In a surprise move, the Justice Department today dropped a major drug-trafficking case with prejudice, after fighting hard to preserve the ability to bring charges against Mexican businessman Zhenli Ye Gon in the future.
The department moved to dismiss the case in June, deferring to Mexico, where Ye Gon is accused of organized crime, drug and firearms violations. The Justice Department had charged him with conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine bound for the U.S.
Prosecutors said they weighed the relative strengths of cases, and Mexico’s interests in prosecuting the Chinese-born Ye Gon and the possibility of a steeper punishment prevailed.
The parties have battled over the prejudice issue ever since. Defense lawyers Manuel Retureta and A. Eduardo Balarezo accused prosecutors of belatedly informing them of witness problems and argued that the case should be dismissed with prejudice on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.
After the initial filing in June, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan questioned the government’s motives in dismissing the case and expressed dismay at the timing of the disclosure, raising the specter of another public examination of the Justice Department’s conduct in a high-profile case.
But today’s events — Sullivan immediately ordered the case dismissed — foreclose any further review of the government’s alleged misconduct, though Justice Department lawyers defended their actions to the last.
Paul O’Brien, chief of the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section, said the government made its decision based on the strengths of the Mexican case. He assured Sullivan that the U.S. prosecution was brought in good faith.
“We feel very strongly that there was no prosecutorial misconduct in this case,” O’Brien said. “We cannot accept a dismissal on that basis.”
O’Brien was in the unusual position of defending the integrity of the DOJ before the same judge to whom he’d offered a humiliating public apology for prosecution errors in the ex-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) case. “I hope the court will appreciate, speaking on behalf of the Justice Department, we deeply, deeply regret this occured,” O’Brien told Sullivan in April before the judge dismissed the high-profile public corruption case.
The charges that Ye Gon made millions importing and selling methamphetamine ingredients as part of an international drug conspiracy might have seemed more of a slam dunk. When authorities raided the businessman’s mansion in Mexico in March 2007, they found $207 million in cash and weapons. It remains the single largest seizure of alleged drug money in the world. Ye Gon was arrested in July 2007 in Wheaton, Md.
But the case, once held aloft as a triumph of Mexican-American collaboration, presented problems. A key witness recanted, and another refused to cooperate. Prosecutors could not depose witnesses in China, and a Mexican judge rejected their requests for evidence.
The Justice Department first disclosed some of these travails in their June motion to dismiss. Ye Gon’s lawyers immediately accused the government of withholding evidence favorable to their client, and Sullivan, too, wondered why the government had not come forward earlier.
Today, the judge said he was glad he broached the subject of the evidentiary obligations — “in the interest of the fair administration of justice” — and applauded the Justice Department’s change of heart.
“I don’t usually have a lot of positives to report to Mr. Holder, but tell him I’m delighted with his decision,” said Sullivan, the judge who ordered a criminal investigation of the prosecutors who handled the Stevens case.
“We’re happy to pass that along, your honor,” O’Brien replied.
The government also abandoned its case against Ye Gon’s girlfriend, Michele Wong, who was charged with money laundering. As with Ye Gon, the government consented to dismissal with prejudice.
Wong, who phoned into today’s hearing, was elated.
“Thank you so much, your honor. Thank you,” she said, choking up.
Ye Gon, who has been imprisoned since his arrest two years ago, will remain in U.S. custody pending extradition to Mexico. He is seeking asylum here, and his lawyers are fighting the transfer. That matter is scheduled for a hearing next month.
After Sullivan ordered the case dismissed, Ye Gon, wearing an orange-and-white striped prison jumpsuit, bowed politely toward the judge. “Thank you, your honor,” he said as he exited the courtroom.
This post has been updated.