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Retired NYC cop helped Chinese spies, prosecutors say

By Ben Marquis
|
June 1, 2023

A retired New York City police sergeant who works as a private investigator is on trial for his alleged involvement in a Chinese government effort to harass and compel the return of Chinese national dissidents living in the United States to China.

Former NYPD cop Michael McMahon stands accused of aiding Chinese spies in tracking down a wanted Chinese man living in NYC for the purpose of harassing and intimidating him into returning to China amid threats against his family, the Daily Mail reported.

McMahon has denied the allegations against him and insisted that he was entirely unaware that he was working on behalf of the Chinese communist regime, which federal prosecutors obviously dispute.

Hired To Help Track and Surveil Wanted Chinese Dissident

In an October 2020 Justice Department press release, it was announced that McMahon had been arrested as one of eight individuals charged with a conspiracy to act as illegal agents of the Chinese government in a "global, concerted and extralegal repatriation effort known as 'Operation Fox Hunt.'"

McMahon was charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of the People's Republic of China as well as conspiracy to commit interstate and international trafficking, both felony crimes that could each be punished with up to five years in prison if convicted.

For his part in the scheme, licensed private investigator McMahon was alleged to have been hired by Chinese officials in 2017 to help track down and surveil a Chinese dissident wanted in the PRC for alleged corruption who was living in New Jersey.

As part of the conspiracy, the wanted man's elderly father was transported to the U.S. against his will and used as bait to help find the man and, if possible, convince him to return to China. McMahon was tasked with secretly observing a meeting between the man and his father and then following the man afterward in order to discover the location of his home.

Once the home was found, McMahon was further alleged to have suggested to his Chinese co-conspirators that they "harass" the victim and "Park outside his home and let him know we are there." Per the DOJ, one of the co-conspirators is alleged to have strongly implied that McMahon would be substantially rewarded if the effort to repatriate the man back to China was successful.

"As alleged, the defendants assisted PRC officials in a scheme to coerce targeted individuals to return to the PRC against their will," then-Acting U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of New York Seth DuCharme said in a statement at that time. "The United States will not tolerate the conduct of PRC carrying out state-authorized actions on U.S. soil without notice to, and coordination with, the appropriate U.S. authorities. Nor will we tolerate the unlawful harassment and stalking of U.S. residents to further PRC objectives."

McMahon's Attorney Says Client Is Innocent of Wrongdoing

The Washington Post reported that McMahon and two of his alleged co-conspirators went on trial this week at a federal courthouse in Brooklyn for their roles in the effort to extralegally repatriate the victim, now identified as Xu Jin, back to China to face charges for allegedly embezzling $30 million from the Chinese government.

According to prosecutors, McMahon was hired by PRC officials in his capacity as a licensed private investigator and tasked with running background checks and conducting surveillance as part of the effort to find Xu, after which other members of the conspiracy are alleged to have harassed and intimidated and threatened the man and his family.

Per McMahon's defense attorney, Lawrence Lustberg, the former NYPD sergeant was at all times unaware that he was working on behalf of the Chinese government and instead thought that he was working for a Chinese construction company and conducting a civil investigation into alleged embezzlement.

"He had no idea that in performing normal functions of an investigation that he was working for China," the attorney said. "He did what he always does without ever being informed that he was working for the Chinese government."

Lustberg further noted that McMahon had not participated in any acts to harass and intimidate the victim and had kept two local police departments notified of his believed to be lawful surveillance actions within their jurisdiction.

Attorney Argues McMahon Was Unaware of Working For Chinese Government

According to ABC News, defense attorney Lustberg further clarified the unwitting nature of McMahon's participation in the conspiracy in a filing submitted to the court.

The attorney wrote, "Mr. McMahon agreed to investigate and conduct surveillance, as he is legally permitted to do as a licensed private investigator -- not that Mr. McMahon agreed to, or was even aware, that the investigation was at the direction or control of a foreign government or official."

Both ABC and the Post noted that this was just the first trial in the conspiracy and that the other co-conspirators would eventually stand trial as well in the future, as well as that McMahon could potentially face up to 10 years in federal prison if convicted on both counts of acting as an illegal foreign agent and interstate stalking.