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US charges two Chinese “agents” with bitcoin bribery after sting operation

Two men believed to be Chinese agents have been accused of obstructing an investigation into a company linked to the People’s Republic of China, after they allegedly paid bitcoin bribes worth $61,000 to an undercover FBI informant.

Guochun He, 45, and Zheng Wang, 37, are accused of masterminding a plot to steal court documents from the US Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York.

Between 2019 and 2022, He and Wang allegedly directed someone they believed they had ‘flipped’ to illegally obtain confidential information on a case against a Chinese-linked business referred to as “Company-1,” according to the US Department of Justice (DoJ).

Although at the time of writing, the charges have been brought in absentia and neither man is in custody, if apprehended and found guilty, He and Wang face up to 60 and 20 years in jail respectively.

The pair allegedly paid the FBI informant two bribes in bitcoin, last October and this September, worth $41,000 and $21,000, respectively – oblivious to the fact that they were dealing with a double agent.

The data allegedly targeted by He and Wang included a list of witnesses and company employees interviewed by the US government during the proceedings and an overview of the prosecution’s evidence against Company-1, as well as its trial strategy.

The sting in the tale

The double agent allegedly “used an encrypted messaging program to send the defendants a single page from a purported internal strategy memorandum from the US Attorney’s Office” last October, according to the DoJ.

It said the document sent by the informant was a forgery to lure the accused men as part of the FBI’s undercover sting operation. The deception, which appears to have been perfected by labeling the bogus court file “SECRET,” featured a fake plan to arrest two Company-1 employees living in China.

“The documents [...] were prepared by the government for purposes of the investigation and were neither taken from any actual document related to the prosecution of Company-1 nor classified [information],” said the DoJ.

“Furthermore, the information in the complaint that was provided by [the double agent] to the defendants did not accurately recount actual meetings, communications, or other strategy related to the Company-1 prosecution.”

US lawmakers express outrage

“Today’s complaint underscores the unrelenting efforts of the PRC [Chinese] government to undermine the rule of law,” said US Attorney Breon Peace, after the case against the two alleged Chinese agents was unsealed in a federal court in Brooklyn.

“As alleged, the case involves an effort by PRC intelligence officers to obstruct an ongoing criminal prosecution by making bribes to obtain files from this office and sharing them with a global telecommunications company that is a charged defendant in an ongoing prosecution.”

Matthew Olsen, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, added: “Far more than an effort to collect information or intelligence, the actions of the PRC intelligence officers [...] are [...] an extraordinary intervention by agents of a foreign government to interfere with the integrity of the US criminal justice system [and] compromise a government employee [...] to benefit a PRC-based commercial enterprise.”

China is fast becoming one of the countries most feared by the US, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken saying this year that it poses a greater long-term threat to American interests than Russia.

“The Department of Justice will not abide nation-state actors meddling in US criminal process and investigations, and will not tolerate foreign interference with the fair administration of justice,” said Olsen.

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