Chinese court sentences fugitive tycoon's staff to prison

A court in northern China on Friday sentenced three employees working for fugitive real estate billionaire Guo Wengui, who has been locked in a high-stakes political feud with the ruling Communist Party.

The Dalian Xigang People's Court announced prison terms of less than three years for the employees who prosecutors said were ordered by Guo to falsify financial documents to obtain loans from a state bank. Two of the employees received suspended sentences, meaning they may not serve additional time behind bars, while Guo's development firm Beijing Pangu Investment Co. was also fined $36 million.

The case did not name Guo as a defendant but Chinese authorities have been ramping up pressure against the fugitive tycoon, who has vowed to expose sensitive information concerning top party officials unless the government frees his employees and family members held in China.

The Dalian case amounted to the first criminal proceedings against Guo's businesses since China filed a request in April with Interpol for a global "red notice" seeking his arrest. Chinese authorities have accused Guo indirectly of a litany of alleged crimes, including conspiring with a top intelligence official to blackmail a Beijing city official who had blocked a Pangu development project.

Guo, who also goes by the name Miles Kwok, fled China and now lives in a $68 million apartment overlooking New York's Central Park. He's also a member of President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

He has cultivated a vast social media following and has levelled sensational, although largely unverified, accusations against his enemies, ranging from top officials heading the party's anti-corruption watchdog agency to journalists who have investigated him to overseas Chinese who he says are part of a Chinese spy network.

At the heart of Guo's allegations have been claims of improper conduct and ties between the family of Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan and HNA Group, the conglomerate behind Hainan Airlines that has closed a series of eye-catching acquisitions around the world. HNA announced late Thursday that it has filed a defamation lawsuit against Guo.

In recent weeks, Guo has publicly hinted that he is in communication with top party officials and revealed that his family members were allowed to leave China to visit him briefly in New York, signaling that negotiations could be underway to end the impasse. In the meantime, he has hired star lawyer David Boies to represent him.

It's unclear whether Guo would continue his daily stream of disclosures on YouTube and Twitter following the resolution of the Dalian court case. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the sentences, or under what conditions he would consider his feud with the party settled. Guo told the AP recently that his primary objective was to secure the release of his family and employees and to unfreeze his assets in China — not to wage a campaign to undermine the Communist Party.

In a report about the Dalian case, the official Xinhua News Agency said that investigators suspect other Guo-related businesses of bribery, embezzlement, illegal detention and forced transactions, suggesting that the government held additional evidence and could yet bring other cases against Guo's companies.

The verdict in Dalian came shortly before Guo was scheduled to conduct a streaming online interview with a New York-based Chinese-language media company, which he had earlier promised would contain new explosive revelations.