Operation Fortune Cookie: Legal response says Dante Carbone was not prime suspect in leak

Plot twists continue in Operation Fortune Cookie, Colorado's largest weed bust that imploded among suspicions of snitches, paid-off politicians and a secret DEA investigation. Two weeks ago, two Fortune Cookie investigators currently suing their superiors filed a motion claiming that Thornton Commander Dante Carbone was the prime suspect in an internal leak that sunk the drug bust. Now police brass have fired back.

Their legal response, on view below in its entirety, refutes the two officers' account and claims Carbone wasn't the prime suspect at all.

The two cops in question, Northglenn Detective Daniel Joyce and Thornton Detective Robert Lopez, helped launch Operation Fortune Cookie in 2007 and 2008 as part of the North Metro Task Force (NMTF), an elite drug team. But after someone with intimate knowledge of the case sent a tip-off letter to Dan Tang, the suspected leader of the drug ring and the politically connected owner of Heaven Dragon restaurant, the drug raids commenced much earlier than expected and the NMTF itself came under DEA scrutiny. In a federal lawsuit filed last March, Joyce and Lopez claimed that when they reported suspicions about Carbone to DEA investigators looking into the leak, they were penalized by their superiors.

The clash heated up last week when Joyce and Lopez filed internal complaints against their police chiefs and Carbone -- and their lawyer, Patricia Bangert, produced a letter from Lopez's police department noting Lopez was possibly facing disciplinary action if he didn't make the lawsuit go away.

Up to this point, the officials targeted in Joyce and Lopez's lawsuit and complaints have kept mum. As Thornton Police Chief James Nursey put it two weeks ago, "This is a matter of ongoing litigation... Our response will be reflected in our attorney's responsive pleading to the motion... All of this will be addressed."

Now, that response has been filed on behalf of Nursey, Carbone and the City of Thornton -- and it does indeed address the many of the allegations Joyce and Lopez put forward. In short, it refutes their assertion that Dante Carbone was the prime suspect in the notorious tip-off letter. "[T]he primary reason why Carbone gained this dubious status was by virtue of the unsubstantiated allegations, suspicions, and charges that were lodged by Plaintiffs Joyce and Lopez," argues the legal response. "When these suspicions were put to the test of investigation, all objective facts pointed against Plaintiffs' charges."

Much of the debate centers on a DEA report produced at the end of the internal investigation into the leak. While that report has never been released, Joyce, Lopez and their lawyer were allowed to read it as part of their lawsuit, and their formal allegations against Carbone are based largely on the notes they took while reading it. But, according to the defendants' legal response, not only is the DEA report "inadmissible hearsay," but many of Joyce and Lopez's references from the report are incorrect or misleading. According to the court document, here are those mistakes:

  • Joyce and Lopez claimed 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." But apparently, the report actually noted that "approximately half of the NMTF employees that were interviewed, including two of the members of the NMTF management, questioned Carbone's integrity and/or suspected his involvement." At the time of the investigation, the NMTF had 18 employees.
  • While Carbone personally knew Dan Tang -- something he apparently didn't tell his NMTF colleagues or his friend Wayne Campbell, the US Attorney assigned to the case -- Carbone and Tang were in fact not that close, according to the legal response: "...when interviewed, both Carbone and Tang indicated that they only knew each other by virtue of Carbone having come into the restaurant for lunch."
  • The legal response also posits that the relationship between Carbone and Noel Busck, the former mayor of Thornton, who held $400,000 for Tang after the drug bust, was not as cozy as Joyce and Lopez suggest: "[The DEA report] does not bear out a close friendship between Carbone and Busck, nor does it demonstrate any impropriety on Carbone's part with regard to decisions made concerning the prosecution of Busck, nor in the conveying of that information to him."
  • While a 2008 DEA polygraph test reportedly found Carbone to be deceptive in answering questions, the legal response argues that "Carbone's polygraph examination was conducted by a different special agent than the others who were given such a test."
  • In their filing, Joyce and Lopez claim Carbone acted suspiciously during Operation Fortune Cookie, playing down the significance of the tip-off letter and stating it was no reason to bust down the doors of the grow houses ahead of schedule. The two officers also claim "[NMTF] Commander Hersee described Carbone's behavior as "unusual or suspicious." But the legal response notes that Carbone wasn't the only person reluctant to bust up the grow houses ahead of schedule, pointing out that several other DEA and NMTF investigators were also in favor of waiting.
  • As noted in Joyce and Lopez's motion, 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." But as the legal response argues, all investigative efforts to link that relative to the purchasing of the cell phone "proved entirely fruitless and in fact demonstrated that she was not involved."
  • While, according to Joyce and Lopez's filing, the DEA report "showed instances of questionable ethics on Sergeant Carbone's part" in previous cases, the legal response argues, "Carbone has had an exemplary 30+ year career in law enforcement. For many years, he has been sought by other law enforcement agencies to assist in the most difficult and complex of investigations. He received the City of Thornton's Distinguished Service Award in 2005, and the City has received dozens of letters of appreciation for Carbone's service to include one from then Colorado Attorney General Salazar offering thanks for his service in helping extradite criminals who committed acts in Colorado and then fled to Mexico as a safe haven. There is a letter from a chief deputy district attorney remarking that Carbone is 'simply the best police interrogator I have ever encountered.' For over a decade, Carbone's annual performance evaluations score amongst the highest in the department, rating 'outstanding' and 'highly proficient.'" That's why, according to the legal response, Carbone was promoted to Commander last year.
According to the legal response, maybe the most compelling reason of all that Carbone should not be viewed with suspicion is the fact that despite a detailed and lengthy DEA investigation into the leak, no charges or administrative actions were pursued against Carbone. After all, if there was enough evidence to formally accuse Carbone of being the leak, the U.S. Attorney's Office would have had to do so -- right?

Here's the aforementioned legal response:

More from our Marijuana archive: "Operation Fortune Cookie: Did suspicions about Dante Carbone hurt the case against Dan Tang?"

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner