Celebrity chef Tony Hu sentenced to 1 year, 1 day in prison

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SUN-TIMES MEDIA WIRE - Chinatown restaurateur Tony Hu grew his business empire out of Chicago’s Chinatown. Now, he’s headed to prison on tax and money laundering charges.

A federal judge on Friday sentenced Hu to one year and one day in prison. He will likely serve a little more than 10 months as punishment under federal rules. That is significantly less than the 41 to 51 months he was expected to serve under his plea agreement.

Hu, 49, had pleaded guilty last May.

More than 100 people packed into U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve’s courtroom, with dozens more milling in the hallway outside after every seat was filled, all supporters of the so-called “Mayor of Chinatown.”

The celebrated chef, whose restaurants include Lao Sze Chuan, had pleaded guilty in May to tax fraud and money laundering charges, admitting that he hid more than $10 million in receipts from his restaurant, dodging some $1 million in taxes.

Hu had built a cuisine empire in relatively short order after immigrating to the United States in the early 1990s. At his peak Hu, who’s given name is Hu Xiaojun, owned a half-dozen restaurants in Chicago’s Chinatown, and had expanded into Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles, a rags-to-riches story that his lawyers had spelled out in court documents.

Agents searched Hu’s home in October 2014 and discovered “what can best be described as an assembly line for the doctoring of records,” prosecutors claim. On Hu’s couch, they found piles of falsified restaurant receipts, as well as receipts waiting to be altered. On the floor were piles of records waiting to be destroyed.

“[Hu] built a world-renowned restaurant empire and came to be known as ‘the Mayor of Chinatown’ for his business and political prowess,” Assistant U.S. Attorney William Ridgway wrote in a memo filed in federal court last month. “But beneath that business success — and the political clout that came with it — was a deeply rooted fraud.”

Hu’s attorney has argued his client simply got caught up in a pervasive Chinatown culture of cash and tax dodging.

“Tony created a line of restaurants that brought comfort to immigrants and opened the eyes of others,” defense attorney Sheldon Zenner wrote in his own memo. “He then gave back: to charitable causes, to civic organizations, and to friends, family, and the community. Tony failed, however, to reject the way of doing business that surrounded him.”

A naturalized citizen, Hu’s lawyers have said he won’t face deportation as a result of his conviction. St. Eve also ordered Hu to pay a $100,000 fine.

Hu’s supporters had hoped that the businessman would not have to serve jail time, said Wang Xingwu, president of the Chinese American Association of Greater Chicago.

“We are here to support him for all his contributions to our community, not to condone criminal conduct,” Wang said.

Asked if jail time would damage Hu’s standing in the Chinese-American community, Wang said, “I’m sure he will adjust to (prison) and he will do even better.”