Maplewood man sentenced to 7 years, restitution for $1.7 million scheme promising Hmong homeland
ST. PAUL — Seng Xiong preyed upon "the open wounds" of particularly vulnerable people within the Hmong community when the Maplewood man promised them access to a new Hmong homeland in Southeast Asia in exchange for money, a federal judge said Wednesday, Oct. 11.
Through his lies, the 49-year-old defrauded more than 400 Hmong people from across the United States — many of them elderly — of thousands of dollars each. Their contributions totaled about $1.7 million.
U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson went above federal guidelines in sentencing Xiong to more than seven years in prison. He also was ordered to pay $1.2 million in restitution and comply with a long list of conditions upon his release.
As Seng Xiong was sentenced, about 50 of his supporters outside waved signs and shouted demands for his release.
Despite a jury convicting Xiong last winter of both mail fraud and wire fraud for orchestrating the scam, several of those who donated to his cause maintain his innocence and still ardently believe that he intended to carry out his promises.
Nelson spoke of those supporters and all of Xiong's victims before rendering her sentence.
"These are folks ... who share some sort of cultural pain ... they were displaced, they had a refugee experience," Nelson said.
Many of the victims had also lost loved ones during the Hmong's involvement in aiding the U.S. in the Vietnam War and endured broken promises by American officials about what they would receive in exchange for their help, Nelson added.
"It (was) these folks' lack of assimilation in this country, their lack of healing over this horrific past, that Mr. Xiong preyed upon," Nelson said.
Despite his promises to the contrary, investigators could find no evidence to back up his claims to donors that he was actively working with officials from both the U.S. government and the United Nations to secure a Hmong homeland, Nelson added.
Xiong went so far as to tell donors via conference calls and YouTube videos that land had not only been identified for the homeland, but that funding for acquisition had been approved and that its creation would be announced imminently.
In exchange for a $3,000 to $5,000 donation, each donor was promised land, housing, education, jobs and social services in the new Hmong homeland.
During the trial, evidence was presented that no one from the U.S. Department of State, the White House or the United Nations ever collaborated with Xiong.
"The fact is you lied to your followers and to this day you continue to deny it," Nelson said. For that reason, the judge gave Xiong a sentence above federal sentencing guidelines.
Xiong stood in an orange jumpsuit while his sentence was read while rows of his supporters listened in the gallery. He proclaimed his innocence when given the chance to address the court and also made a failed motion to have his attorney removed.
"I am an honest person. I have dedicated my life to the liberation of the Hmong people," Xiong said. "This is politically motivated. It has nothing to do with fraud ... everybody knows that."
His supporters gathered both in and outside the federal courthouse came from states across the country.
They said Xiong, who they referred to as their leader, had been framed by a bitter former business partner involved in his organization, Hmong Tebchaws.
It was through that organization that Xiong solicited donations for his promised Hmong homeland.
Yang Moua drove from Arkansas to show his support for Xiong.
He donated $5,000 for a new Hmong homeland.
"Our people suffer for so many years because we helped the United States to fight communism. Right now, our people are still getting killed in Laos because of that. We need a homeland," Moua said.
He added that he firmly believes Xiong was working with officials to accomplish that goal.
Judge Nelson referred to Xiong's influence over his supporters as "cult-like" during the hearing, saying his followers "blindly" believe him despite all evidence because they are so vulnerable, "they can't afford to lose hope."
In asking for a lesser sentence for his client, Xiong's attorney, James Ostgard, pointed out that much of the money Xiong received from his victims was still in his account.