This afternoon, Chief U.S. District Judge Wiley Y. Daniel sentenced prominent Thornton restaurant owner Dan Tang to eighteen months in prison for his part in the largest marijuana bust in state history -- more than the probation requested by his lawyers, but considerably less than the seventy to 87 months indicated by the case's sentencing guidelines or apparently what drug investigators had pushed for.
Tang was the prime suspect in Operation Fortune Cookie, a massive investigation into marijuana grow houses hidden in suburban north metro homes that devolved into accusations of dirty cops, paid-off politicians and bureaucratic cover-ups.
Authorities were originally so confident Tang, a well-heeled Thornton restaurateur who's served mayors, governors and former President George W. Bush, was the drug ring's boss that they named it the "Dan Tang Drug Trafficking Organization." But when Tang was finally charged, sixteen months after the investigation's spectacular grow-house raids, prosecutors charged him with one count of money laundering -- the only one of 21 people charged in the case to not face any drug charges.
As part of a plea deal announced in November, prosecutors recommended to the judge that Tang only serve eleven to thirty months of prison time and/or probation -- and when Tang's sentencing hearing began this morning, Daniel made note of the fact that the Drug Enforcement Administration, which helped run Operation Fortune Cookie, had recently submitted an objection suggesting the U.S. Attorney's Office "was under-prosecuting the case."
That was just one of many dramatic moments during the lengthy sentencing hearing today. But Daniel cut to the chase when he sentenced Tang late this afternoon, noting that, along with the money laundering, investigation, reports suggested Tang gave large amounts of money to family members and other individuals to start grow houses, employed some grow-house members at his restaurant, Heaven Dragon, so they could show legitimate income, and skimmed hundreds of thousands of dollars from his restaurant's books.
"What it shows is this was serious conduct," said Daniel. "Large amounts of money were laundered. It was used to effectuate the cultivation of these marijuana plants." He added: "The bottom line was, money was skimmed, taxes were avoided, and while it is not a formal charge, it does show the conduct of the defendant."
As to arguments by Tang's defense team that the restaurateur was taken advantage of by people because he culturally and psychologically didn't know how to say "no," the judge responded, "You can be generous to everyone in the world, but you can't be generous to the extent that it violates the law. At some level, you have to learn how to say no. You have to understand that some people in the world are going to take advantage of you."
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To help him learn that lesson, Daniel then sentenced Tang to eighteen months incarceration and three years of supervised release. His sentence is scheduled to begin on August 16. Daniel recommended that Tang be incarcerated at the Englewood prison camp, so he could be close to his family.
U.S. Attorney David M. Gaouette sat in on the hearing. Afterwards, he had little comment regarding the next legal chapter of Operation Fortune Cookie: Recently, two of the investigators involved filed a lawsuit alleging they faced retaliation from their superiors for speaking out about suspected corruption in the case. "I don't have an opinion on the lawsuit," says Gaouette. "I don't know the subject matter and haven't seen the lawsuit."
Tang's sentence came under the strenuous objections of his legal team. Right before sentencing, Tang attorney Michael Axt appealed to Daniel, saying, "I would ask the court to not cut off the head of the dragon. Mr. Tang is the head of the dragon."
Consider this dragon, for the moment, beheaded.