Minnesota prosecutors weigh sexual assault charges against Chinese billionaire tech executive

Within 24 hours of his arrest in August on suspicion of rape in the United States, Richard Liu was released ...

Posted: Dec. 19, 2018 7:29 PM
Updated: Dec. 19, 2018 7:29 PM

Within 24 hours of his arrest in August on suspicion of rape in the United States, Richard Liu was released from jail and returned to China.

Charges were never filed. Now, prosecutors in Minnesota are weighing whether to bring a case against the founder of one of the world's biggest e-commerce companies.

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The decision could have global consequences. JD.com (JD), which Liu started 20 years ago, is a $30 billion company and a major player in China's tech industry. The case also comes at a time when US-China relations remain fraught.

The college student who reported Liu to police maintains that he raped her nearly four months ago at her apartment in Minneapolis. Liu has denied any wrongdoing.

"Because of the ongoing investigation, Richard cannot defend himself in the media," Liu's attorney, Jill Brisbois, said in a statement. "We would urge everyone to wait for the prosecutor's determination instead of continuing to present a one-sided and inaccurate version of events. When all of the relevant evidence is disclosed, Richard's innocence and the full story will become apparent."

The 45-year-old executive maintains tight control of JD. A scandal tied to him could have outsized ramifications for the Nasdaq-listed firm.

"It's hard to overstate his influence given how the company's governance is structured," said Duncan Clark, chairman of Beijing-based consulting firm BDA China.

Liu is "among the most powerful" of the founder-CEOs in China, according to Clark, who wrote a book about JD's bigger rival Alibaba (BABA).

JD said it has a "strong executive team with deep understanding of the company and extensive expertise in the industry."

"Our executive team has been fully empowered to run daily operations in a way that helps JD innovate and lead in the markets it serves," a spokesperson for the company told CNN Business.

The allegations

Liu, whose Chinese name is Liu Qiangdong, was in Minneapolis in August because he was enrolled in a doctorate program in business administration at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

His accuser, a young Chinese woman, is an undergraduate student at the school, according to her attorney, Wil Florin.

Florin said that his client was 21 at the time of the alleged rape. He described her as an "accomplished pianist" from a wealthy Chinese family.

Florin provided some details to CNN Business about what the woman has already told law enforcement. CNN Business also reviewed parts of a recorded interview the woman gave to a police officer September 10 that detail her version of what happened. On those audio clips, she describes an hours-long encounter in which Liu repeatedly tried to pressure her to have sex before ultimately forcing himself on her.

Liu disputes the woman's account, according to Brisbois, his attorney.

"This version of events is filled with unsubstantiated information, from sources who clearly have an agenda," she said in a statement.

According to the account the woman gave police, she said she first met Liu after another business executive, who she knew through a university volunteer program, invited her to attend a dinner at a Minneapolis restaurant on August 30.

Nervous about the event, she asked to bring along a friend. The friend came but did not sit with the woman.

According to the audio clips, the woman said that after dinner she got into a black car with Liu, his assistant and a driver. The friend, who had left earlier, did not come with them. The woman told police she was intoxicated at the time. That's when Liu started to kiss her and tried to pull off her clothes, she said.

The woman said she was taken to a building — according to her lawyer, it was a mansion rented by another business executive — and didn't recognize where she was. Scared, she said she begged Liu to take her back to her off-campus apartment.

"I knew he was very famous. I thought he was just drunk," she told police, explaining that she believed she'd be safer at home.

Liu agreed to take the woman to her apartment, where she said she continued to rebuff him, according to the audio clips. She claimed he kept trying to take off her clothes and have sex with her. At one point, she said, Liu took a shower and laid naked on her bed.

Later in the night, after the two continued to struggle, Liu threw the woman onto her bed and raped her, according to the account she gave to police.

Florin, the woman's attorney, told CNN Business that afterward, the woman contacted the friend who attended dinner with her. Florin added that the friend called police.

Police arrived at the woman's apartment around 3 a.m. and removed Liu from the premises, according to Florin. The woman decided not to press charges at the time.

In the afternoon, the woman went to the hospital for a medical examination and brought her bed sheet as evidence, Florin said. The woman then went to a school administrator, who encouraged her to call the police.

Liu was arrested that night. Police let him go the following day around 4 p.m. without charging him or asking for bail.

Authorities said at the time that the investigation was ongoing. County prosecutors recently told CNN Business that they are still reviewing the case.

High stakes

Should prosecutors in Minnesota charge Liu, it would set up a messy legal fight.

China does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. That could make it difficult for authorities to bring Liu to Minnesota to stand trial.

Any charges would also come at a delicate time for US-China relations. Washington is engaged in a battle over Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Canada earlier this month for allegedly helping the Chinese tech company evade US sanctions on Iran. Beijing slammed the detention of Meng, who was released on $7.5 million bail last week. Huawei maintains that it follows all the laws and regulations where it operates.

For JD.com, the stakes are high. Liu owns about 16% of the company but controls 79.5% of its voting rights, according to corporate filings.

In November, Liu said on the company's earnings call that he was shifting away from JD's core business. But the company clarified in a statement soon after the call that his remarks had been misinterpreted, and that his role at the company remains the same.

"His intention in making the statement was to emphasize that JD.com has a seasoned management team that is effectively running the company's day-to-day operations, and that the team is executing well," JD said in that statement.

Charges against Liu could also have a big impact on JD's operations, especially if the company hasn't made any structural changes, said Danny Law, a researcher with securities firm Guotai Junan International.

The arrest has already had repercussions.

Images of the businessman in an orange prison uniform have been plastered across Chinese social media. And JD's stock — which is also under pressure because of the US-China trade war and slowing Chinese economic growth — has dropped about 32% since Liu's arrest.

Liu has a high profile in China, where he started from humble origins to build the second-largest online shopping site after Alibaba. Forbes puts his net worth at more than $5 billion.

His company has attracted high-profile investors, including Walmart (WMT) and Chinese tech giant Tencent (TCEHY). Google (GOOGL) invested $550 million in JD in June.

Liu's rise from a small village where his family had little money to the upper echelons of Chinese business earned him widespread recognition.

"He has a reputation for being very determined," Clark of BDA China said. "What JD has achieved in the face of a massive incumbent Alibaba is no mean feat."

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