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Operation Fortune Cookie and Dan Tang: Dramatic dispatches from Tang's sentencing

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Today at 9:30 a.m., Chief U.S. District Judge Wiley Y. Daniel began the sentencing hearing for Dan Tang, the last person charged as part of Operation Fortune Cookie, the largest marijuana bust in state history.

Law enforcement believed Tang, a prominent Thornton restaurateur who's served mayors, governors and former President George W. Bush, was the drug operation's ringleader, and so far, his sentencing hearing has transpired just like the embattled investigation that led to a single money-laundering charge filed against Tang last summer: long, convoluted and heavy on the dramatics.

The hearing's gone on much longer than scheduled, and at noon Daniel ordered a recess until 3:30 p.m., at which the hearing will wrap up and the judge will sentence Tang for his crime. In the meantime, here are some intriguing tidbits that have already come up:

• Daniel started the hearing off with a bang by noting that the DEA, which ran Operation Fortune Cookie alongside the North Metro Task Force, a local police narcotics team, had submitted an objection to Tang's pre-sentence report, apparently suggesting the U.S. attorneys office "was under-prosecuting the case." As part of a plea deal announced in November, federal prosecutors have recommended Tang 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.

• Although the DEA's letter and a second objection, filed on the same day two weeks ago, are sealed, Daniel asked Stephanie Podolak, head U.S. Attorney on the case, to comment on the drug agency's objections. "I think it's certainly fair to say there has been some disagreement between our office and the Drug Administration as to what Mr. Tang should have been charged with and what his ultimate sentence should be," said Podolak. "I would say there has been some disagreement within the DEA itself as to what road should be taken."

• She went on to note that "what Mr. Tang did was lend money to family members and other individuals, who then used the money to obtain marijuana. He did jot have any involvement with the distribution of marijuana or the cultivation of marijuana."

However, 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 with several known... and unknown co-conspirators and conspired to launder the illegal proceeds by attempting to conceal bulk cash in safe deposit boxes, by using the Heavens Dragon Chinese Restaurant [sic] to falsely employ workers that were actually tending to the marijuana grows, as well as by purchasing real estate with the intent of using the property as an indoor marijuana grow."

• After Podulak's brief appearance, Tang's legal team began a lengthy presentation as to why their client should not receive prison time. Michael Axt, one of his two lawyers, attempted to address the "elephant in the room" -- i.e., apparent leniency in Tang's recommending sentencing -- by explaining that psychologically and culturally, Tang was a man who couldn't say no: "He was abused by people, he was used by people. And everyone came to him because he had money."

• Axt argued that several other people had much more involvement in the grow ring, including Tang's wife, Xiu Ying Li, who, as part of the plea deal, was not being charged. "The evidence on his wife was substantially greater than any evidence on Mr. Tang. And she is getting a pass," said Axt. "The... wiretap was on her phone, not on Mr. Tang's phone. Where is the parity?"

• Axt also argued that Tang didn't start the grow ring, and that the operation began in Sacramento with funding from some other source, only moving to Colorado once California law enforcement was closing in. But records obtained by Westword indicate that Tang told investigators that two of his five brothers traveled to Canada to learn how to become pot farmers in 2005 or 2006, before drug agents busted the Sacramento grow ring.

• To bolster his point, Axt quoted interviews with DEA special agent Michael Marshall, the lead DEA agent on Operation Fortune Cookie. He noted Marshall said things about Tang such as, "His biggest problem is his heart is too big," "Dan is not the leader of the group. His wife got him involved," and "It's about time people stop taking advantage of the guy." Axt noted that Podolak had considered calling Special Agent Marshall to the stand today, but for a couple of reasons, he elected not to.

• Tang's lawyers also played a CBS4 news clip from several years ago that celebrated Tang's contributions to the community. In it, former Thornton mayor and current RTD vice-chairman Noel Busck and Adams County Board of Education director Fred Schaefer call Tang an example of the "American Dream." Records obtained by Westword report that soon after the grow houses were raided, Tang gave roughly $400,000 each to Busck and Schaefer for safe keeping.

• Finally, the defense team called Dr. David Kan, a forensic psychiatrist flown in from San Francisco. Kan testified that he'd spent time with Tang and diagnosed him with depressive disorder, anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive personality disorder. He explained that he felt compelled to give money to his family members to help with grow houses. "With family, he will go to no end," said Kan, noting Tang's father now has terminal lung cancer. According to records obtained by Westword, a confidential informant told law enforcement that during the grow operation, Tang's parents harvested grow houses once a week for $150 per day. Those records also note that when first questioned about the drug ring, Tang denied any involvement but "admitted to knowing that his mother and father had attended to marijuana grow operations."

• Kan also noted that Tang has a chronic case of hepatitis B as well as psoriatic arthritis, saying that he might not get the medical and psychological help he needed in prison. He concluded that Tang had a high risk of suicide if sent to prison.

• Tang attempted to make a statement in English, but broke down sobbing. Later, with the help of a Cantonese interpreter, he said, "I don't know how to say it. I am very remorseful for all the past wrongs I have committed. I know I have done a big, big wrong, a big mistake. It jeopardized all my family members. And also affects the place I live in, my community."

For the most part, however, Daniel seemed unmoved by the testimony. "He was the money bags. If not for his money, none of these people would have grown marijuana," he told Tang's lawyers, noting, as Westword earlier reported, that Tang had admitted to skimming large amounts of money from Heaven Dragon's books but was never charged for that. "I don't understand why Mr. Tang shouldn't go to jail. This is serious. To not send him to jail sends a message that if you do all the things you did Mr. Axt, the court should wink and look the other way."

The only argument that seemed to give the judge pause was whether the prison system could meet Tang's specific medical and psychological needs. He instructed the defense and prosecution to try to look into the matter by the time the hearing resumed at 3:30 p.m., so he could hear their arguments before he made his decision on Tang's sentence.

Stay tuned to find out what he ruled.

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