Dissident or fraud? Exiled Chinese businessman Guo's trial nears close

FILE PHOTO: Guo Wengui (also known as Miles Kwok) holds a news conference with Steve Bannon in New York

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -The fraud trial of Guo Wengui neared its end on Wednesday, as a prosecutor told jurors the exiled Chinese businessman duped his followers into providing millions of dollars he spent on luxuries, while a defense lawyer called Guo a misunderstood critic of China's communist government.

In his closing argument at Guo's trial in Manhattan federal court, prosecutor Ryan Finkel said Guo raised more than $1 billion by guaranteeing followers on social media that they would not lose money if they joined him in a series of investment and cryptocurrency schemes from 2018 to 2023.

Finkel played videos of Guo pitching investments, including one where Guo wore sunglasses and stood on the deck of a yacht.

"It was him, this man, who spouted devious lies to trick his followers into giving him money," Finkel said, pointing at the defendant. "They forked over their money to participate in these quote unquote investment opportunities."

Guo's lawyer Sidhardha Kamaraju began his closing argument by saying that flaunting wealth was part of his client's political critique of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and that jurors shouldn't rush to judgment as prosecutors had.

"The goal of making investors rich was also a way to spit in the eyes of the CCP," Kamaraju said. "He's trying to tell people that they can have a better life without the CCP. That they can have nice things."

Guo has pleaded not guilty to 12 criminal counts, including racketeering, in a trial that has lasted seven weeks.

Finkel acknowledged that Guo, a former real estate developer who left China in 2014 during an anti-corruption crackdown, has been targeted by Chinese authorities, but said that had nothing to do with his alleged criminal conduct.

Earlier in the trial, jurors held keys to a red Lamborghini that Finkel said U.S. agents found in the garage of Guo's Connecticut estate.

"Was Miles Guo targeted by the CCP? Yes," Finkel said, using one of Guo's aliases. "Does that excuse what he did? No."

Guo's aliases have also included Miles Kwok and Ho Wan Kwok.

Jailed since his March 2023 arrest, Guo wore a light gray suit and smiled occasionally during Finkel's argument.

Finkel also showed jurors a video of former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon promoting one of Guo's ventures at a press conference in 2018.

Guo paid Bannon $1 million as part of a consulting contract designed to lend legitimacy to his anti-CCP movement, Finkel said.

Bannon is not accused of wrongdoing in Guo's case, but was arrested on Guo's $37 million yacht, the Lady May, in 2020 in a separate fraud case. Former U.S. President Donald Trump pardoned Bannon in 2021 shortly before leaving the White House.

Bannon is currently serving a four-month jail sentence after he was convicted on separate charges for defying a congressional subpoena.

Kamaraju's closing argument will resume on Thursday.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York;Editing by Noeleen Walder, Leslie Adler and Diane Craft)