The drama continues around Operation Fortune Cookie, the largest weed bust in state history, which imploded amid accusations of snitching cops, paid-off politicians and bureaucratic retribution.
Last week, the drug investigation's main suspect, politically connected restaurateur Dan Tang, received eighteen months in prison for a single money laundering charge he received for his involvement with the grow ring. But during the dramatic, day-long sentencing hearing the judge revealed that the DEA, which helped run the drug bust, sent a letter to the court complaining that the U.S. Attorney's Office had under-prosecuted Tang.
The court has sealed DEA's objection letter, and the federal drug agency has declined to comment on its concerns with the case. But now another high-ranking official is speaking up: Tom Gorman.
The outspoken head of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal program that runs all police tasks forces in the four-state area, including the North Metro Task Force that launched Operation Fortune Cookie, Gorman has a few choice words about Tang's sentencing last week.
"I agree with DEA that the sentence makes absolutely no sense," he says. "I don't understand why it was so light, and you'll have to ask the U.S. Attorneys Office as to why."
Operation Fortune Cookie investigators were so confident Tang was the drug-ring kingpin they named it the "Dan Tang Drug Trafficking Organization." But of the 21 people charged as part of the investigation, Tang was the only one who didn't receive any drug charges -- although a March 2009 IRS investigation report obtained by Westword concluded that the evidence collected during Operation Fortune Cookie showed that "in or about 2007 to April 18, 2008, Dan Khau Tang conspired to cultivate and/or distribute multi-pound quantities of marijuana in the Denver, Colorado area and other parts of the United States."
Then, this past November, federal prosecutors arranged a plea deal in which Tang was recommended to receive eleven to thirty months of prison time and/or probation -- considerably less than the seventy to 87 months indicated by the advisory sentencing guidelines for the case. The maximum allowed for the money-laundering crime is twenty years in prison.
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During Tang's sentencing, Stephanie Podolak the head U.S. Attorney assigned to the case, defended Tang's prosecution and plea deal. But her office received flak during the turbulence behind the scenes of Operation Fortune Cookie. In February 2008, someone with intimate knowledge of the case sent a tip-off letter to Tang informing him he was being watched, causing investigators to launch their headline-grabbing grow house raids much earlier than planned (Westword obtained a copy of the tip-off letter last October).
While the results of a DEA investigation into the apparent leak have never been revealed, several sources then at North Metro say their supervisor, Thornton Sergeant Dante Carbone, acted strangely during the drug investigation and didn't tell them he'd been acquainted with Tang for years. Carbone was also meeting weekly with U.S. Attorney Wayne Campbell, the lead prosecutor originally assigned to the case. While the two were close personal friends, Campbell told Westword that he was not aware at the time Carbone was acquainted with Tang. In early 2009, Carbone left the task force and Campbell was taken off case.
While the case is apparently closed on Operation Fortune Cookie's main suspect, repercussions from the tumultuous drug investigation continue. Several weeks ago, the lead North Metro case agent on Operation Fortune Cookie and his colleague filed a federal lawsuit alleging they faced retaliation from their superiors for cooperating with the DEA investigation into the law-enforcement leak, as well as claimed that their supervisors allowed the main suspect in the investigation to remain in a supervisory position at the Task Force.
As the lawsuit develops, maybe some of the many remaining questions about Operation Fortune Cookie will finally be answered.