The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He was a partner at a major D.C. firm at 33. Now he’s going to prison for 7 years.

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A D.C. patent attorney who worked at some of the country's top law firms ended up laundering more than $2 million for a mysterious fraudster he knew only as "Chief Onwa."

Raymond Ho, a 48-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty after getting caught in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement sting operation in which agents posed as traffickers of people and firearms.

For years before that, he helped Onwa, whose true identity and location in the world remains a mystery to Ho and law enforcement.

Onwa would either hack into a person's email account or make a fake email that resembled the person's real account. Then he would ask his or her accountant, attorney, bank, financial adviser, investment firm or personal assistant to transfer funds to accounts Ho or a co-conspirator controlled. Ho and the other co-conspirators would then wire money to Onwa.

The scheme required careful planning so that wires could be sent before financial institutions caught on. About $1 million was recovered, but more than $2 million was lost, including $727,000 from one victim in Maryland.

During a Friday hearing in federal court in Alexandria, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema sentenced him to seven years in prison, saying "somebody with your level of education and understanding of the law" needed to serve a serious sentence.

In court, Ho, a native of Taiwan, called himself the "saddest man in the world" and said "nothing excuses my ignorance and stupidity."

"My parents brought me to this great country in 1981 wanting me to grow into a sophisticated and cultured individual," Ho wrote in a letter to the judge. "I failed them."

Ho's family came to the United States when he was 11 years old, settling in Georgia. He got an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and two law degrees; he worked for the major law firms Venable and Arent Fox, where he became a partner at 33. He became a U.S. citizen.

But Ho had trouble sticking with jobs at those firms, his lawyers said in court filings. In court, he said he wanted to spend more time with his children. So he moved to a smaller firm, but he said he was jealous of his "captain of industry" friends in Taiwan who seemed to work less and make more.

So he turned to various entrepreneurial ventures: raising eels for export to Asia, tuna fishing, brokering the sale of distressed banks, selling train rails for scrap metal, recycling copper. He became a middleman in the Chinese business community, facilitating online financial transactions.

"I wanted so much to excel in business," Ho said in court. He became part of an online community of "wheeler dealers," he said.

Online, he met someone called Chief Onwa, who asked Ho for help cashing two $30,000 checks. After Ho wired the money to Onwa, his bank told him the checks were fraudulent and tried, unsuccessfully, to recoup the funds, according to court documents. Ho's account was frozen.

Ho no longer cashed checks for Onwa, he said in court filings, but he kept laundering money for him. He made a commission on each transaction, ultimately netting $218,980.

"He seemingly decided that as an attorney, he was above the law," prosecutor Alexander Berrang said in court.

Ho also recruited two other people into the scheme, according to prosecutors, including another intellectual property attorney. Neither is yet publicly charged with a crime.

Co-conspirators were all across the world, including Canada, Britain, China and parts of South America, according to officials from ICE's Homeland Security Investigations arm. But the wire transfers were often routed through Russia and China to make detection difficult.

The FBI first questioned Ho in 2014 and 2015 as part of a separate investigation. He claimed he was himself a victim of a fraud scheme.

Then, in late 2015, an undercover Homeland Security Investigations agent was introduced to Ho through another scammer who said he had learned everything he knew from the patent attorney. Ho and the agent, posing as a trafficker, met in a Northern Virginia parking lot that December.

The sting operation started relatively small, with the agent asking for help moving $12,000 out of the United States. The money, he said, came from smuggling people into the country illegally.

Ho agreed, and about a month later he did a similar transfer for $50,000 he thought came from smuggling firearms to Kenya. Next was $65,000 from AK-47s Ho was told would be illegally sent to Congo. He flew to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on a private plane with one undercover agent and met another to pick up the cash, according to court documents.

Finally, he moved $25,000 for what he thought was another group of people smuggled into the United States in June 2016.

He had been videotaped talking freely about his involvement in illegal activity.

Ho offered ideas and advice about other illegal activity, including diamond and fake art smuggling, according to HSI officials. The sting operation was drawn out, the officials said, in part so they could learn as much as possible from Ho.

For each deal, HSI paid Ho the same 5 percent commission he had gotten from Onwa. Altogether, HSI paid Ho $7,600 to move $177,000 in illicit funds.

Ho wasn't charged until September 2017, as agents worked to piece together the laundering he helped facilitate. He pleaded guilty in October.

Ho spoke to Onwa by telephone, email and Skype audio, but they never met. His lawyers say in a court filing that Onwa may be in Africa, and that law enforcement has not been able to find the "nameless and faceless swindler."

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