Just a week before prominent Thornton restaurateur Dan Tang is set to be sentenced for his part in the largest indoor marijuana bust in state history, the lead investigator on the case and a colleague have filed a federal lawsuit alleging that they faced retaliation from their superiors for reporting suspected corruption to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
On Friday, March 19, Northglenn detective Daniel Joyce and Thornton detective Robert Lopez filed suit against the North Metro Task Force — a drug-investigation team that both served on while working on the case — as well as the cities of Thornton and Northglenn, claiming that their rights were violated and asking for $500,000 in damages. Several of the task force's supervisors are also named in the suit: Thornton police chief James Nursey, Northglenn chief Russell Van Houten, former task force commander Timothy Hersee, and task force sergeants Dante Carbone, Jack Bell and Richard Reigenborn.
While neither Joyce nor Lopez would comment on their lawsuit, the complaint sheds new light on the turmoil behind the scenes during Operation Fortune Cookie, a massive investigation into a ring of marijuana grow houses in the north metro area. Over a marathon, multi-day operation in February 2008, more than a hundred law enforcement officers and DEA agents raided innocent-looking ranch houses on suburban cul-de-sacs and came away with more than 24,000 marijuana plants and $3 million in cash. The investigation had gotten its start the previous summer, when Joyce followed up on a tip. As he realized the extent of the illegal operation, other task force officers, including Lopez, got involved; that September, the DEA signed on.
Among the suspects was Dan Tang, a well-connected businessman whose restaurant, Heaven Dragon, had served mayors, district attorneys, governors and President George W. Bush. Investigators pegged Tang as the ring's kingpin, going so far as to label it "The Dan Tang Drug Trafficking Organization" in search warrants.
But Operation Fortune Cookie's headline-capturing raids had to be launched much earlier than planned, after Joyce and his colleagues learned that someone with intimate knowledge of the case had sent a letter to Tang, alerting him to the investigation. Two months after the raids, the DEA began investigating North Metro, its crime-fighting partner, in order to find the source of the leak. The results of the rancorous investigation have never been revealed, but in the year following the raids, half of the eighteen-member task force left or was reassigned, including Joyce, Lopez, Hersee and Carbone.
According to Joyce and Lopez's lawsuit, "The position of supervisors within the Task Force was not to cooperate with the investigation." The suit claims that in May 2008, Hersee, then the task force's commander, "warned Detective Joyce not to cooperate with federal officials about the leak." Lopez allegedly faced similar warnings.
The rift between local law enforcement and the feds was so great, the suit says, that "after the investigation into the letter was initiated by the DEA, various chiefs of police and other officials, including defendants Hersee, Carbone, Reigenborn and Bell, decided to stop working with the DEA on drug cases."
DEA spokesman Mike Turner, Van Houten and Nursey all declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying they had not yet seen it. Other defendants named in the suit did not return calls.
"I knew officers were unhappy," says Adams County District Attorney Don Quick. "But it wasn't in the sense that I heard anything was being said or done to them. I have no knowledge of anybody telling people not to cooperate with the DEA. Any time I was in meetings, the discussion was always about cooperating with the DEA."
In their suit, Joyce and Lopez claim that task force supervisors "refused to take action in response to allegations of corruption and allowed the main suspect in the federal investigation into the leak in the Tang case to stay in a supervisory position at the Task Force."
While that suspect has never been revealed, several task force investigators say that Dante Carbone, the North Metro sergeant who supervised Operation Fortune Cookie, acted strangely during the case and didn't mention that he was acquainted with Tang. Carbone, who did not respond to an e-mail from Westword, also reportedly downplayed the letter to Tang when it was first discovered.
"Did I have concerns about what was going on at North Metro? Absolutely," says Tom Gorman, director of the federal Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which oversees North Metro and other regional task forces. "But as an administrator, given information they had, in my opinion it was insufficient for any kind of action."
Joyce and Lopez voiced other concerns about North Metro, their lawsuit claims. Lopez said that detectives weren't given proper protective clothing against environmental health risks while raiding the grow houses. Joyce complained about Operation Fortune Cookie's "failure to prosecute certain government officials and prominent businessmen." According to investigation records obtained by Westword, after the raids, Tang gave about $400,000 for safekeeping to former Thornton mayor and current RTD vice-chairman Noel Busck and another $400,000 to Adams County Board of Education director Fred Schaefer. Neither have been charged in connection with the case.
Joyce and Lopez claim they faced harsh reprisals for speaking out. Joyce, who'd had a clean disciplinary record, says he was reprimanded by task force leaders for answering questions about the leak, subjected to new performance requirements and increased supervision, segregated from his North Metro colleagues and removed from a major drug case he'd initiated. Lopez, a five-year veteran of the task force, alleges that he faced similar reprisals and was removed from the task force in June 2008. Several months later, Joyce claims he was forced to leave as well.
According to the lawsuit, other North Metro members were also forced out for speaking up, including Lynn Riemer, the task force's chemist and criminalist for seven years. "Everything in the lawsuit is 100 percent true," says Riemer. "Six of us are gone from the North Metro task force directly because of the DEA investigation. We were forced out, removed or chose to leave. I hope through this lawsuit that the truth comes out."
After being repeatedly told they couldn't do so, in April 2009 Joyce and Lopez were finally allowed to file formal complaints against North Metro and their respective police departments. While several sources say that the FBI was asked to look into the matter, FBI spokesman Dave Joly says he can neither confirm nor deny an investigation.
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While questions persist about the task force, Operation Fortune Cookie has slowly drawn to a close. This past June, the U.S. Attorney's Office charged Tang with one count of money laundering. He was the last of 21 people charged in connection with the so-called Dan Tang Drug Trafficking Organization, and the only one not to be charged with any drug crimes, even though investigation documents obtained by Westword suggest that law enforcement believed he had much more involvement than just money-laundering.
Gene Ciancio, Tang's lawyer, told Westword he had no comment on the lawsuit. U.S. Attorney spokesman Jeff Dorschner says the allegations in the lawsuit have no impact on the case against the restaurateur: "Dan Tang's prosecution was based on evidence, he pled guilty based on that evidence, and he awaits sentencing."
In November, Tang pleaded guilty to the money-laundering charge in exchange for retaining ownership of Heaven Dragon and other concessions; the government will get to keep roughly $1 million it seized during the investigation. Prosecutors have recommended that Tang receive 11 to 30 months of prison time or probation, considerably less than the 70 to 87 months indicated by the sentencing guidelines. Tang's sentencing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on March 31.
But after that, Operation Fortune Cookie's courtroom dramas may continue, courtesy of Joyce and Lopez's lawsuit. Trish Bangert, the detectives' lawyer, says the $500,000 they're asking for is a rough estimate of the wages and employment opportunities they've lost, as well as the damage to their reputations and well-being. "Their major concern was trying to make sure there was not corruption in the last place you would want corruption, and that's in a police force," she says. "They're two very good police officers who tried to do the right thing, and they got penalized for it, and that shouldn't happen."