An earlier version of this article misidentified Guo Wengu as the senior Chinese government official at whose behest Wynn allegedly acted. Guo was the Chinese national whose removal from the United States was allegedly sought by Wynn and senior Chinese official Sun Lijun. The story has been corrected.
A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed a Justice Department lawsuit to compel casino mogul and Republican megadonor Steve Wynn to register as an agent of China, handing a setback to the U.S. government’s intensifying efforts to police foreign influence in American politics.
U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg of Washington, in a 20-page opinion, made no determination about whether Wynn, the former chief executive of Wynn Resorts, had in fact acted as an agent of Beijing in advancing its interests in 2017 through his relationship with President Donald Trump and members of his administration.
But Boasberg said that despite his reservations, the government had no legal authority under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to force Wynn to register retroactively after his alleged relationship with Chinese authorities ended. The Justice Department brought the first lawsuit to compel registration under FARA in more than 30 years against Wynn last May in a sign of stepped-up enforcement of the 1938 law, which was originally enacted to target Nazi propaganda.
Boasberg said he agreed that compelling disclosure by Wynn was “plainly consistent with the central goal of FARA,” and he did not dispute that even retroactive disclosure by former agents would reveal “information that [FARA] says the public needs.” Nevertheless, the judge concluded, “While the goals of FARA are laudable, this Court is bound to apply the statute as interpreted by the D.C. Circuit. And that requires dismissal.”
Wynn, a former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, was accused of relaying a request from a senior Chinese official asking that the Trump administration remove Chinese national Guo Wengui, who had sought asylum in the United States. Wynn’s activities, prosecutors asserted, included discussing Beijing’s interests directly with Trump during a dinner in June 2017, providing Guo’s passport photos to the president’s secretary, and other actions through August 2017. Wynn, the government argues, was acting at the behest of the Chinese official, Sun Lijun, then-vice minister for public security, as well as of the Chinese government itself.
Wynn acted out of a desire to protect significant business interests in China involving casinos he owned and operated in Macao, according to the Justice Department, which had ordered Wynn to register three times without success.
In a written statement, Wynn attorneys Reid Weingarten and Robert Luskin said: “We are delighted that the District Court today dismissed the government’s ill-conceived lawsuit against Steve Wynn. Mr. Wynn never acted as an agent of the Chinese government and never lobbied on its behalf. This is a claim that should never have been filed, and the Court agreed.”
Guo, who left China in 2014 and was later charged with corruption, was not named in the complaint but has previously been identified by prosecutors.
In a statement, a Justice Department spokesperson said that the agency remains committed to enforcing FARA.
“The district court acknowledged in its opinion that the result it reached frustrates FARA’s purpose of getting information to the public that it needs to evaluate the extent of foreign influence over US policy and public opinion,” the spokesperson said. “The government respectfully disagrees with today’s ruling and is considering options in the litigation and more generally.”
In a news release last May, Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said that the suit demonstrated the department’s commitment to ensuring “transparency in our democratic system.”
“Where a foreign government uses an American as its agent to influence policy decisions in the United States, FARA gives the American people a right to know,” Olsen said at the time.
David H. Laufman, a partner at Wiggin and Dana who previously oversaw FARA enforcement at the Justice Department, called the decision “a considerable setback” that will embolden individuals and companies to resist department demands to register retroactively.
“If this decision stands, DOJ essentially will be left with two options when it discovers that an individual or entity previously engaged in FARA-registrable activity, but is no longer engaged in such activity: either do nothing, or — if the Department can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the failure to register was ‘willful’ — bring a criminal prosecution,” Laufman said. “The decision deprives DOJ of an essential, intermediate enforcement tool between forgoing accountability altogether or bringing criminal charges.”
Wynn stepped down as RNC finance chairman in January 2018 and as CEO of Wynn Resorts the following month in the face of allegations of sexual misconduct, which he has denied. He and his wife have remained prolific political donors, contributing about $2.5 million to Republican candidates and committees in the first three months of this year, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
The Justice Department has said Wynn was approached to work with China by longtime GOP and Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy, who worked under Wynn as deputy RNC finance chairman after Trump’s 2016 election as president. Broidy pleaded guilty in October 2020 to acting as an unregistered foreign agent, admitting to accepting millions of dollars to lobby the Trump administration secretly for Malaysian and Chinese interests, and was granted a full pardon by Trump the day before the president left office in January 2021.
The investigation of Broidy and later Wynn has its roots in a probe of the multibillion-dollar embezzlement from a Malaysian government development fund that has come to be known by the shorthand “1MDB.”
In previous civil and criminal cases, federal prosecutors have alleged that some of the stolen money made its way into the United States, where it was used for purposes including to buy pricey real estate and even fund the award-winning movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was accused of being involved in the corruption. He was convicted in July 2020 and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
At the center of the investigation is a Malaysian businessman named Low Taek Jho, who was indicted in 2018 and accused of funneling tens of millions of dollars into the United States in part to get the Malaysian corruption investigation dropped. Low, who is facing multiple federal indictments, is believed to be in China, outside the reach of U.S. authorities. He has denied the allegations and said they are politically motivated.
Separately, Broidy business associate Nickie Mali Lum Davis also pleaded guilty, as has a former Justice Department employee, George Higginbotham. Former Fugees rapper Pras Michel, who is charged in connection with separate dealings with Low, has denied wrongdoing and faces trial next March.