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July 9, 2013

Elkhart County Commissioners invite Chinese delegation for fall trip

GOSHEN — A delegation of Chinese businessmen and government officials want to visit Elkhart County this fall, and Elkhart County’s commissioners are interested in helping to make that happen.

During a meeting of the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners Monday, the commissioners approved a request by Aaron Zou of Aaron, MacGregor & Associates, an Elkhart-based exporter of RVs to China, to have the board write a letter of invitation for the delegation. Zou hopes the letter will help expedite their entry into the country this September.

“There is a group of visitors in China, including government officials and businessmen, interested in coming to Elkhart to visit,” Zou told the board Monday. “The main reason is RV-related. RV’s are getting more and more popular in China, and they realize that Elkhart is the RV Capital of the World, so they expressed a desire to visit. It is their desire to have the County Commissioners send an invitation letter out to them so they can start the process of getting their passports and visas to enter the United States.”

According to County Commissioner Terry Rodino, such requests are fairly typical when involving business and government officials from other countries, as such letters of support can often mean the difference between a denial of entry and an approval.

“This is pretty much standard procedure to get them invited in,” Rodino said. “This just helps expedite it, coming from county officials, to help speed up their process with visas and what have you, for leaving China and coming to America.”

Zou agreed.

“The delegation from China has Chinese government officials, so the county invitation letter will be appropriate to start that process,” Zou said. “And there is a slight chance that their visas may be denied by the U.S. Consulate, so the County Commissioners invitation letter would be a stronger indorsement for their visit.”

Pending lawsuit

Monday’s meeting is reportedly not the first between Rodino and Zou.

Back in March of this year, Rodino’s former business partners, Amit Shah and Tim Dugle, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in South Bend claiming Rodino used his position of authority to profit from a Chinese business deal. Rodino touched on the subject briefly during Monday’s meeting before introducing Zou’s request for a letter of invitation.

“Based upon some of the things that have happened over the last year or so about some comments about the Chinese,” Rodino said, “we just want to kind of make this as transparent as possible.”

According to the lawsuit, Rodino is accused of using his position as county commissioner, in partnership with Zou, to sell five RV’s to a Chinese-owned business after the two took a trip to China as part of a local delegation. The Elkhart County Convention and Visitors bureau put up $20,000 to help pay for the trip.

Rodino’s partners in Elkhart pallet company Duro Inc., Dugle and Shah, claim in the lawsuit Rodino made about $100,000 as a result of the sale, and in doing so violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. The lawsuit also claims Zou, Rodino’s partner in the company that engineered the $1.63 million RV transaction, American Travel Palace, also profited from the transaction. Zou is also accused of making a $30,000 payment to Rodino for helping to facilitate the deal.

The lawsuit involving China is not the first filed against Rodino by his estranged business partners. Dugle and Shah, minority partners in the pallet firm controlled by Rodino, currently have three other lawsuits pending against Rodino in LaGrange Circuit Court. Those lawsuits accuse Rodino of mismanaging the firms and improperly diverting funds from the company. The suits seek reimbursement for those funds.

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