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SEC raids Illinois-based cash-for-visa program

By   /   April 3, 2013  /   1 Comment

DOWNSIZED: GreenTech Automotive and Gulf Coast Funds Management moved out of their spacious headquarters office without a trace.

GONE AND DOWNSIZED: Though it’s still listed as their corporate address, GreenTech Automotive and Gulf Coast Funds Management moved out of their spacious headquarters office next to the Ritz Carlton in McLean. (Photo: Pamela Mullin)

CLARIFICATION:  Attorneys for GreenTech have contacted us and asked for a retraction of our April 1 and April 3 articles.  In particular, they object to the use of the term “fraud” in our reporting.  Lest there be any confusion about the point of our articles, we have updated them.  To be clear, our articles were not intended to (and did not) accuse GreenTech of committing fraud.  Instead, the articles pointed out that the federal EB-5 visa program – which trades U.S. green cards for business investments and which GreenTech has used as a source of capital – has lax oversight, is prone to abuse and fraud, and cannot possibly deliver on its promises to taxpayers and investors.  Our articles also quoted sources who criticized GreenTech’s reliance on the EB-5 program – the same criticism that Virginia officials leveled against the company in 2009.  We stand by our reporting about the EB-5 program and will continue to investigate this important story. — Editors

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org

MCLEAN, Va. — A federal program that awards U.S. green cards to foreigners in exchange for business investments is under increasing scrutiny as the assets of a Chicago company were frozen by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

A Watchdog investigation found that Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe and a brother of Hillary Clinton used a similar “EB-5” operation to raise cash from foreigners in order to launch a new automobile manufacturing company.

While McAuliffe and Anthony Rodham dodged questions about their business, SEC officials last month shut down a Chicago financier on charges of defrauding more than 250 foreign investors.

The federal agents said Anshoo Sethi created A Chicago Convention Center (ACCC) and Intercontinental Regional Center Trust of Chicago, and fraudulently sold more than $145 million in securities and collected $11 million in administrative fees from investors, primarily from China.

According to the SEC, Sethi and his companies duped investors into believing that by purchasing interests in ACCC, they would be financing construction of the “World’s First Zero Carbon Emission Platinum LEED certified” hotel and conference center near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

Investors were misled by Sethi’s regional center to believe their investments were purchasing U.S. citizenship through the EB-5 immigrant investor program, the SEC said.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service has approved 226 regional centers to serve as conduits for EB-5 investments. USCIS says that since the program’s inception in 1990, the centers have attracted $6.8 billion in foreign funds to create 49,000 U.S. jobs.

But as Watchdog.org reported this week, EB-5 investments don’t necessarily produce employment or success.

TEAM PLAYERS: Gulf Coast Funds Management CEO Anthony Rodham, GreenTech Automotive founder Terry McAuliffe and GCFM board member and Norfolk businessman Randy Wright. (Photo: Randy Wright & Associates)

Officials in Mississippi say up to $20 million reputedly raised through the Rodham-led Gulf Coast Funds Management have yet to be delivered to GreenTech Automotive, an electric-car company founded by McAuliffe.

Rodham, one of Hillary Clinton’s brothers, is president and CEO of Gulf Coast. A group of political associates of Bill Clinton, including his former IRS commissioner, serve on its board of directors.

McAuliffe is a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and was a chief fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid.

A second regional center — Virginia Center for Foreign Investment and Job Creation — lists Rodham as its registered agent. Both EB-5 centers, and GreenTech, share the same address in McAuliffe’s adopted hometown of McLean, Va.

No officials at Gulf Coast, VCFIJC or GreenTech responded to Watchdog’s multiple requests for interviews over the past two weeks.

GreenTech, which in 2010 announced plans to build an assembly plant in Tunica County, Miss., has not specified how many vehicles it has actually built or sold. The firm has issued just one press release this year, announcing a European distributor to handle a projected volume of 12,000 cars.

A Watchdog reporter on Tuesday went to the Tysons Boulevard address listed by GreenTech and Rodham’s two regional centers as their headquarters. The doors were locked, the nameplate was stripped off, and the office was dark and empty. A phone call elicited another address at a nearby, less-prestigious building.

POTTED PLANT: GreenTech and its EB-5 partner, Gulf Coast Funds Management, relocated to cozier quarters this year.

POTTED PLANT: GreenTech and its EB-5 partner, Gulf Coast Funds Management, relocated to cozier, less-prestigious quarters. (Photo: Pamela Mullin)

Tucked anonymously into a hallway corner like a broom closet, the new office is much smaller. The interior walls are adorned with a couple of pictures of McAuliffe’s “MyCar” and display the names: “GreenTech Automotive” and “Gulf Coast Funds Management.”

The office was occupied by a lone receptionist who curtly and repeatedly declared that “no one” was available to be interviewed.

“This is a private company. I know nothing,” said the woman who declined to give her name.

Because the companies are private, the Virginia Department of Taxation said their financial records are exempt from Freedom of Information Act disclosure.

But the Fairfax County Department of Tax Administration said neither regional center had yet paid its business license fees for 2013. GCFM was delinquent on its 2012 license, as well.

County tax director Kevin Greenlief said his staff was looking into the situation.

