Wealthy Chinese exile Guo Wengui, tied to misinformation campaigns, sued by investors in media company

Key Points
  • Wealthy Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, an outspoken critic of China's government, and several others are accused of breaking state securities laws in a class-action lawsuit filed in Arizona.
  • The plaintiffs claim to have tried to invest in GTV Media, a media company linked to Guo, only to never see any proof that their money actually went toward the business.
  • The attorneys listed as representing Guo and the other defendants said they were prepared for a court battle.
Fugitive Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui hold a news conference on November 20, 2018 in New York, on the death of of tycoon Wang Jian in France on July 3, 2018.
Don Emmert | AFP | Getty Images

Wealthy Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, an outspoken critic of China's government, and several others are accused of breaking state securities laws in a class-action lawsuit filed in Arizona.

The civil complaint was filed in late June in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. The plaintiffs claim to have tried to invest in GTV Media, a private media company linked to Guo, only to never see any proof that their money actually went toward the business.

Attorneys for Guo and other defendants called the allegations "unfounded" in an email to CNBC on Monday.

GTV's website shows Guo as one of their main attractions, and research done by Graphika notes that the company is part of the businessman's larger media empire.

"Each of these investors have not received a single cent back in return for the investment of their hard-earned money, even upon request for redemption, indicating the investments were anything but real, let alone risk-free or lucrative," the filing says. "Nor have the investors received anything resembling proof of their investment or ownership interest. Instead, they are left with worthless paper or none at all."

The legal fight also could provide a glimpse into the way funds were raised for GTV.

The Wall Street Journal reported last year that the fundraising efforts were being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The investigators were reportedly investigating GTV Media for possibly violating securities laws.

GTV Media said in a statement to the Journal at the time that it moved ahead with the private placement under the advisement of its attorneys and "all of the raised funds are intact." The company also said it was ready to comply with federal authorities.

Another Journal report said Guo himself was being investigated by the FBI. A lawyer for Guo told the newspaper at the time that Guo had not been contacted by the FBI.

The FBI and SEC did not respond to requests for comment before publication. Federal investigators haven't publicly announced any charges.

Guo has been a vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party and has used his live digital shows on GTV to blast the heads of the Chinese regime. Guo fled China in 2014 in anticipation of corruption charges. After he criticized China's leaders, warrants were reportedly issued for his arrest on charges that included corruption and bribery. Guo has denied the charges.

Former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has been close to Guo for years. Bannon was involved with the media group, the Journal has reported. The newspaper also previously reported on financiers of the same media organization who also allege they were defrauded. Bannon is not listed as a defendant on the Arizona-based class-action suit. A spokesperson for Bannon did not respond to requests for comment.

The Graphika report claims that the businesses and foundations tied to Guo comprise a network that "acts as a prolific producer and amplifier of mis- and disinformation, including claims of voter fraud in the U.S., false information about Covid-19, and QAnon narratives." A representative for Guo has previously denied that the Chinese businessman controls content on GTV.

The plaintiffs are seeking to recover damages. The suit alleges Guo and other defendants violated multiple state laws including the sale of unregistered securities and the fraudulent sale of securities.

It is unclear how much these investors aim to recover in damages. The complaint alleges that a colleague of Guo's and an arm of the media company eventually raised at least $117 million from mainly inexperienced investors.

The attorneys for plaintiffs listed in the complaint told CNBC they have no interest in turning the case into a media event.

"We do not intend to litigate this case in the press. We do intend to pursue this action vigorously in the courts to vindicate the rights of the plaintiffs and the other defrauded investors," Benjamin Y. Kaufman of the law firm Wolf Haldenstein said in an emailed statement Monday.

The attorneys listed as representing Guo and other defendants said they were prepared for a court battle.

"With respect to the Arizona lawsuit, our comment is simply that we will respond and vigorously defend our client in court against all of the unfounded allegations," Jeffrey S. Gavenman of the law firm Schulman Bhattacharya told CNBC in an email.

A judge ruled this month that Guo and the other defendants have until September to speak with their accusers to "provide notice regarding any intent to move to dismiss the Complaint and, if so, the grounds upon which they intend to move."

