California lawyer tried to help maternity tourism witness flee: prosecutors | Reuters

LOS ANGELES An immigration attorney accused of agreeing to help a woman flee the country after she was designated a material witness in an investigation into so-called maternity hotels in Southern California has been arrested on federal charges, prosecutors said on Monday.

Ken Zhiyi Liang, 38, was taken into custody on Friday after accepting a $6,000 fee from the woman, a Chinese national who was cooperating with federal agents, U.S. Attorneys spokesman Thom Mrozek said in a written statement.

Liang, who was charged on Saturday with attempted witness tampering, was expected to make an initial court appearance in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles later on Monday.

Federal agents raided three apartment complexes and several other sites across Southern California in March, saying they were suspected of involvement in "maternity tourism" schemes providing travel, lodging and medical care to pregnant women seeking to give birth in the United States.

Authorities say the so-called maternity hotels targeted in the sweep catered largely to wealthy women from China who paid $15,000 to $80,000, depending on services offered, in hopes of obtaining U.S. citizenship for their children.

Though none of the women found in the raids were arrested or charged criminally, some two dozen were designated material witnesses in the case and ordered to remain.

Since then, several of those women have fled the country and one was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport in late April while attempting to board a flight to China.

According to the criminal complaint filed against Liang, who represented a material witness in the case until he was removed by a judge on April 17, he told the woman he could guarantee her safe return to China for $6,000.

In conversations recorded by federal agents, Liang outlined a plan in which the witness would board a flight to China without travel documentation so her departure would not be detected, prosecutors say.

Liang, who also asked for $3,000 for help provided by three other people, told the woman to pay in cash, delete text messages and use a prepaid mobile phone for all communications.

He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison if convicted at trial.

The sweep was believed to mark the first such enforcement action against maternity tourism, a cottage industry that has gained a growing foothold in the United States in recent years while operating largely out of sight.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)