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'Chinese business' defence fails Richmond lawyer in misconduct case

Richmond lawyer Hong Guo was found to have put her clients and herself in conflicts of interest in business transactions that included skirting China's capital control laws, a Law Society of BC hearing panel found.
Hong Guo, making her Richmond mayoral bid in 2018. File photo.

The Law Society of BC has found business and immigration lawyer Hong Guo committed professional misconduct by failing to provide competent legal services and engaging in conflicts of interests with her clients, following a complex investigation that she did not fully cooperate with.

The Richmond and Beijing-based lawyer and former legal specialist for the state council of the People’s Republic of China unsuccessfully argued allegations of misconduct against her were, in part, rooted in anti-Asian discrimination within the Law Society of BC.

Guo presently has eight citations against her before the society; Fresh off a one-month suspension this year, she also faces a one-year suspension that is being challenged by the society’s executive team, which wants her disbarred.

The hearing panel ruling from Aug. 24 deals with a complex set of business transactions whereby Guo was found to have inserted herself into legal proceedings of her clients from China.

In response to the misconduct allegations, Guo claimed her professional work was acceptable, as it met her clients’ expectations in the cultural context in which she was practicing.

Guo insisted through the hearing “the clients were happy for matters to proceed as they did and since that accorded with the general expectations of Chinese business practices at the time, any irregularities or errors arising from such practices can, and should, be accepted.”

In essence, as the hearing panel noted, Guo called into question the integrity of the B.C. legal profession’s regulatory system, claiming the society’s disciplinary counsel acted with an abuse of power, and the society discriminates against Asian women.

The panel of Sarah M. Westwood, Gillian M. Dougans and Carol Gibson had none of Guo’s claims.

“With respect, this panel disagrees with [Guo’s] suggestion that whether a lawyer’s conduct amounts to professional misconduct requires a consideration of cultural business norms,” stated the ruling.

“If [Guo] was unable to fulfil her obligations to her clients due to the ‘preferences of the Chinese business culture of the time,’ then she had an obligation either not to accept the work or to explain her obligations and give the clients the option of proceeding or not within the constraints of practice as set out in the” law and regulations, stated the panel.

The society’s executive team noted Guo’s statistical analysis of Asian lawyers and discipline action against them was flawed, in part because it was based on last names. Nevertheless, the society noted non-racialized men were roughly on par with Asian women for facing discipline action.

Both the society and panel added they took Guo’s claims seriously.

What did Hong Guo do?

The Dec. 12, 2018 citation concerned Guo’s legal handling of business deals.

Guo had set up an office in Beijing, China after commencing her practice in Richmond in April, 2010. She had bank accounts in both jurisdictions, via Bank of China and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

Guo testified she had been helping prospective immigrants apply for B.C.’s Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) and in doing so “facilitate her Chinese clients’ attempts to move funds out of China in excess of the Chinese currency restrictions,” set by the Chinese government. Guo was setting up clients with prospective B.C. businesses and was, notably, found to use the same business plan in different applications.

However, none of that was of concern to the panel, according to its ruling.

“While this panel makes findings regarding [Guo’s] actions as a lawyer …we make no findings or comments regarding the business practice of depositing funds in China for a similar amount in Canada to avoid Chinese currency restrictions, nor having a viable British Columbia business used more than once for a business immigration proposal.”

Guo’s misconduct largely surrounds an initial complaint made by her client ‘JY’ to the society on June 5, 2014, alleging Guo misled him in relation to the purchase of a sawmill in Quesnel.

The citation is connected to allegations laid out in a civil claim by Jun Yuan against Guo, Guo Law Corp., and M & K Sawmills Ltd.

Yuan, a Chinese businessman and recent immigrant, had approached Guo’s office in June 2010 to invest about $100,000 in a small company, according to his court claim dated May 22, 2015.

As Yuan believed he was purchasing the sawmill with Guo as a partner, Guo set up a shelf corporation she directed to hold shares in the sawmill company with another client, ZZ. She also used the company as the basis for three PNP applications for clients CL, JZ and YZ.

“JY was not informed of any of the proposed agreements or transactions involving ZZ, JZ, YZ and M Ltd.,” noted the ruling.

Guo testified that because it may take years between first submitting a proposal and business plan to BCPNP and final approval or rejection of the client for immigration, certain proposals could be used multiple times and then withdrawn, changed or resubmitted during the waiting period.

One of several transactions noted in the ruling highlights some of the misconduct found by the panel: in this instance, Guo obtained a $613,092 bank draft drawn on a personal joint account (with who is understood to be her sister), to be made payable to Guo Law Corp as a loan from her to client ZZ. The next day ZZ wired the equivalent in Chinese currency to Guo’s account at the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which is not documented in Guo’s annual trust reports. And, no record of any funds paid by ZZ to Guo in China exists in Guo Law Corp.’s books and records. Thus, the panel found Guo failed to properly document legal proceedings.

In addition to facilitating a conflict of interest between clients, Guo was found to have provided legal services while having a direct or indirect financial interest.

“By listing her husband as an employee, having herself and [Guo’s sister] as signing officers and directors without any apparent authorizations or agency agreements, by using the joint account and personal accounts to transfer funds and make ‘loans’ while funds were transferred in China (for which records still have to be produced), by leasing property apparently owned by [Guo] to the corporations, by having employees in common and on the payroll between the client companies and [Guo Law Corp.]., and by, to all appearances, personally running the business but having no documentation suggesting that she was doing so as agent, [Guo] clearly involved herself, her firm, and her family members in the running and financing of her clients’ operations, contrary to the requirements” of society regulations,” stated the ruling’s list of misconduct.

Guo’s testimony was deemed to be “frequently contradictory” and she could not explain why documents and files either did not exist, or had not been produced to the society investigators — a matter the panel found “troubling.”

Guo asserted that “Chinese business isn’t done that way,” which led the panel to “cast doubt on her version of events,” according to the ruling.

Penalties against Guo will be applied at a future discipline hearing.

Guo previously engaged in high-profile public events

Analysis from the Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in B.C. showed Guo as representing Paul King Jin in real estate transactions. Jin is being pursued by the B.C. director of civil forfeiture for assets alleged to be proceeds of crime.

Guo faces a one-year suspension for the loss of the $7.5 million from her trust account, she deemed to be stolen by her bookkeeper. The society has appealed the decision by panellists Jennifer Chow QC, Ralston Alexander QC and John Lane, public representative.

Guo ran for mayor of Richmond in October 2018, claiming the city needed to reduce crime rates and improve traffic while also promoting more cultural ties and trade with China. She received 5% of the vote.

During her campaign she reportedly denied China has a record of human-rights violations. In 2019, she spoke out against the Canadian government’s detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou.

Last year Guo helped organize anti-Asian racism rallies in Vancouver via the Asian Canadian Equity Alliance.