The case might not end up a big problem for Guo, unless something comes out during the discovery process, according to a lawyer who has been involved in cases against the Justice Department and the SEC.

"I am sure Mr. Guo, wherever he is, on whatever yacht or whatever palace or palatial apartment, I don't think this caused him to get less than eight hours of sleep. This is to him, I'm sure, the cost of doing business," Randy Zelin told CNBC.

According to the lawsuit, there were apparently two forms of investments Guo offered through his public broadcasts last year to people interested in funding GTV Media.

The lawsuit cites public comments made by Guo in which he claims those who meet the minimum $100,000 direct investment could go through "private placements," although the lawsuit says that was "put in place to give supposed imprimatur of a legitimate and above-board operation and provide a veneer of only being available to accredited investors."

Guo directed investors who could not meet the $100,000 threshold to go through Sara Wei, the lawsuit says. According to Wei's LinkedIn page, she at least once had a leadership role at another Guo-linked media group, Voice of Guo Media. Wei's lawyer is not listed on the complaint, and a representative for her could not be reached.

"Investors were told Ms. Wei was to pool the smaller sums of money and invest them in GTV through another entity, defendant Voice of Guo Media, Inc. ('VOG'), on their behalf. Each of the Plaintiffs and the Class were such investors that invested in GTV securities through Ms. Wei and/or VOG," the lawsuit says.

A representative for GTV told the Journal last year that it didn't accept any money from Voice of Guo Media as part of the fundraising.

However, the plaintiffs allege that "having taken the investors' money, Ms. Wei and VOG neither purchased shares of GTV nor returned the money to investors. They either kept the investors' money for themselves or their affiliates; gave it to Guo, GTV, or some an entity associated with Guo without obtaining shares in GTV; or did some combination of both."

The plaintiffs said they and other interested investors were told by Wei that they need to show proof they are donors to either the Rule of Law Society or the Rule of Law Foundation, two nonprofits with ties to Guo, in order to "qualify to invest." CNBC reported on departures from the two foundations' boards, including Bannon. Representatives for the foundations did not respond to requests for comment.

"Ms. Wei told investors, in Chinese, that 'the first thing I need from you is your proof of donation to Rule of Law Foundation,'" the lawsuit says, noting that it was an unofficial translation. Wei continued, according to the suit: "Then, you need to tell me if you have more or less than $100,000. You must let me know. If it's more than $100,000 I will contact the headquarter, if it's less than $100,000, us VOG will collectively do it for you."

Investors eventually became concerned with their initial investments in GTV. They inquired, but "no concrete information was forthcoming from Defendants," the suit says.

Wei initially told investors last year, according to the complaint, that "the delay in confirming receipt of the investors' transfers and in countersigning the Limited Purpose Agency Agreement was caused by Wells Fargo and Chase putting a portion of the funds on hold."

The plaintiffs also claim that it was still unclear what happened to their investments even as federal authorities began investigating and as Wei allegedly said she was able to get the funds released from the banks.

After the federal investigation into GTV's fundraising practices became public, investors who sent their money through the Voice of Guo began to request refunds from Wei and Guo himself, according to the legal complaint.

"Between August 2020 and the end of that year, Ms. Wei continued to ask VOG investors to wait patiently while she and her associates reached out to allegedly over 8,000 VOG investors to confirm receipt of their transfers before she could issue any refunds. Periodically, investors were asked to fill out Google forms designed to gather identifying information of the transfers they made," the lawsuit says.

Guo and Wei also had a fallout, which complicated things further, the suit says.

"Based on information and belief, around the end of 2020, Mr. Guo and Ms. Wei reportedly had a fallout, which led to a halt in VOG and Ms. Wei's supposed refund process," the lawsuit says. "Each holding a portion of the $117 million, Mr. Guo and Ms. Wei each began blaming the other for defrauding the investors who sent money to Ms. Wei and/or VOG."

The suit adds: "In 2021, Ms. Wei and Guo began to tell investors that they could no longer refund investments because of the ongoing SEC investigation."