Michael Gibson, managing partner with U.S. Advisors, which administers EB-5 investment ventures across the country, said the use of EB-5 cash is problematic.

More broadly, Eric Ruark, director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told Watchdog: “The main problem with the EB-5 program is the almost total lack of oversight by USCIS.”

“The regional centers, which are set up to ‘facilitate’ the investment of EB-5 monies in domestic companies, are largely unregulated and there is little transparency about where the money has gone or how many jobs have been created.“  (See report here.)

The Chicago scheme was all show, and very little go.

The SEC alleged that Sethi, 29, and his companies falsely boasted that all necessary building permits had been acquired and that several major hotel chains had signed on.

Investigators found that Sethi and his associates had spent more than 90 percent of the administrative fees collected from investors, despite promises to return the money if visa applications were denied.

More than $2.5 million of the funds were directed to Sethi’s personal bank account in Hong Kong, the SEC said.

According to USCIS, only four EB-5 regional centers have been shut down by the feds in the 23-year history of the program.

USCIS CHIEF: Alejandro Mayorkas gets mixed reviews on EB-5 enforcement.

USCIS CHIEF: Alejandro Mayorkas gets mixed reviews on EB-5 enforcement.

Amid rising criticism, USCIS denied more regional center applications in the past year. Some credit agency director Alejandro Mayorkas with tightening accountability over EB-5 and its regional fund collectors.

A government report shows that in fiscal 2012, USCIS approved 35 regional-center applications while rejecting 63. That reversed historic patterns. In 2011, 123 were approved and 58 were denied.

Yet critics have questioned EB-5’s job-creation claims, which are calculated through a complex formula that includes “indirect” employment. David North of the enforcement-oriented Center for Immigration Studies says the formula was “invented” to meet the statutory requirement of creating 10 new jobs per $500,000 investment.

GreenTech, in its agreement with Mississippi, pledged to hire 350 full-time workers by the end of 2014. Neither the company, nor the two regional centers, have said how many employees are currently at the car company.

In 2005, the Government Accountability Office reported it could not determine how many jobs immigrant investors had established “because of the way USCIS credits the number of jobs created by an investor’s business.”

“If there are non-EB-5 investors involved or the investment is part of a greater overall business expansion, USCIS credits the single EB-5 investor with the total of all jobs created even though many of the jobs are not the result of his portion of the investment,” the GAO report stated.

“In one such example, USCIS credited a single immigrant investor with creating 1,143 jobs based on a $1.5 million investment.”

Four years later, USCIS’ own ombudsman noted that long-standing concerns over “abuse, misrepresentation and fraud” led to prosecutions of “immigration fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy” against the principals and officers of one EB-5 investment business.

FAIR’s Ruark says that’s just the tip of a growing iceberg.

“The reaction by USCIS has been to more heavily promote the program, while ignoring the obvious fraud and abuse,” he told Watchdog this week.

USCIS does not provide a center-by-center breakdown of jobs created, or the financial status of the 226 centers listed on its website. A disclaimer states that a regional center’s appearance on the roster “does not guarantee compliance with U.S. securities laws, or minimize or eliminate risk to the investor.”

Rodham’s Gulf Coast Funds Management, licensed by USCIS to serve “targeted zones” in Louisiana and Mississippi, boasts of covering “the largest geographical area for a regional center in the United States.” Its website touts McAuliffe’s GreenTech vehicle.

However, Gulf Coast, along with Rodham’s Virginia Center for Foreign Investment and Job Creation, is headquartered in Northern Virginia.

VCFIJC, which was licensed last November, claims $100,000 in annual revenues, but the center has no website.

Immigration Daily, a newsletter that tracks EB-5 and other entry programs, reported last month that USCIS may be “getting ready to issue Notices of Intent to Revoke to some regional centers within the coming few months.”

“Such NOIRs will likely be not just for inactivity, but will possibly include issues connected to securities compliance,” the newsletter stated.

USCIS press secretary Christopher Bentley said the agency would not comment on “speculation.” But he provided data showing that EB-5 immigrants who fail to meet financial thresholds are dropped from the program.

Since the EB-5 program began, 4,895 immigrant investors received green cards while 1,271 did not.

And what happened to those 1,271?

“It is our expectation that they will leave (the country),” Bentley said, deferring further questions to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division.

ICE did not respond to Watchdog’s inquiries.

Ruark said, “Foreigners can and do invest in the United States without the expectation of gaining permanent residency. In fact, the EB-5 has such a poor record of return on investment that it is probably the least best option for someone who is an informed foreign investor.

“The high incidence of fraud and failed projects makes it likely that many foreign nationals have been bilked through participation in the EB-5 program. This is something our own government recognizes, yet fails to correct.“

Contact Kenric Ward at kenric@watchdogvirginia.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward

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Kenric Ward is a veteran journalist who has worked on three Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers. A California native, he received a BA from UCLA (Political Science/Phi Beta Kappa) and holds an MBA. He reported and edited at the San Jose Mercury News and the Las Vegas Sun before joining Watchdog.org in 2012 as Virginia Bureau Chief.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5RQI7XTNJAAU4HHZ6KSDJ5ZBZI Michael

    I can smell the stench from here…..

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