Huawei CFO Sabrina Meng Wanzhou fraudulently represented company to skirt US and EU sanctions on Iran, court told in bail hearing
- Chinese telecoms giant used unofficial subsidiary to deal with Iran and Meng deliberately misrepresented the two companies as wholly separate, court heard
- She faces multiple charges, each with a sentence of up to 30 years in prison, so is a flight risk, a Canadian lawyer said. The hearing will continue on Monday
Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, fraudulently represented the company in order to get around US and EU sanctions on Iran, a packed courtroom in Vancouver, Canada, heard on Friday.
Meng, a daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, was in the British Columbia Supreme Court for a bail hearing, as the US seeks her extradition on fraud charges. The hearing ended without a decision and will continue on Monday.
The US is seeking to extradite Meng in relation to Huawei’s alleged use of an unofficial subsidiary, Skycom, to skirt the sanctions, a lawyer representing the Canadian government said.
Meng was arrested at Vancouver International Airport on December 1 as she changed planes and has been detained ever since.
Meng entered courtroom 20 for her bail hearing dressed in a green tracksuit, smiling and laughing as she conferred with her Vancouver lawyer, David J Martin.
About 100 journalists filled the high-security room, which was built to try suspects in the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight from Toronto to Delhi and is surrounded by bulletproof glass. Some of Huawei’s team, apparently made up of executives and lawyers, reserved 20 seats in the public gallery, said lawyer Sarah Leamon as she tried to move journalists out of the way.
Scott Bradley, a senior vice-president of Huawei who was seated in the public gallery, declined to comment on the case. A man wearing an enamel Chinese flag pin, who was seated prominently among the Huawei team, also declined to comment.
The Canadian government’s lawyer, John Gibb-Carsley, told the court that the US sought Meng on “fraud offences” involving US and EU sanctions against Iran.
Between 2009 and 2014, Huawei used an unofficial subsidiary, Skycom, to conduct business in Iran, Gibb-Carsley said, telling the court: “This was the crux of the fraud.”
In 2013, Meng “personally represented to banks that Skycom and Huawei were separate” the lawyer said, after the banks became aware that Skycom was doing business in Iran.
An arrest warrant was issued for Meng by a New York judge on August 27, 2018, seeking her to stand trial for fraud. Gibb-Carsley described the US becoming aware last month that Meng would soon be transiting through Canada, on her way from Hong Kong to Mexico.
On November 30, a Canadian judge agreed to a US request that Meng be arrested, and on December 1 she was detained at Vancouver’s airport as she changed planes, said Gibb-Carsley.
There had been doubt over whether Meng’s alleged breach of US and EU sanctions amounted to a Canadian offence, something required for extradition.
But Gibb-Carsley said the alleged efforts to deceive financial institutions about the nature of Huawei’s relationship with Skycom amounted to the Canadian offence of fraud.
“Meng deceived financial institutions and in so doing put their pecuniary and financial interests at risk,” he said.
Gibb-Carsley said Meng engaged in an “extensive pattern of dishonesty”, as he opposed bail, citing her supposed flight risk. Meng had access to “a vast amount of resources” and had “no meaningful connection” to Canada, he said.
He also said that she faces multiple charges, each of which carries a maximum penalty of up to 30 years in prison. “There is an incentive to flee,” he said.
Ren, Huawei’s founder and Meng’s father, is worth US$3.2 billion, said Gibb-Carsley, citing the US request for extradition. As he argued against releasing Meng, he seemingly acknowledged that her husband, who went unnamed but was later identified by the surname Liu, was living in Canada.
He dismissed the idea that the “surety [against Meng fleeing] is her husband … but he’s not a jailer in the community” and said that while Meng owns “two very expensive family homes” in Vancouver, “that is not a meaningful connection to this jurisdiction”.
The lawyer drew laughter from the gallery when he compared the defence’s request for bail of C$1 million (US$752,400), compared to her father’s billions, saying “we are not in the same universe”.
Meng had demonstrated that she was avoiding travel to the United States, even though she had a 16-year-old son going to school in Boston, said Gibb-Carsely.
Between 2014 and early 2017, Meng travelled frequently to the US, he said. But US authorities say that in April 2017 she became aware of the investigation, when US-based Huawei executives were served as part of a grand jury probe. She had not visited America since then, he said.
Following a 15-minute break, defence lawyer Martin told the judge that Meng should be granted bail because “you can rely on her personal dignity”, adding: “You can trust her.”
Were Meng to breach a court order it would “humiliate and embarrass her father, whom she loves”, said Martin. “She would embarrass China itself,” he added.
Martin clarified that Meng’s potential surety, in addition to cash bail, could include equity in her two homes in Vancouver, worth about C$14 million (US$10.5 million) combined.
He also portrayed the US extradition request as incomplete, saying: “We don’t have a charge – the US has not identified an indictment in this material.”
He said there were “glaring deficiencies” in the timelines offered by the US about Meng’s alleged deceptions, and that Meng had been “very open” that Huawei had once owned Skycom, and that she had once sat on the board of directors, but that it had been sold in 2009.
Martin said that the bank that was allegedly deceived by Meng about Huawei’s Iran dealings was “Hong Kong Bank”, which he called “the largest bank in the world”.
He subsequently identified it as HSBC, which is the world’s seventh biggest bank by total assets and sixth by market capitalisation.
The idea that a 2013 PowerPoint presentation to HSBC by Meng – which the US claimed represented fraud – could have induced the bank to provide improper financial services “is preposterous”, Martin said, telling the court that the evidence presented by the US that Huawei had secret control over Skycom did not include the crucial element of timing.
