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Wednesday, April 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Chats of Campaign Aides to Be Used Against Them

MANHATTAN (CN) - Prosecutors can use Google chats with campaign volunteers to support finance fraud charges at a trial set to start next week, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

In early 2012, federal authorities arrested two workers who campaigned for New York City Comptroller John Liu. Xing Wu Pan, 47, worked as a top fundraiser, and Jia "Jenny" Hou, 25, served as Liu's campaign treasurer from 2009 to 2011.

Both are accused of funneling illegal campaign money to Liu by using straw donors to exceed campaign limits on New York City's matching grant program. Hou faces an additional charge of obstructing a governmental investigation.

At the final pretrial conference, defense attorneys said the jury should not be shown copies of messages that their clients exchanged with friends on Gchat, the Google instant messaging service.

In one such chat, Jorge Fanjul, a volunteer, allegedly tells Hou that he needs to fill in information that donors left out on the forms.

Hou allegedly replied: "fyi, CFB auditors look very carefully at the handwriting ... so if you're doing that, just make sure the handwriting looks as close to the donors [sic] as possible. If it [is] too difficult, don't take risk."

Hou's attorney, Gerald Lefcourt, said that the evidence would be irrelevant and prejudicial because Fanjul testified before a grand jury that he only filled out missing ZIP code and borough information in the forms.

Fanjul, who is not accused of wrongdoing, says he never talked about creating straw donors.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Jacobs characterizes Fanjul's sworn testimony differently, saying the volunteer claimed he had no memory about the Gchat.

U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan admitted it in a ruling from the bench Tuesday, finding that the defense can still give its explanation of the chats to jurors.

Liu, a mayoral hopeful, has not been accused of doing anything wrong, and prosecutors do not anticipate calling him as a witness in this case.

Defense lawyers insist, however, that the media's association of Liu's name with the case has drawn unwelcome attention to his former aides.

As the parties gear up for voir dire, defense attorney tried to bar the press from attending the jury questioning, arguing that the case's "extensive, and relentlessly negative, pretrial publicity" could taint the pool.

Sullivan denied that motion on press freedom grounds, the public docket indicates.

Pan and Hou's very public trial is set to begin next week.

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