US Bans Entry to Marshall Islands Politicians over Corruption

Published: 12 December 2023

Marshall Islands Cary YanGina Zhou (L) and Cary Yan (C) at a restaurant in New York. (Photo: World Organization of Governance and Competitiveness)


The United States has banned two prominent Marshall Islands politicians from entering the country for receiving bribes from two Chinese-born scammers who were at the center of a major October investigation by OCCRP.

The State Department barred former Marshall Islands President Kessai Note and a senator, Mike Halferty, from entering the U.S. due to “involvement in significant corruption,” it said in a statement Monday.

The two officials were designated alongside 28 other foreign nationals in order to mark International Anti-Corruption Day and the opening of the Conference of States Parties to the U.N. Convention Against Corruption, the State Department said.

Note and Halferty were designated for accepting “bribes in the form of services and cash, in exchange for their legislative support of a bill in the [Marshall Islands] legislature to create a semi-autonomous region in the [Marshall Islands],” the statement said.

The bill, which would have created an autonomous zone known as the Rongelap Atoll Special Administrative Region (RASAR), sparked fears that it could fracture the Marshall Islands, a Pacific archipelago nation that is in “free association” with the United States. There were also concerns the plan could provide China with a foothold near a sensitive U.S. military facility.

The main advocates of the project, Chinese-born Cary Yan and Gina Zhou, were convicted in New York earlier this year for a conspiracy to bribe Marshall Islands officials to support the scheme.

October’s OCCRP investigation, however, revealed that Yan and Zhou’s plan was just one part of a series of globe-spanning frauds by the pair, which started as a pyramid scheme to sell a miracle water cure and saw them eventually gain top-level access to senior officials at the United Nations in New York.

Both Yan and Zhou, who hold Marshall Islands passports, have since been released from U.S. prison. Zhou returned to the Marshall Islands earlier this year.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons inmate locator website shows Yan was released from detention on November 9th. OCCRP learned that upon release he was arrested by officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He was being held pending return to the Marshall Islands.

“Regardless of nationality, U.S. Immigration And Customs Enforcement (ICE) makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis … considering the circumstances of each case,” an ICE spokesperson said in a statement to OCCRP, declining to discuss if Yan was providing testimony in any other cases being brought by federal prosecutors against people in his sphere of fraud or whether he is being sought by China.