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Senate District 13

State Senate candidate sues political organization, right-wing news site, GOP committee over claims his campaign is linked to China 

July 1, 2024 at 8:11:12 PM

Andrea Charur


Persecuted in China for being Christian, Republican Bowen Kou came to the U.S. as a teen, built a company of grocery stores and is now running for the Florida State Senate in District 13, where he's been smeared by fellow Republicans as an agent of the Chinese Communist Party.

From Facebook

Bowen Kou, a candidate in the Republican Senate District 13 primary, Saturday filed a lawsuit in the Fifth Judicial Circuit Court in Lake County against Steve Crim, founder of the nonprofit political organization Common Sense America, and the right-wing news site Florida’s Voice and its founder/CEO Brendon Leslie. The lawsuit claims the publication defamed Kou when it published an article that reported on a letter Crim sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, warning him that Kou, described as a “Chinese national,” may have “ongoing ties with the communist nation.” 

Kou is a naturalized American citizen who immigrated to the United States when he was 19. 

The lawsuit comes the day after Kou, who is represented by Anthony Sabatini, an attorney and chair of the Lake County GOP, filed another defamation lawsuit in the Fifth Judicial Circuit Court against the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee (FRSCC) and State Sen. Ben Albritton in his capacity as the chair of the FRSCC committee. This lawsuit concerns a political mailer, sent to Lake County voters by the FRSCC, which suggested Kou is being influenced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and funded by Chinese nationals living in the U.S.


“They have racism in their minds,” Hong Kou, the candidate’s wife and spokesperson, said in a Friday phone interview with VoxPopuli. 

The Kous want the politicians responsible for the mailer to be removed from office. 

“They can’t represent people of all colors and diversity,” she said.  

Bowen Kou declined to comment for this story, but Hong Kou said he will hold a press conference about both lawsuits Tuesday, July 2, at 11 a.m. at the Lake County Courthouse/Clerk of Courts at 550 W. Main Street in Tavares.  

A “peculiar” candidacy?

The article in Florida’s Voice — described in the lawsuit as a “‘pay for play’ website that specializes in political ‘hit pieces’ disguised as news coverage” — quotes Crim’s letter to DeSantis at length, detailing his concerns with the CCP infiltrating state and local elections; with China’s “empire building” in Florida; with Kou’s immigration; his U.S. citizenship; how Kou made his fortune and raised funds for his campaign. 

A candidacy as peculiar as this warrants a more thorough investigation,” Crim said in his letter as reported by Florida’s Voice.   

VoxPopuli could not locate the letter Crims wrote to DeSantis, however, Common Sense America also sent a letter to Congress, urging lawmakers to investigate foreign influence over environmental groups. 

Crim describes himself as a political adviser and was a campaign strategist and later director of public affairs to former Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. He founded Common Sense America as a nonprofit that aims to “highlight failed extremism on both ends of the political spectrum” and find moderate solutions to issues. He did not respond to multiple emails from VoxPopuli requesting comment. 

In a Monday text message, Leslie told VoxPopuli, “Florida’s Voice is a statewide leader in conservative reporting and frivolous lawsuits will not stop us from telling the news Floridians care about the most.” 

Racist asian mailer
Candidate Bowen Kou on the mailer sent to Lake County voters, approved by his primary opponent State Rep. Keith Truenow: "To accuse me of being a foreign agent just because I’m Asian is both shameful and a disgusting race-based attack.”

“This is about civil rights”

The mailer sent to Lake County voters in late June by the FRSCC — described in the lawsuit as a “dark money political committee financed by special interests in Tallahassee, Florida, that specializes in false and defamatory 'attack ads' against conservative Republicans in primary elections — suggests that Kou’s campaign is being underwritten by Chinese nationals and that he is “controlled by the Chinese Community Party.” 

The mailer includes a map of China with an overlay of the CCP flag, together with a U.S. map highlighting the states where Kou’s donors live. It reads “80% of Kou’s donations are from outside of Florida” and includes a list of Kou’s campaign contributions from out of state.

The mailer’s flip side shows Kou behind a Chinese flag with the words “Why are Chinese donors (from all over the country) flooding Bowen Kou with cash?” There’s a picture of a Politico headline about foreign interference in U.S. politics. The Politico article is not about Kou’s campaign. 

The FRSCC mailer was approved by Kou’s Aug. 20 primary opponent, State Rep. Keith Truenow together with FRSCC Chair Albritton and Florida House Rep. Tom Leek of District 28 — all of whom are running for election. The mailer endorsed all three. A search of campaign finance records shows that the FRSCC has not donated to Truenow’s campaign to date. However, Truenow's political action committee Growing Florida's Leadership, has donated $150,000 to the FRSCC.

