Operation Fortune Cookie: Did suspicions about Dante Carbone hurt the case against Dan Tang?

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As we reported this week, a new court filing suggests Thornton cop Dante Carbone was the prime suspect in the internal leak that sabotaged Operation Fortune Cookie, the state's largest pot bust. That drug investigation ended meekly when federal prosecutors gave restaurateur Dan Tang a slap on the wrist even though investigators suspected he was the drug kingpin. Could Carbone's connections to both Tang and the U.S. Attorney's Office have led to the light sentence?

The North Metro Task Force (NMTF) an elite drug-investigation team, launched Operation Fortune Cookie in August 2007 and later joined forces with the DEA to investigate what they believed was a massive marijuana-growing operation just north of Denver. But everything crashed down in February 2008. Someone with inside knowledge of the case sent a tip-off letter to Dan Tang, owner of Heaven Dragon restaurant in Thornton, setting the raids in motion much earlier than investigators had hoped and triggering a rancorous DEA internal investigation into the NMTF. The results from the DEA probe were never revealed, but in the year following the raids, half of the eighteen-member task force left or was reassigned.

In the meantime, Tang 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. Then, in March 2010, he took a plea deal and was sentenced to prison for eighteen months. Given this was considerably less than the seventy to 87 months indicated by the case's sentencing guidelines, investigators who worked on the case weren't happy; the DEA even filed an objection arguing that the feds were under-prosecuting the case. "I agree with DEA that the sentence makes absolutely no sense," task force head Tom Gorman told Westword. "I don't understand why it was so light, and you'll have to ask the U.S. Attorneys Office as to why."

Could internal suspicions about Carbone have had had anything to do with it? As reported in Westword's original story on Operation Fortune Cookie, Carbone, then a sergeant who has since been promoted to commander, was one of the NMTF 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 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 his colleagues.

And according to a recent filing that's part of a lawsuit filed by two former NMTF members, the internal DEA investigation highlighted other suspicious activity on the part of Carbone. The DEA's final report apparently noted that "...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."

That might have posed a conundrum for the U.S. Attorney's Office. Wayne Campbell, the federal attorney developing a case against Tang, was a close personal friend of Carbone's and met weekly with the sergeant to go over the investigation. At one point, after discussing with Campbell how former Thornton mayor Noel Busck had agreed to hold $400,000 for Tang after the drug raids, Carbone called Busck -- another old friend of Carbone's -- and the sergeant told the former mayor he would not be a suspect. According to the recent court filing, Busck called Carbone back and said, "Thanks, Dante, I know you had something to do with this."

Despite all these weekly meetings, Campbell told Westword he apparently had no idea Carbone was acquainted with Tang.

Could Campbell's association with Carbone have jeopardized his case? U.S. Attorney Office spokesman Jeff Dorschner says he can't comment on such issues. But from the get-go, there were indications that the case against Tang didn't go as planned.

In the months following the wrap-up of internal DEA investigation into the leak, the handling of Tang's case was transferred from Campbell to Stephanie Podolak, Campbell's boss. And on June 15, 2009, after pressing the U.S. Attorney's Office for months for details about their case against Tang, Westword informed the office that the following week it would be publishing an article noting the connections between Campbell, Carbone, Tang and Busck. Three days later, on June 18, federal prosecutors charged Tang with one count of money laundering.

During Tang's subsequent long and dramatic sentencing hearing, there was little mention of the suspected leak or internal DEA investigation, no indication that during Tang's plea negotiations his attorneys asked for or received the secret DEA report of its findings.

Still, there's no way to know for sure whether suspicions about Carbone or other elements of the implosion of Operation Fortune Cookie equaled good fortune for Tang in court. All we know for sure is that the mysterious tip-off letter that started it all had told Tang, "You can, with assistance, avoid prosecution, deportation and seizure of all your assets." As it would turn out, most of that would come true.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Operation Fortune Cooke: Thornton Police Chief James Nursey says Dante Carbone -- Dan Tang's acquaintance -- launched weed investigation."

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