An undercover FBI investigation that imperiled a politician's bid to become New York City's first Asian-American mayor resulted Thursday in convictions of a former campaign worker and a fundraiser in a case that may have raised more questions than it answered.
The candidate, City Comptroller John Liu, was never charged, and he has vehemently denied he was in on an alleged conspiracy to get around donation limits. But his name came up repeatedly ever since the trial in federal court in Manhattan began in mid-April.
Jurors saw a video of a campaign event where an undercover FBI agent, posing as a wealthy Texas businessman named Richard Kong, offered his support to Liu and talked up plans to start a restaurant chain in the city. At the time, Liu called it "a great idea," adding that he was "looking forward to making sure that happens."
The same agent testified that the undercover operation was terminated even though he believed it "could have gone further. ... Everything points to the next level."
In a statement, Liu said he was "deeply saddened" by the verdict in the case against ex-campaign treasurer Jia "Jenny" Hou and former fundraiser Xing "Oliver" Wu Pan but would not let it deter him from seeking higher office.
"I continue to believe in Jenny being a good person and exceptional individual," he said. "I look forward to this year's mayoral election and will continue to ask the voters for their support."
Hou, 26, of Queens, was acquitted of conspiracy, the top charge in the indictment, but she was convicted of attempted wire fraud, obstructing justice and making false statements. Pan, 47, of Mendham, N.J., was convicted of conspiracy and attempted wire fraud.
Neither showed a visible response when the verdict was read nor commented as they left court.
Prosecutors alleged that the pair plotted to circumvent a $4,950 contribution limit by using straw donors, people recruited to funnel other people's money, so they could boost Liu's campaign coffers.
In a sting, the federal agent posing as Kong contacted Pan, saying he wanted to make a $16,000 donation. Hou and Pan were accused of arranging for 20 people to make donations of $800 each at what Pan called "Richard's event" — contributions that would have fraudulently qualified Liu for matching funds.
In closing arguments, prosecutor Justin Anderson argued that it should have been clear to everyone, including Liu, that Kong's goal was to gain influence for his business venture.
"The point of doing it is to make sure the candidate knows where the money is really coming from," Anderson said.
Defense lawyers countered that Hou and Pan were victims of what one called "collateral damage in the government's obsessive, obsessive pursuit of making a criminal case against John Liu."
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement Thursday that prosecutors had proven that the defendants "stuck a knife into the heart of New York City's campaign finance law by violating the prohibition against illegal campaign contributions."
Defense lawyers, however, insisted their clients were innocent.
"Our client is not guilty of any crime," Hou attorney Gerald Lefcourt said outside court.
He added that that the mixed verdict for Hou was "confusing to say the least."
Pan attorney Irwin Rochman said the verdict will be appealed.
"We're totally disappointed," he said.
Associated Press Writer Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.