Truenow declined to comment. Albritton did not respond to multiple phone call and email requests for comment. 

Kou denounced the mailers, posting on Facebook, “These recent mailers by Truenow’s allies sicken me. To accuse me of being a foreign agent just because I’m Asian is both shameful and a disgusting race-based attack.” 

He called Truenow out personally in a separate Facebook post about the lawsuit against Florida’s Voice/Common Sense America as “a desperate politician who thinks people can’t hold office because of their skin color, hides behind racial groups to obscure his true record.” 

(Truenow is not named in either lawsuit. Campaign finance records show Common Sense America has not contributed to Truenow’s campaign.)

Kou’s post garnered comments condemning FRSCC and Truenow for the mailer, deriding it as “shameful,” “unethical” “dirty politics,” and that it is “time to break up the long running corrupt “good ole boy” system of Lake County and the surrounding areas.” 

Since the mailer was distributed, the Kous have received calls daily from voters who believe the ad, frightened donors who are listed on the mailer and friends who are concerned that the mailer will do harm, the lawsuit states. 

Hong Kou said that the people listed are Chinese-Americans and their friends or business associates. She said they are being targeted for having Chinese names. 


“I’m scared as a community member,” Hong Kou said. “This is about civil rights.”   

American success story

A Winter Garden resident and first-time political candidate, Kou told VoxPopuli in a May interview that he came to the U.S. when he was 19 to study at Michigan State University. He became a U.S. citizen in 2019. He owns nine grocery stores that sell Asian foods and three bakeries under the Fresh International Market umbrella.  

While in college, Kou started a business buying and reselling textbooks at a better price than the campus store. He heard that a small grocery store owner in East Lansing was selling his business, so Kou sold his bookstore and bought the grocery store. He later dropped out of university to continue growing his business.

“It's very hard for me to grow by myself, but … there are a lot of good program out there for people who want to be a small business owner,” he said. 

He has addressed his Chinese heritage previously in speeches, interviews and on social media, saying his experiences in China give him first-hand experience about the dangers of the CCP. He cannot return to China, he said, because in 2012, he was arrested there and held for two weeks because he brought an American version of the Bible with him to give to his grandmother, an offense he said would stay on his record and cause continued persecution. 

He said he backs the Florida law to restrict Florida property sales to Chinese nationals as well as citizens from Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Russia and North Korea, saying, “those farmland, sometime they very close to military base.” 

The law, currently being challenged in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, makes it a felony for Chinese buyers to purchase “large swaths” of agricultural property and land within 10 miles of military bases, airports, seaports, power plants and other “critical infrastructure.” The challenge, brought by the ACLU, argues that the law restricts housing and creates “Chinese exclusionary zones” throughout Florida, akin to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Chinese Alien Act of 1913. 

Chinese Donors?

Both the Florida’s Voice article and the FRSCC mailer have questioned Kou’s campaign finances, suggesting that China is funneling cash to his campaign. 

According to Crim’s letter, Kou has “raised thousands nationally from other Chinese donors” although, as reported, Crim provided no evidence that Kou’s donors are Chinese citizens living in the U.S. In his letter to DeSantis, Crim focused on “why someone who has only been in the US for a short period time (sic) has donated $1 million.” Crim called Kou’s campaign — which he described as “a Chinese national running for a Florida State Senate seat — “deeply troubling” and said it “raises the alarm” … “especially in deep red Lake County Florida.” 

The lawsuit against Crim and Leslie of Florida’s Voice argues that “All defendants know Mr. Bowen Kou is an American citizen and not a citizen of China. They also know or should have known that Mr. Kou has never taken money from China or members of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Kou has contributed more than $1.2 million to his own campaign, with total contributions nearing  $1.45 million. Other than Kou himself, donors with Florida addresses contributed close to $40,000, leaving roughly $200,000 from donors in other states — about 14 percent of the total. 

The lawsuit against the FRSCC also argues that “defendant FRSCC knows [that Kou’s campaign is largely self-funded] and deliberately stated otherwise with malice.” 

In other words: as the FRSCC had sifted through Kou’s campaign finance documents to assemble a list of out-of-state donors for the mailer, they would have known that Kou, a Florida resident, had made 83 percent of his total contributions, when they published that “80% of Kou’s donations are from outside Florida.” 

“All campaign contributions are public,” Sabatini noted in a text message to VoxPopuli. 

Kou is seeking $2 million in damages from both lawsuits.  

“The FRSCC is liable and will pay big time,” Sabatini told VoxPopuli in a text message. 

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