Lobsang Dargey arrived in the U.S. in 1997 and set to work spinning a classic immigrant success story. The former Tibetan monk wasn't fluent in English and didn't have much money, but managed to work his way up from handyman to successful Seattle-area real estate developer. Now, it seems, Dargey's assent from humble Buddhist to red-blooded capitalist is complete. Because he's been accused of securities fraud.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Monday filed a complaint in U.S. District Court alleging that Dargey defrauded investors—mostly Chinese nationals who funded Dargey’s projects in hopes of getting green cards—in a scheme that sounds like one part bait-and-switch and one part simple larceny. On Tuesday, the SEC said that a court had frozen Dargey's assets and issued an injunction to prevent him from soliciting new investors.
According to the complaint, Dargey raised $125 million from 250 investors to develop a 40-story skyscraper in downtown Seattle, as well as a mixed-use building in nearby Everett, Wash. Dargey sold investors on the two projects, the SEC said, by telling them that their investments would help them gain U.S. residency through the EB-5 Program, which confers green cards to foreign investors who put at least $500,000 into job-creating projects.
But Dargey used $14.7 million of that money to fund other real estate projects not identified in offering documents, the complaint said. Dargey is also accused of using $2.5 million in investors' money to buy a home in Bellevue, Wash., and withdrawing more than $200,000 in investor money from casinos in the U.S. and Canada.
Dargey didn’t return a voice message seeking comment. The website for Path America, one of Dargey’s companies, describes itself as “a one-stop shop for foreign investors who wish to live in the U.S.” In a 2012 profile, Dargey told the Seattle Times that he still held on to Buddhist teachings. “If tomorrow I have no money and I have to go on the street, I have no problem,” he said.
His case is the latest (and perhaps oddest) in an ongoing crackdown of the EB-5 visa program. The controversial initiative first became popular with U.S. developers when traditional funding dried up during the financial crisis, with the number of visas issued tripling from almost 3,000 in 2011 to more than 9,000 in 2014. A favorite among big city developers and Chinese investors, EB-5 has been criticized for failing to attract capital to rural areas. And earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, which runs the EB-5 program, improve its fraud prevention efforts.