Lobsang Dargey’s remarkable journey, which began in poverty in Tibet and led to the high-roller lifestyle of a developer entrusted with millions of dollars of other people’s money, will now include a four-year sentence locked away in a federal prison.
The Bellevue man, 43, was sentenced Friday morning by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik.
Dargey was the driving force behind Potala Village and Path America Farmer’s Market in Everett, plus an aborted attempt to build an office tower in Seattle. He pleaded guilty in January to wire fraud and concealing information from authorities.
Under the plea agreement, he admitted to diverting millions of dollars of investors’ money, much of it raised under a federal program that seeks to spur economic development by providing immigrant investors the inside track on building new lives in the U.S.
Dargey’s attorneys contend a year and a day in prison is sufficient punishment. As part of the plea, he’s agreed to repay investors $24.1 million — somehow.
Federal prosecutors sought a 10-year sentence.
The fraud was one of the biggest in the region in a decade. There would have been more economic devastation had the federal Securities and Exchange Commission not brought legal action to halt Dargey’s activities in 2015, assistant U.S. attorneys Justin Arnold and Seth Wilkinson said in court papers.
The region’s red-hot real estate market also made it possible for a court-appointed receiver to recover some of the money that Dargey had diverted illegally, they said.
The prosecutors filed a 40-page memo detailing the range and scope of Dargey’s bad acts and evidence he’d “perpetrated massive fraud on hundreds of victims.”
Dargey arrived in the U.S. in 1997. He worked in a variety of jobs, including renovating and “flipping” a Seattle home with other refugees, according to court papers.
He entered the real estate market in 2006, purchasing the Everett Public Market. He then bought and renovated the former Federal Building on Colby Avenue. In the midst of the recession, he transformed a former used-car lot into Potala Village, which mixes a four-story apartment building with ground-floor retail.
The foundations for Dargey’s fraud were laid in 2010 when he began development projects in Seattle and Everett and tied them to the federal EB-5 program.
The defendant convinced Chinese investors and lenders to put nearly $240 million into his projects. People sold their homes and businesses and handed over the money based on promises that Dargey would help them realize dreams of achieving permanent U.S. residency, the prosecutors wrote.
“Despite his repeated assurances to the contrary, Dargey shattered these immigrant investors’ dreams by looting millions of their investment dollars and using them for Dargey’s personal benefit and to pay unauthorized commissions to overseas brokers. The magnitude, breadth and deceptive nature of Dargey’s misconduct is shocking,” the memo said.
Dargey’s lawyers countered with a 79-page memo that encouraged the judge to look past the crimes and to view Dargey on a broader canvas.
The farmers market project alone “paid enormous dividends to the people of Western Washington and beyond,” attorneys Robert Mahler, Adrienne McKelvey and Shawn Larsen-Bright wrote. They pointed to an independent economic analysis performed after the court-appointed receiver took control of Dargey’s undertakings. It concluded the market project created more than 1,500 jobs and generated more than $368 million in economic benefit, according to court papers.
“Lobsang Dargey did not ‘fleece’ anyone. He built buildings,” the lawyers wrote.
They urged Lasnik to consider the case in the context of Dargey’s life story, including growing up destitute in Tibet, where he for a time pursued life as a monk. They recounted how he fled in the face of oppression by Chinese security forces, crossing the Himalayan range on foot, much of the way carrying somebody else’s 3-year-old child on his back.
By the time he reached safety in a refugee center in India, Dargey had traveled on foot roughly the same distance from Seattle to Albany, New York, the lawyers said.
They urged the judge to consider that Dargey’s misconduct could be motivated by a complex mix of culture, limited academic education, and mental challenges, including traumatic stress.
He was naive in how he went about navigating the complexities of big business, they contended, and in some respects is barely fluent in English.
Federal prosecutors said that’s not true. Authorities spent much of a year making sense of Dargey’s financial entanglements. They’ve interviewed his business associates. They’ve gathered his emails. He had no difficulty communicating with others or understanding business, they said.
Dargey’s grand plans were doomed from the start, they said, in part because the plans relied on him investing millions of dollars of his own funds — money he knew he never had.
“Dargey used his status as an immigrant to gain the trust of investors then stole not only their money, but their opportunity to live a better life in the United States through hard work. Dargey of all people understood his investors’ desire for status in the country, but, by his intentional conduct, denied them all that status,” they added.