Operation Fortune Cookie, a 2008 raid that netted 24,000 marijuana plants, was the largest weed bust in Colorado history -- but it imploded among suspicions of police snitches, paid-off politicians and a secret DEA investigation. Now a court filing quoting from that investigation alleges the prime suspect for tipping off restaurateur and drug kingpin Dan Tang -- a development that crumbled Operation Fortune Cookie -- was Thornton cop Dante Carbone.
The filing comes as part of a federal lawsuit filed last March by Daniel Joyce, the lead investigator on Operation Fortune Cookie, and Robert Lopez, his colleague on the North Metro Task Force (NMTF). In the suit, the officers alleged they faced retaliation from their superiors for reporting suspected corruption to DEA agents.
NMTF, an elite drug-investigation team, launched Operation Fortune Cookie in August 2007 and later joined forces with the DEA to take the drug ring down. But NMTF itself came under DEA scrutiny after someone with intimate knowledge of the case sent a tip-off letter to Dan Tang, the suspected leader of the drug ring, setting the raids in motion much earlier than investigators had hoped.
The results of the DEA's rancorous internal investigation were never revealed, but in the year following the raids, half of the eighteen-member task force left or was reassigned, including Joyce and Lopez.
In their lawsuit, Joyce and Lopez pushed for the release of the investigation's results, arguing it would shed light on many of the details they were punished for divulging. According to a motion filed yesterday arguing once again for the report's release, the officers and their lawyer were recently allowed to read a copy of the 153-page summary of the investigation. As indicated by the motion, that summary casts suspicion on one police officer in particular: Thornton cop Dante Carbone.
As reported in Westword's original story on Operation Fortune Cookie, Carbone, then a sergeant but who has since been promoted to commander, was one of the officers supervising Operation Fortune Cookie. But during parts of the drug raid, he apparently acted strangely. For example, colleagues said he'd played down the significance of the tip-off letter when investigators first learned about it, stating it was no reason to bust down the doors of the grow houses ahead of schedule. He also had known Tang for years, something he apparently never told either his colleagues at North Metro or Wayne Campbell, the U.S. Attorney working on the case, even though Campbell and Carbone were old friends.
According to Joyce and Lopez's motion, parts of which are linked below, the DEA report indicates Carbone's unusual actions continued during the internal probe into the leak. Among the allegations:
- "...of the 29 DEA and NMTF employees interviewed [including two of the other three members of the NMTF management], approximately half questioned Sergeant Carbone's integrity and/or suspected that he may have been involved in compromising the Tang investigation."
- "The 'most frequently mentioned reason' was 'that Carbone had a prior relationship with Tang that he did not mention to NMTF and DEA employees.' Carbone and Tang admitted that they 'had known each other for years.' Tang said that Carbone 'has eaten at Heaven Dragon a couple of times per month for many years' and said that he had known Sergeant Carbone for 6 or 7 years. When Tang was interviewed on February 18, 2008, he 'said that he was disappointed because he looked bad in front of his friend, Dante.' Further, while the investigation was active and ongoing, Carbone continued to eat at Tang's restaurant, Heaven Dragon, even taking other NMTF detectives there on February 8, 2008."
- "On May 13, 2008, DEA polygrapher Special Agent Robert Dwyer administered [a polygraph] examination to Sergeant Carbone. In the opinion of SA Dwyer, Sergeant Carbone was deceptive in answering 'no' to the relevant questions. Special Agent Dwyer determined that the result of Sergeant Carbone's polygraph examination was 'Deception Indicated.' Special Agent Dwyer noted that as the polygraph testing began, Sergeant Carbone began to sweat profusely. According to Special Agent Dwyer, at one point Sergeant Carbone asked a question to the effect of, 'Does everyone sweat like me?'"
- "[NMTF] Commander Hersee described Carbone's behavior as "unusual or suspicious." "Commander Hersee said that he and Sergeant Carbone discussed the investigation of the compromising of the case nearly every day, with Sergeant Carbone attempting to obtain information from Commander Hersee... Commander Hersee stated that once he stopped discussing the investigation with Sergeant Carbone, Sergeant Carbone became 'unduly concerned' and 'extremely nervous' about the investigation."
