When she got busted after picking up $24 million in parking lots from strangers in Chicago and New York over more than a year, a Chinese immigrant involved in a money-laundering scheme told federal investigators she never suspected she was helping launder drug proceeds.
According to federal prosecutors in Chicago, though, Sui Yuet Kong was part of a “relatively small network of Chinese expatriate money brokers and couriers based in Mexico and the United States [who] have come to dominate international money-laundering markets” and launder drug money.
On Friday, a federal judge in Chicago sentenced Kong to a relatively light 40 months in prison for her role in one of those operations.
She caught a break — her sentence was less than half of the possible maximum — because she cooperated with the federal investigation. Her lawyer had asked the judge for an even lighter sentence — just a year and a day in prison.
Kong — who isn’t fluent in English and needed an interpreter in court — admitted she worked as a courier picking up what authorities said were Mexican drug proceeds between 2016 and 2017. Her average pickup: $500,000.
She delivered the money to people who transferred it to China in complex “mirror” transactions. The money was then sent the same way from China to Mexico, where the drug cartels got it.
Kong, who lives in New York, got at least $150,000 for her part in the scheme, prosecutors said.
According to her lawyer, Kong grew up poor in China and was the only child in her family to graduate from high school. She moved to the United States in 2004 and is a legal permanent U.S. resident, according to the lawyer, Nathaniel Hsieh, who said Kong’s husband is a handyman, her daughter is a nutritionist, and her son is a chef.
Kong underwent heart surgery in late 2020 and tested positive for COVID-19, Hsieh said.
Even though she helped federal investigators — at one point secretly recording a call to one of her bosses in the laundering ring — Kong said she didn’t know she was dealing with drug money.
But prosecutors said reasonable people would have known they were handling drug money. They said Kong “stuck her head in the sand” because it was so profitable.
Federal agents seized more than $1.1 million in cash tied to Kong in Chicago and New York in 2017, according to court records.
In her deal with prosecutors, Kong agreed to forfeit that money and also to turn over to the government the $150,000 she was paid.
The $24 million that Kong was accused of helping to launder represents a sum equivalent to the sale of 750 kilograms of cocaine and 480 kilograms of heroin at current street prices, prosecutors said.
In April, Xianbing Gan, one of the Chinese leaders of the Guadalajara, Mexico-based laundering ring, was sentenced in Chicago to 14 years in prison. He and his partner Haiping Pan secured the contracts with the cartels in Mexico, prosecutors said.
Pan was picked up last year in Mexico on money-laundering charges and is awaiting extradition to the United States.
In the United States, Seok Pheng Lim arranged the money pickups, directing Kong to get the cash, according to prosecutors.
Lim has pleaded guilty in federal court in Chicago for his role in the scheme and awaits sentencing.
Huanxin Long, who is accused of being a co-conspirator, has been extradited from Canada and is in custody in Chicago on money-laundering charges. Another suspect died in jail in Mexico, authorities say.
Another Chinese money-laundering case playing out in federal court in Chicago has seen charges filed against Minghan Chen, a 35-year-old Chinese national, and five others. Chen, who lived in Mexico and traveled to Chicago, is accused of arranging pickups of drug money in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. He’s in federal custody in Chicago.
Prosecutors say agents seized more than $587,000 in drug proceeds from Chen’s ring between 2017 and 2019, including about $130,000 that was picked up in 2017 from men parked in a car near Chinatown and found hidden in a meat locker at a business later that day.