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Behind Kushner Companies, a Chinese agency skirts visa-for-investment rules
May 12, 2017 / 4:54 PM / 5 months ago

Behind Kushner Companies, a Chinese agency skirts visa-for-investment rules

A man stands next to a poster of immigration agency Qiaowai Group at the lobby to its office, in Beijing, China May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - While Jared Kushner’s family company apologized this week for mentioning the White House adviser’s name when wooing Chinese investors to fund a New Jersey real estate project, one Chinese immigration agency was touting its role in the deal.

For Beijing-based Qiaowai, which organized the roadshow for Kushner Companies’ One Journal Square project, the pitch was a chance to highlight its U.S. political connections. Shortly into the roadshow, the company posted photos on social media saying the events had prompted a “buying rush”.

Migration agencies like Qiaowai have built lucrative businesses helping U.S. developers raise money through the controversial EB-5 program, which grants foreigners - mostly Chinese - a U.S. green card in exchange for investing $500,000 or more in a qualified project.

Under the rules of the program, promoters should never promise green cards to investors or guarantee that their investments will pay off. However, an examination by Reuters of some of Qiaowai’s online marketing materials show the firm has skirted those rules.

Qiaowai declined to answer written questions or comment for this article.

Jupiter, Florida-based U.S. Immigration Fund (USIF), which is working with Kushner Companies and private equity fund KABR Group on One Journal Square, said it believes both the firm and Qiaowai fully complied with all laws.

The EB-5 program has come under fire from politicians who point to repeated fraud and abuse, and to the fact that a scheme originally intended to bring jobs to high-unemployment areas often has been used to fund projects in wealthy neighborhoods.

In addition, agents can make more than $100,000 per EB-5 client, lawyers and advisors involved in the program say, but investors typically aren’t told how much money the agent is earning on a transaction.

Despite these concerns, Congress last week extended the EB-5 program until September 30.

Kushner Companies apologized for Nicole Kushner Meyer’s reference to her brother, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, when pitching One Journal Square last weekend. It stressed that Jared Kushner was only mentioned in order to make clear to potential investors that he was not involved with the project. A company spokesman said on Thursday that Kushner Companies will skip road show events in China this weekend.

In a sector where investors are wary of failing projects and policy changes that would jeopardize their visas, Qiaowai and other Chinese migration agencies emphasize their contacts with U.S. politicians in order to reassure potential investors their EB-5 projects will be successful, industry executives say.

In a promotional text message seen by Reuters, Qiaowai made note of Meyer’s relationship to Trump and called her the event’s “heavyweight honored guest”. 

In January, Qiaowai noted on its website that its founder and president, Ding Ying, had attended President Trump’s inauguration, meeting with the President and members of his family and cabinet.

“The fact that Ms Ding has once again been invited to attend a presidential inauguration shows that the U.S. Congress values and approves of the Qiaowai group,” it wrote.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether Trump had met with Ding Ying. A spokesman for Vice President Mike Pence said his office has no recollection or record of any meeting taking place.

Checks of donors to Trump’s inaugural committee and a review of all contributions to presidential candidates in 2016 found no donations from Ding, Qiaowai or a U.S. registered subsidiary.

A sign of Qiaowai Group (bottom) is pictured at the lobby to its office in Beijing, China May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee

BIG PLAYER

One of the largest companies in the sector, Qiaowai was founded in 1999 by Ding and now advises Chinese on emigration to 15 countries, including Canada, the UK and Germany, according to its website. Chinese account for around 80 percent of the nearly 10,000 EB-5 visas issued annually.

Qiaowai has been an active marketer of EB-5 projects, raising funds for developers HFZ Capital Group and the Witkoff Group, among others, according to its website. Witkoff declined to comment, while HFZ did not respond to requests for comment.

Qiaowai says it helped the Kushner Companies raise funds for Trump Bay Street, an apartment complex in Jersey City, New Jersey, that The Trump Organization licensed its name to.

For the One Journal Square project, developers are seeking to raise $150 million, or 15.4 percent of the funding, from investors through the EB-5 program.

Because the SEC considers some EB-5 offerings securities, companies and individuals selling those investments must comply with U.S. securities laws. This includes not defrauding investors, making false claims or failing to mention relevant information. There are, however, limits on the SEC’s ability to bring fraud claims where the funds solicited and the investors are based overseas, one securities lawyer said.

Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor to the President, arrives prior to U.S. President Donald Trump holding a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

EB-5 schemes must also comply with immigration rules. Under United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) guidelines for the EB-5 program, investors must put their capital at risk and the green card is not guaranteed.

Qiaowai’s promotional materials online and on social media, however, sometimes refer to a green card guarantee or “safeguard”, and the safety of capital invested in EB-5 projects. Reuters found six instances where Qiaowai offered such assurances in its online promotion of the One Journal Square project, and several other instances in promotion of previous projects.

In one advertisement for the One Journal Square event in Shanghai posted on Chinese social media platform WeChat on May 5, Qiaowai wrote that the project “in a real sense guarantees a permanent green card and the safety of the investment principal, and we consider it one of the best of Qiaowai’s 87 projects to date!” After Reuters asked Qiaowai for comment, the post was deleted.

In an April 27 post on its website, Qiaowai noted the project “fully safeguards investors’ green cards and funds”. This phrase - and similar phrases on other parts of Qiaowai’s website that mentioned the One Journal Square project - were deleted after Reuters questioned Qiaowai about them.

Several experts interviewed by Reuters said the promises by Qiaowai were a breach of the program’s rules while others played down the concerns, saying such representations were commonplace and just one aspect of a problematic program.

The SEC declined to respond to written questions for this story and a spokeswoman declined to comment.

USCIS said it could not comment on specific cases but said it welcomed the submission of any questionable advertising or informant tips regarding the EB-5 program.

“The investment remaining at risk throughout conditional residency is a fundamental program requirement, and the petitions of those investors who cannot provide evidence that they met this requirement will be denied.”

USIF said the firm was “committed to strict adherence to securities and all applicable laws,” and it required Qiaowai to certify in writing its compliance with these laws as well.

USIF did not make assurances about green cards or the safety of funds, the company said in an emailed response to questions.

The fees and terms of Qiaowai’s arrangements with Kushner, KABR and USIF have not been disclosed.

Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom and Sarah Lynch, Andy Sullivan, Kevin Krolicki and Ginger Gibson in Washington; Editing by Lincoln Feast

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