A woman who bought a $97,285 Mercedes-Benz in Plano in July was part of a ring that smuggled at least two dozen American luxury cars to China, according to a federal complaint.
Nine days later, agents tracked the car from Plano to a port in New York and seized it along with a 2013 Porsche Cayenne as they were being shipped to China, the U.S. Secret Service said.
“There is a market in China for luxury vehicles imported from the United States,” an agent wrote in the complaint. “In China, luxury vehicles can be sold for two or three times their purchase price in the United States.”
The document outlines the investigation into the alleged ring and spells out why prosecutors believe the government should keep the cars and $129,000 seized from two alleged brokers.
The probe found at least 24 fancy cars had been shipped to China using laundered money, straw buyers and false documentation.
"Apparently there are a lot of rich people in China that want to pay high dollar for a car," said attorney Richard Roper of the Dallas law firm Thompson and Knight.
Roper, who prosecuted financial crimes as a former U.S. Attorney, said federal agents are probably involved because it's more than a simple case of exporting cars. He reviewed the court document at NBC DFW's request.
"It's a crime because it's lying to Customs on the export of the vehicles," Roper said. "That's a federal crime. But it also involves movement of money, which is another federal crime -- money laundering."
The Secret Service, while known for protecting the president and vice president and their families, also investigates some white-collar financial crimes.
Nobody named in the seizure document is accused of a crime.
Davilyn Walston, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Plano, was not available to say whether the investigation is ongoing. An automated email said she was not working because of the government shutdown.
According to the complaint:
- On July 20, Amanda Ford, of Houston, bought a 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL550 from Mercedes-Benz of Plano for $97,285.
- She drove it “a short distance” before it was loaded onto a vehicle transporter.
- On July 29, the car was seized at Port Ivory, New York.
- Agents also seized a 2013 Porsche Cayenne in the same shipping container. It was purchased by another woman from the Houston area.
- Both vehicles were headed to China. Shipping documents showed both vehicles were being exported by Golden Cheng Auto Group, Inc., of Houston.
- Ford was a “straw buyer for Golden Cheng” and bank records show Golden Cheng deposited money into Ford’s account for the Mercedes-Benz purchase.
- Before July 20, Ford and Golden Cheng bought at least eight new luxury vehicles, including five 2013 Mercedes-Benz GLs and one 2013 Porsche Cayenne. At least five of them were successfully smuggled to China.
NBC DFW could not locate Ford for comment.
The Plano dealership is not accused of any wrongdoing and there is no indication that sales people there knew the car was headed to China.
Golden Cheng Auto Group Inc. was formed by Yong Zang, of Stafford, near Houston, in Feb., 2012, according to records from the Texas Secretary of State. Zang is listed as director.
The Secret Service said two company directors, Yong Zang an Ting Huang, received funds from people in China who wanted new American luxury cars.
From May 3 to July 3, Zang’s personal account received $419,820 in Chinese wire transfers and he put a nearly identical amount into Golden Cheng’s account, the complaint said.
From March 18 to May 2, Huang’s personal account received $577,566.
“Funds are then moved through multiple bank accounts to conceal the source and nature of the funds,” the Secret Service said. “The funds from China are eventually transferred to straw buyers who purchase new luxury vehicles to be shipped to China.”
Huang wired $718,873 to “various car dealerships,” prosecutors said.
Charles Flood, a Houston attorney who represents Zang, Huang and Ford, did not return a phone call for comment.