NEW YORK – Norman Hsu, one of the top fundraisers for big-name Democrats, was charged Thursday with swindling at least $60 million from investors and using some of his profits to make illegal donations to political campaigns.
Hsu, who was already facing a fifteen-year-old fraud case in California, was charged in New York with what prosecutors called a "massive" Ponzi scheme that ensnared investors across the country.
At a news conference, U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia said the main purpose of the fraud was to support a "lavish lifestyle," but he said it also may have been fueled by Hsu's desire "to purchase a place on the celebrity campaign circuit."
The charges are the latest in a string of legal problems for Hsu, who is in custody. He arrived in California on Thursday after he was released by authorities in Mesa, Colo. Hsu landed at San Francisco International Airport in the custody of state investigators; a caravan of law enforcement vehicles whisked him away.
The criminal complaint, unsealed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, said the 56-year-old clothing-industry entrepreneur pressured his business partners to make hefty donations to congressional and presidential candidates, most notably Hillary Rodham Clinton. None of the partners was identified.
Garcia said there was no evidence that the campaigns were aware of the scheme or acted criminally. The Clinton campaign has been cooperating with the investigation, he said, and Clinton has already announced that she would give back $850,000 raised by Hsu.
Hsu also is accused of donating money in other people's names, which is a federal crime.
Robert Emmers, a spokesman for Hsu, declined to comment. Hsu's lawyer in San Francisco, Jim Brosnahan, did not immediately return phone messages Thursday.
His troubles began this summer when news reports revealed that he was a fugitive from justice; in 1992 he had pleaded no contest to theft charges in California related to a fraudulent clothing import business, then skipped town before he could be sentenced. Investigators believe he fled to Hong Kong.
Hsu turned himself in last month, but fled again after he was released on $2 million bail. He was arrested in Grand Junction, Colo., on Sept. 6 after becoming sick on a train.
When he was arrested, Hsu was carrying a briefcase containing thousands of dollars in cash, bank receipts reflecting millions of dollars worth of transactions and handwritten ledgers of campaign contributions, prosecutors said.
Within days, according to the criminal complaint, he contacted the FBI and voluntarily confessed to making "phony" business deals.
David Cardona, chief of the New York FBI's criminal division, said Hsu had no legitimate business operations but created the appearance that he was turning a profit by using new investment funds to pay "phantom returns" to his older partners.
Hsu was charged with mail fraud, wire fraud and violating campaign finance laws. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on each of the fraud charges and five years on the campaign finance charge.
In the criminal complaint, FBI investigators describe the Ponzi scheme. They say Hsu had no actual business, but created the appearance that he was turning a profit by using funds from his newest victims to pay off debts due to his older partners.
The complaint did not identify any of the alleged victims of the scheme but a lawsuit was filed last week in state Supreme Court in Manhattan by a company that claims to have been cheated by Hsu.
Source Financing Investors, a fund run by one of the creators of the 1969 Woodstock rock festival, said it sank $40 million into a Hsu venture that purportedly made its money by making short-term, high-interest loans to clothing companies in China.
In the lawsuit, Source Financing Investors said its checks from Hsu — some for as much as $1.5 million — recently began to bounce.
The investors said they contacted clothing retailers Hsu claimed to have done business with, including L.L. Bean, Macy's, Nordstrom and DKNY, and none had heard of him.
The FBI said it had identified several investors who lost amounts ranging from a few thousand dollars to several million. It did not name them in the complaint.
Prosecutors said one account Hsu had used to write millions of dollars worth of checks had only $83,000.