The developer of a 'China City' in rural New York emerges as a major Trump donor
Sherry Li, a Long Island businesswoman who once proposed a sprawling Chinese Disneyland in the Catskill Mountains, is far from a prominent figure in national politics.
But she and a business associate have just emerged as some of the year’s biggest financial backers of President Trump’s political operation. Late last month, Li and Lianbo Wang, described in federal election filings as her corporate board member, donated a combined $600,000 to Trump Victory, the fundraising committee the president established with the Republican National Committee to attract high-dollar contributors.
Li is now pursuing the development of a higher-education center on the property she controls in rural New York. Her business plans could intersect with the policies of the new Trump administration on everything from immigration to the regulation of for-profit colleges.
Li did not respond this week to several interview requests about her political giving. Attempts to reach Wang also were unsuccessful.
But Li, the mastermind of the ambitious development project, has not been shy about touting her access to Trump and key players in his orbit.
Li, who also donated more than $32,000 to the Republican National Committee last October just before Trump’s election victory, issued four news releases in January promoting her ties to Trump. In them, she chronicled her attendance at Trump’s inauguration, a black-tie inaugural ball, an invitation-only reception to honor White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and a pre-inaugural dinner with “select Cabinet appointees … to have an intimate policy discussion.”
White House officials referred questions about Li to the Republican National Committee. RNC officials said Li had no special access to administration officials at any donor events associated with the Trump Victory account.
"We're always grateful for contributions, both large and small," RNC spokeswoman Lindsay Jancek said. The donations flowing to the committee are a "sign of the overwhelming support that Americans" have for the GOP and Trump, she added.
Li has donated to politicians before this year, but not on this scale.
New York State records show she contributed $55,000 to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, when he sought re-election in 2014.
This year, she also gave more than $47,000 to the committee working to keep the House in Republican hands and another $5,400 to its chairman, Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, Federal Election Commission records show.
Officials at the Republican National Committee said Li's donations to Trump Victory soared because she bought event tickets for other attendees. Indeed, one Li newS release noted the presence of Thompson Education Center board member "Mike Wang ... and fellow associates" at the reception honoring Priebus.
Li first attracted headlines in New York with her bold 2013 plan to build what she called a “China City of America” nestled in the foothills of the Catskills. The $6 billion plan included a school, villas, commercial offices, an exhibition hall, a retail mail, an amusement park and a Chinese "kung-fu and sports park."
As initially envisioned, the development would have drawn thousands of wealthy Chinese investors to rural New York through the EB-5 visa program. The program provides a path to permanent U.S. residency for foreign investors and their close relatives if they invest at least $500,000 and create least 10 jobs in rural areas or communities with high unemployment. The investment requirement jumps to $1 million for projects in urban areas with stronger economies.
Proponents say the program has helped drive some $19 billion in foreign investment into the U.S. economy since 2008. Chinese investors dominate, receiving more than two-thirds of the visas granted over the years.
But several scandals, including the guilty plea this year of a Seattle developer who defrauded hundreds of Asian investors seeking green cards, have prompted calls to overhaul or end the 27-year-old program. (The visas also drew fresh attention in May when Jared Kushner’s sister and other representatives of his family’s real-estate company pitched the program to Chinese nationals at a Beijing conference. Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, works as a top White House adviser.)
David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, has criticized the EB-5 program and wrote a 2013 paper that singled out Li’s original China City proposal as a "grandiose" plan unlikely to succeed.
“I think it’s immoral to sell green cards, which lead to citizenship, to anybody,” North told USA TODAY this week. “It attracts all sorts of bizarre and controversial characters.”
Although Trump has signed a spending bill that includes language reauthorizing the program through September, the administration “is evaluating wholesale reform of the EB-5 program to ensure that the program is used as intended,” White House spokesman Michael Short said in an email.
Short said the White House also is looking into in the possibility of "raising the price of the visa to further bring the program in line with its intent."
Li’s array of news releases do not discuss her federal policy priorities, but her latest project also is aimed at Chinese investment.
Her new plan for the property focuses on a higher-education center, set among some 570 acres, that will eventually house 2,500 students and create 30,000 jobs, according to promotional materials.
The re-fashioned project, dubbed the Thompson Education Center, is undergoing preliminary planning reviews by officials in Thompson, N.Y., a town of roughly 15,000 about 90 miles northwest of New York City.
Documents filed by her company with the local planning board do not detail the investment strategy and whether EB-5 visas remain the core funding vehicle. John Privitera, an Albany, N.Y., lawyer who represents Li before local planning officials, did not respond to interview requests this week.
Department of Homeland Security officials said privacy rules bar them from releasing information about Li and whether she is still seeking EB-5 support for her project. Each application is decided on "its own merits, regardless of any political affiliations or donations associated with the applicant or petitioner," agency spokesman David Lapan said in an email.
Marc Baez, president and CEO of the Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development, said his group supports the education center, provided Li wins approval from local authorities. “We’re behind a project that will bring in a substantial number of jobs,” he said.
However, the smaller-scale plan still has drawn the suspicion and ire of local environmentalists, whose opposition helped stall the first project. Paula Medley of the Basha Kill Area Association argues the development will hurt a watershed that flows into the Delaware River.
Others have questioned whether Li has the development experience to pull off the project. She told The New York Post in 2013 that her background is in the "financial industry."
Baez said some of the criticism of the project and her proposed changes centers unfairly on Li's ethnicity. "Developers change their minds all the time," he said. "In her research, she found out that there is a big demand for education in America from people on (the Chinese) mainland" and altered the project to focus on the school.
"If her name was Fred Smith and she came before the town and decided to switch gears, this wouldn't even be a story," he said.
Li, who lists an Oyster Bay address on Long Island in election filings, is engaged in a major public-relations push in Sullivan County, home to her planned development.
A large billboard along a major roadway promotes the still-to-be-built Thompson Education Center with smiling young graduates, clasping diplomas. The China City website is filled with promotional materials that tout her company's civic engagement, from sponsorship of a “farm-to-table experience” that benefits local Boys and Girls Clubs to a local bagel festival.
“Not unlike her involvement in the (Trump) campaign, she’s invested in the community and has for years,” Baez said.
She's not a well-known figure among state and local Republican figures interviewed this week.
Richard Coombe, the chairman of Sullivan County’s Republican Party, said he’s met Li “twice to shake hands with her," and she attended a fundraiser for the local GOP last year. Li also invited him to an event linked to the development, but he had a scheduling conflict.
“She’s a businessperson who has really big dreams and ideas,” Coombe said. “But I haven’t had the chance to get to know her very well. I don’t think anybody in the county knows her very well.”
- New York
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