- "The investigators stated that their investigation showed instances of questionable ethics on Sergeant Carbone's part. In an earlier leak of information about a case, the person receiving the information, Carl Scherk, a former Westminister Police Officer fired for corruption, said that he learned everything from Carbone. In another instance, a gang member claimed to be an in-law of Carbone. Also, an officer came to Carbone with suspicions of a dirty cop and Carbone discouraged the officer from pursuing the matter."
- A cell phone number mentioned in the tip-off letter to Tang "belonged to a phone purchased at Westminister Mall on the afternoon of February 7, 2008. The sales person remembered that a young girl in her teens purchased the phone." While the name and address given to the store turned out to be an alias, "Investigators found that a relative of Carbone had been in the vicinity of Westminster Mall, when the cell phone was purchased on February 7, 2008."
- "Noel Busck, the former deputy mayor of Thornton, is a friend of Tang's and Carbone's. He is a Tang confidant, having known him for 20 years. Busck is also a friend of Carbone's, describing Carbone as his 'bud' who 'watches my back'... On February 17, 2008, a friend told Busck that Tang was likely to be arrested. On February 20, 2008, after his arrest, Tang asked Busck to hold $400,000 for him. Busck took the money and eventually put it in a safe deposit box at a local bank. On February 21, Tang asked Busck to give the money to Tang's wife. Busck refused and Tang came to Busck's house and took back the money. Another officer heard about this matter from Dan Joyce. The officer, Detective Dudley, told Carbone about the incident on February 26, 2008, at which point Carbone became 'visibly upset,' 'irrational,' and was 'physically shaking.' Carbone threatened to fire Joyce."
- "On March 7, 2008, Carbone and Wayne Campbell, an assistant U.S. Attorney on the Tang case, met and decided not to prosecute Busck. Carbone and Campbell had been friends for a long time. Campbell said that he did not know what to do with Campbell at that lunch. After lunch with Wayne Campell, Carbone called Busck and told him that Busck would be 'a witness' and not a "suspect' in the Tang case. Busck called back and said 'Thanks, Dante, I know you had something to do with this."
- "The investigators said that a possible motive for Carbone to author the letter, if he did so, was political, that is to 'limit the exposure of Tang and associates,' especially after the warrant was allowed for the tap of Tang's wife's phone."
Carbone has yet to respond to an e-mail sent this morning requesting comment. But Patricia Bangert, Joyce and Lopez's attorney, says "This report shows he was the prime suspect" -- something she also gleaned from interviews she's conducted in the case. "In the depositions I took of the police chiefs and the supervisors, they admitted [Carbone] was the prime suspect. And one supervisor said the board discussed Carbone being the prime suspect in a [NMTF] board of governors meeting," she says.
"This shows there are two system of justice here: One is for the people who are rich and well connected, and one for the rest of us," she concludes. "Here we have the prime suspect in the lead, and someone who did violate the codes for his police force, getting promoted." She believes Tang got preferential treatment, too. The well-connected restaurateur was charged with one count of money laundering, the only one of 21 people charged in Operation Fortune Cookie to not face any drug charges, and was sentenced to prison for eighteen months, considerably less than the seventy to 87 months indicated by the case's sentencing guidelines or what drug investigators had pushed for.
And while the U.S. Justice Department has rejected repeated open-records requests for the DEA report, including one filed by Westword, Bangert says she saw nothing in the investigation summary that would bar it from public scrutiny. "I worked for the federal government for seventeen years," she says. "I dealt with a fair number of FOIA requests, and I saw nothing in there that shouldn't be made public."
From her point of view, keeping the DEA report locked away is just stonewalling by the US Attorneys office, even though she believes the report shows her clients were trying to speak out on legitimate matters of public concern. As she puts it, "We are not going to get a fair trial if we can't get all the information."
Page down to read the Joyce-Lopez amended affidavit and excerpts from handwritten notes from a review of the summary's report.
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Handwritten notes from review of report's summary: