousand dollars. They might even indict me and cost me tens of thousands of dollars worth of issues.”
Later in the conversation, however, Liang asked D.L. to make him an offer and, according to court documents, D.L. suggested $6,000, to which Liang agreed.
When the two met five days later at Liang's office, Liang noted D.L.'s situation was similar to that of the couple that fled to China, and Liang told D.L. she would “be handcuffed right away at the airport” if she attempted to return to China now, court documents said.
During the meeting, Liang mentioned he had “made arrangements” with people to aid in helping D.L. leave the country, court documents said. Liang explained he would use part of the money D.L. paid to protect himself and also offered D.L. advice like leaving on a weekend when there was less of a law enforcement presence, court documents said.
On May 14, D.L met Liang at his office again to firm up their plans, court documents said. The next day, D.L. met with Liang once more, handing over the $6,000 she agreed to pay, court documents said.
Around noon, according to court documents, Liang and D.L. left Liang’s office and headed to his 2012 Quest minivan when Homeland Security Investigations agents moved in and arrested Liang.
Riddet, Liang’s attorney, told NBC News that at trial he had raised the allegation that his client had been entrapped.
According to Riddet's motion for a new trial and judgment of acquittal, “the issue was properly raised based on the evidence, and counsel submits that the government utterly failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was no entrapment,” Riddet wrote.
Riddet also said the government did not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
In his motion, Riddet argued that Liang was clear from the beginning, well before his conversations were recorded, that D.L. should either “secure an agreement with government personnel or go to court” if she wanted to return to China. Liang repeated similar advice several times during meetings that were recorded, according to Riddet's motion.
“Counsel acknowledges that the court looked carefully at the evidence, and that is apparent from the court’s detailed discussions with counsel,” Riddet wrote. “However, it is hoped that the court will consider what is filed herein and determine that in fact the government failed to prove this case and failed to prove no entrapment.”
Liang's Sept. 18 conviction retrains a spotlight on an industry known as birth tourism, in which women come to the United States to have children on American soil, automatically making their newborns U.S. citizens. In late August, the topic made headlines when GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush said that the controversial term “anchor baby,” which refers to a child born in a country with birthright citizenship to a mother who is not a citizen, was "more related" to Asians entering the U.S. to have children than to Latino immigrants.