Martin derided evidence that Huawei maintained control over Skycom, supposedly revealed in corporate stationery shared by the companies and in Huawei email addresses once used by Skycom executives.
“Lots of people have logos of Apple on their documents,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they are Apple.”
He said Meng had told bank executives that Huawei had done everything possible to maintain compliance in its dealings with Iran, and that nothing provided to Iranian customers differed from products typically shared with other customers around the world.
Martin, identifying HSBC as the bank in question, also said, “if there is an alleged conspiracy [involving Meng and a financial institution] then I ask rhetorically, why has that company not been charged?”
He also rejected the notion that Meng had been deliberately avoiding the US to dodge arrest. He said instead that her travel plans were largely dictated by the US-China trade war.
”An entity would have to be tone deaf to not understand that the US had become a hostile place for Huawei to do business,” he told the court. Huawei’s business had thus wound down in the US and there was little reason for her to travel there, he said.
Martin provided details of Meng’s private life, citing an affidavit that said she and her second husband, surnamed Liu, had a 10 year old daughter.
She also has three sons from a previous marriage, he said. One, who is 14 lives in Hong Kong; another, 16, is studying at Andover, near Boston in Massachusetts; Meng also has a 20-year-old son who works as computer engineer.
Reading from Meng’s affidavit, Martin quoted her as saying, “For some period of time I was a permanent resident of Canada.” This had expired in 2009, said Martin, but Meng retained extensive links to Canada and Vancouver, something that should weigh in her favour in seeking bail.
Two of her children had undergone part of their schooling in Vancouver, the affidavit said, and Meng still spent two or three weeks in the city every year.
The US said Meng had at least seven passports from mainland China and Hong Kong in the last 11 years.
The defence lawyer also said that Meng was unsuited to incarceration, citing a “carcinoma problem” as well as a blood pressure condition.
Martin emphasised the size of Huawei, saying it had gross revenue in 2017 of US$19.2 billion, and gross profit of US$7 billion. “Business in Iran is marginal to this enterprise,” he said.
The firm held a special place in the Chinese business world, and Meng would not imperil that by fleeing if granted bail, Martin said.
”Her father would not recognise her,” he said. Her colleagues would hold her in contempt. She would be a pariah.”
Martin tendered as a character reference a letter from the headmaster of a private school in Massachusetts that was attended by one of her sons. Meng was “a person of the highest professional and moral standards”, the letter said.
The evidence concerning Meng’s arrest, and the reasons for it, had previously been subject to a publication ban issued at her request. However, that was lifted as the first order of business at the hearing on Friday morning.
Martin did not oppose the lifting of the measure by Mr Justice William Ehrcke, saying “the horse has left the barn”. The lifting had been sought by a lawyer for various media organisations.
Despite the court's lifting of the publication ban, the US Department of Justice declined to comment or provide any details about the order for Meng's extradition.
Meng’s arrest, which only became public knowledge on Wednesday, triggered an outcry from China, which demanded an explanation. Beijing has lodged protests with both Ottawa and Washington.
Observers said the case and the conviction of former Hong Kong minister Patrick Ho Chi-ping in a New York court have demonstrated the global reach of US law enforcement.
“There are a lot of instances where the total conduct has taken place outside the US, by non-US persons. It’s a non-US company and non-US government officials, going about their business outside the US. But if any of the money transited through the US, if there was a bank account that was draw on there, or if a server based in the US was used to send an email, there is jurisdiction,” said Wendy Wysong, who leads the Asia-Pacific anticorruption and trade controls practice at law firm Clifford Chance.
The situation has reverberated among investors and US multinational companies concerned about potential repercussion their executives in China might face in response to Meng’s arrest.
Asked by the South China Morning Post on Friday whether China would retaliate against foreign business executives in China, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that China “has always protected the legitimate rights and interests of foreign nationals in China and they should obey Chinese laws [when they are in China]”.
On Friday, the Trump administration's top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow said that American firms should not alter their business operations. “I wouldn't stop business or disrupt business just on the basis of Huawei,” Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, told CNBC.
Instead, Kudlow suggested that American companies that have dealings with China should play a role in advocating on the US government's behalf as it confronts Beijing on trade and technology issues.
“If I were they, I would try to help us with all the Chinese officials regarding these trade talks and trade openings, and tariff reduction, non-tariff barriers of course the technology issues”, he said. “So they should join us.”
On Thursday, US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a national security hawk on China, tweeted: “If Huawei has been helping violate US sanctions by transferring US technology to Iran they should be barred from operating in the US or from purchasing US technology.”
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) December 7, 2018
Such a ban would hurt Huawei, due to the highly interconnected supply chain between Chinese telecoms and their US component makers in the US. Huawei buys from various US companies, including Qualcomm, as it develops its 5G technology.
Just this spring, another Chinese telecom equipment giant, ZTE, tripped over supply chain issues, when the US Commerce Department said it had failed to make good on vows to punish employees involved in unsanctioned sales to Iran and North Korea. The department imposed a seven-year ban on sales by US companies to ZTE, a move that led ZTE to shutter its main operations within weeks.
After Chinese President Xi Jinping asked US President Donald Trump to intervene, the ban was rescinded and ZTE instead agreed to pay a fine of up to US$1.4 billion, replace its board and install a US compliance officer. But the ban was a wake-up call for China to realise that even its largest telecoms firms could barely survive without US suppliers.
The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index has lost more than 6 per cent since Monday’s close, partly as a result of concern that Meng’s arrest will derail talks between Washington and Beijing aimed at resolving a bilateral trade war that started in July.
The hearing continues.
Additional reporting by Owen Churchill, Jodi Xu Klein and Finbarr Bermingham