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An Epoch Times executive is facing money laundering charges

BERLIN GERMANY - OCTOBER 23: A reporter for The Epoch Times holds a microphone during a media event on October 23, 2023 in Berlin, Germany. The Epoch Times is owned by Epoch Media Group and is affiliated with the Falun Gong movement. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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BERLIN GERMANY - OCTOBER 23: A reporter for The Epoch Times holds a microphone during a media event on October 23, 2023 in Berlin, Germany. The Epoch Times is owned by Epoch Media Group and is affiliated with the Falun Gong movement. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

A once-small newspaper founded by Chinese dissidents that became a prominent right-wing media outlet that trafficked in conspiracy theories in recent years is now facing accusations that one of its top officers was engaged in a criminal money laundering scheme.

The chief financial officer for the Epoch Times was charged Monday with laundering at least $67 million in illegally obtained funds. After the alleged scheme began in 2020, The Epoch Times’ revenue jumped from almost $15.5 million the year before to over $70 million, according to federal tax filings.

Federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York allege Weidong Guan, also known as Bill Guan, 61, led an initiative that used a cryptocurrency platform to buy prepaid debit cards at a discount that had been loaded up with illicit funds, including from fraudulently obtained unemployment insurance benefits.

Participants in the scheme allegedly used stolen identities to open additional financial accounts which they then used to transfer the funds to bank accounts associated with the media company, and were sometimes laundered through Guan’s personal accounts and other company accounts, according to prosecutors.

Guan “conspired with others to benefit himself, the media company, and its affiliates by laundering tens of millions of dollars in fraudulently obtained unemployment insurance benefits and other crime proceeds,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams in a media release.

“When banks raised questions about the funds, Guan allegedly lied repeatedly and falsely claimed that the funds came from legitimate donations to the media company,” Williams said.

Guan pleaded not guilty and was in custody on Monday night facing a $3 million bail package, according to The New York Times.

In a statement to NPR, an Epoch Times spokesperson said the newspaper “has a guiding principle that elevates integrity in its dealings above everything else” and intends to fully cooperate with the investigation against Guan.

“In the interim, although Mr. Guan is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the company has suspended him until this matter is resolved," the statement reads.

The Epoch Times has ties to Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual movement, and was founded in 2000 to counter Chinese Communist Party propaganda. The media company now operates in 35 countries and in 22 languages, according to its website.

A New York Times investigation of the newspaper in 2020 found that it had become a powerful force in right-wing media by embracing former President Donald Trump and flooding Facebook with clickbait and conspiracy theories.

NBC News found that Epoch Times launched an aggressive pro-Trump advertising campaign ahead of the 2020 election and created fake accounts to spread its content. It was later banned from advertising on Facebook for violating the company’s transparency rules for ad buys.

The newspaper has peddled false narratives such as that there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election, that the COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous and that there is a conspiracy afoot to make people eat insects.

A.J. Bauer, a journalism professor at the University of Alabama who studies conservative media, said he was not surprised by the announcement of the money laundering charges.

He noted the newspaper's “rapid and massive financial growth” did not seem to correspond with a comparable increase in circulation or influence within the right-wing media sphere.

“Something always felt off to me about it, and it seems like government investigators felt that too,” Bauer said.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jude Joffe-Block
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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