The Justice Department on Tuesday sued Steve Wynn to compel the hotel and casino magnate and Republican megadonor to register as an agent of China.
Wynn, a former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, is accused of relaying a request from a senior Chinese official asking that the Trump administration remove a Chinese national who had sought asylum in the United States. His activities, prosecutors assert in the lawsuit, included discussing Beijing’s interests directly with Trump during a dinner in June 2017 and providing the Chinese national’s passport photos to the president’s secretary. Wynn, the government argues, was acting at the behest of the Chinese official, Sun Lijun, then-vice minister for public security, as well as of the Chinese government itself.
“In so doing, from at least June 2017 through at least August 2017, the Defendant acted as an agent for foreign principals Sun and the PRC [People’s Republic of China] and engaged in political activities on their behalf in the United States,” the complaint states.
The Chinese exile is not named in the complaint, but prosecutors have previously identified him as Guo Wengui, who had left China in 2014 and was later charged with corruption. Information detailing the exile in the lawsuit also align with descriptions of Guo.
At the time, Wynn had significant business interests involving China, owning and operating casinos in Macao, and acted out of a desire to protect his business interests, the Justice Department alleged.
Wynn attorneys Reid H. Weingarten and Brian M. Heberlig of Washington-based Steptoe & Johnson said: “Steve Wynn has never acted as an agent of the Chinese government and had no obligation to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. We respectfully disagree with the Department of Justice’s legal interpretation of FARA and look forward to proving our case in court.”
Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen, who heads the Justice Department’s national security division, said the suit “demonstrates the department’s commitment to ensuring transparency in our democratic system.”
“Where a foreign government uses an American as its agent to influence policy decisions in the United States, FARA gives the American people a right to know,” he added in a news release.
Wynn was advised three times, beginning in 2018 and finally last month, to register under FARA but declined to do so, according to the complaint.
The magnate stepped down as RNC finance chairman in January 2018 and as CEO of Wynn Resorts the following month in the face of allegations of sexual misconduct, which he has denied. He and his wife have remained prolific political donors, contributing about $2.5 million to Republican candidates and committees in the first three months of this year, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
The Justice Department has said Wynn was approached to work with China by longtime GOP and Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy, who worked under Wynn as deputy RNC finance chairman after Trump’s 2016 election as president. Broidy pleaded guilty in October 2020 to acting as an unregistered foreign agent, admitting to accepting millions of dollars to secretly lobby the Trump administration for Malaysian and Chinese interests. Broidy agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a recommendation of leniency at sentencing, and to forfeit $6.6 million, but was granted a full pardon by Trump the day before he left office in January 2021.
The effort to persuade Trump to accede to Beijing’s requests involved relaying the purported wishes of the most senior members of the Chinese government, according to the suit against Wynn.
On June 27, 2017, Broidy sent a message to Wynn via the latter’s wife saying Chinese President Xi Jinping had mentioned wanting Guo’s return to Trump at a summit meeting that April, a move Sun called “of utmost importance” to Xi, federal prosecutors allege.
In return, Sun promised to return U.S. citizens “held hostage” by China and to accept “a very large number” of illegal Chinese immigrants deported from the United States, and offered new assistance in U.S. dealings with North Korea, Broidy wrote, according to the suit.
At a dinner on or about that night with Trump in Washington, Wynn conveyed China’s desire and gave Guo’s passport photos to the president’s secretary, the suit states. Afterward, Broidy texted via Wynn’s wife that Sun was “extremely pleased and said that President Xi Jinping appreciates [the Defendant’s] assistance,” the suit alleges. Wynn via his wife texted Broidy back that “This is with the highest levels of the state department and defense department. They are working on this.”
Guo, who was seeking asylum in the United States, was once allied with China’s government elite but was later sought by authorities in Beijing on charges of fraud, blackmail and bribery. He has denied those charges and said they are politically motivated. The businessman has been closely aligned with Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former campaign chief and top White House strategist.
In August 2017, Broidy and Wynn called Trump from Wynn’s yacht and asked about the status of Guo, a Chinese exile and vocal online critic of the Chinese government, according to court documents and people with knowledge of Broidy’s case.
“Broidy believed that the Defendant’s [Wynn’s] RNC experience, combined with the Defendant’s business dealings in the PRC and friendship with then-President Trump, would be helpful in getting access to Trump Administration officials,” the Justice Department lawsuit states.
A spokesman for Broidy declined to comment.
The lawsuit alleges that Broidy was working on behalf of Sun, the senior Chinese official, who later spoke by telephone with Wynn and asked for his assistance with seeking Guo’s deportation. Working through Broidy in June 2017, Sun also sought Wynn’s help in getting Guo placed on a U.S. no-fly list and having his new visa application denied, the Justice Department asserted.
Wynn “agreed to raise the matter with then-President Trump and Trump Administration officials,” the suit alleges, even though he had no prior connection “to the PRC national or independent interest in his removal.”
Through August, Wynn attempted to organize meetings with senior officials at the White House and on the National Security Council, and had contact with two former White House chiefs of staff and two senior NSC officials regarding Guo, the suit claims.
Wynn also contacted Trump’s then-chief of staff Reince Priebus on multiple occasions about Guo, asked to meet with the then-president, and told Priebus and two NSC officials that Chinese government officials had contacted him and told him “they were very interested” in Guo’s return, according to the Justice Department.
That August, Wynn had what appeared to be unscheduled meetings with Trump at the White House, including an Aug. 25 meeting where he discussed Guo, according to the suit. Broidy had taken Wynn and his wife on a trip on off the Italian coast that month, and called Trump six days earlier, when “then-President Trump responded that he would look into the matter,” Justice Department attorneys allege.
The investigation of Broidy and later Wynn has its roots in a probe of the multibillion-dollar embezzlement from a Malaysian government development fund that has come to be known by the shorthand “1MDB.”
In previous civil and criminal cases, federal prosecutors have alleged that some of the stolen money made its way into the United States, where it was used among other things to buy pricey real estate and even fund the award-winning movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was accused of being involved in the corruption. He was convicted in July 2020 and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
At the center of the investigation is a Malaysian businessman named Low Taek Jho, who was indicted in 2018 and accused of funneling tens of millions of dollars into the United States in part to get the Malaysian corruption investigation dropped. Low, who is facing multiple federal indictments, is believed to be in China, outside the reach of U.S. authorities. He has denied the allegations and said they are politically motivated.
Separately, Broidy business associate Nickie Mali Lum Davis also pleaded guilty, as has a former Justice Department employee, George Higginbotham. Former Fugees rapper Pras Michel, who is charged in connection with separate dealings with Low, has denied wrongdoing.
The allegations presented against Wynn represent a “textbook FARA violation,” said Joshua Ian Rosenstein of the D.C.-based Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein and Birkenstock firm.
“I’m not surprised that in the face of recalcitrance by the defendant, the Department sought more aggressive action,” he added. “This lawsuit reaffirms what many in the FARA bar have been saying for the last five years, and that is that the Department is no longer going to play a passive role and allow obvious violations to go unaddressed.”
David H. Laufman, a former Justice Department official who oversaw its foreign lobbying registration unit from 2014 to 2018, said the suit “marks a milestone in the department’s gradually increasing enforcement” of the law.
Courts have recognized civil injunctive relief as one of the few enforcement tools available to the department since 1991, one that bridges the gap between sending mild administrative investigative inquiries and criminal prosecution.