SAN JOSE -- A San Jose man pleaded no contest on Friday to felony charges of embezzling funds which were supposed to cover funeral and other death-related expenses of elder relatives for hundreds of local Vietnamese families.
Davie Ba Ngo, 53, faces up to three years and eight months behind bars when he is sentenced March 1 on seven felony counts. They include embezzling $200,000 from the Concerned Members Committee, a now-defunct company he headed that collected nominal dues which would guarantee a lump-sum time-of-death payout akin to life insurance.
"Most of the members are seniors, people thinking about the possibility of their life ending soon," said prosecutor Georg Behrens. "The idea is that when they die, there will be money for family members to take care of death expenses. Many families were left with nothing."
Tam Nguyen, an attorney representing about 200 victims in the case, said members paid a nominal fee of $35 a month for years, many because they could not afford standard forms of insurance. Depending on how long they contributed, the promised payouts ranged from $6,000 to $14,000.
"They relied on their own traditional methods," Nguyen said. "They relied on each other; they relied on the village."
Nguyen said such organizations are common in Chinese and Vietnamese communities, and the crimes were "extremely hurtful" because of cultural tradition.
"Death is a very important event," he said. "People would like to die in peace without leaving a burden to their children, and they're poor; that's why they join this group."
In addition, Nguyen said, there's a great deal of respect for the elderly in traditional Asian cultures that makes it a "very offensive, very serious offense."
Nguyen said that the Concerned Members Committee operated as a legitimate organization that paid off benefits for years until Ngo took the helm around 2010. Behrens said since then, "several hundred" people were victimized, most in Santa Clara County.
Nguyen and Behrens both said it's questionable whether any of the victims will get restitution because Ngo may no longer have the money.
"He'll be ordered to pay, but whether they'll see anything, I just don't know," Behrens said.
In addition to embezzlement, Ngo pleaded no contest to theft by false pretenses, sale of an unqualified security, running a fraudulent securities scheme, money laundering and writing checks for insufficient funds. An accomplice, Stephanie Tuyet Le, 32, faces up to 16 months in jail after being convicted of a single embezzlement charge.
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.