By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Eight months into the sensational U.S. Department of Justice case against a Little Saigon loan-sharking operation that allegedly used a police officer as an enforcer, it's clear feisty defense lawyers intend to attack the government's assertions on multiple fronts.
According to an FBI complaint, Garden Grove businessman Kevin Khanh Tuan Do employed his housemate, Westminster Police Department officer Anthony Duong Donner, to get Santa Ana coffee-lounge owner Hanh Hong Le to pay 60 percent annual interest on $170,000 in loans.
Defense lawyers are hoping to explain away Donner's regular presence at the now-defunct Café Miss Cutie on Harbor Boulevard by arguing the cop and other officers liked to frequent the business while in uniform and on duty merely "because it employed young, scantily clad women as servers."
As the Weekly reported on April 2, Le recently filed a civil lawsuit in federal court alleging that Do, Donner, Westminster PD Chief Kevin Baker, as well as officers Phuong Pham and Timothy Vu acted as a "team" that "conspired" to "frighten, pressure, harass, intimidate, assault and threaten" her into making payments on Do's "usurious loans."
According to Le's lawsuit, police officers "carried out drive-bys" at her residence in the patrol vehicles, entered her business and residence without permission, directed high-intensity spotlights from their patrol vehicles inside her shop while customers were present, harassed patrons with interrogations under false pretenses, sent threatening messages, initiated bogus traffic stops against her and her employees, and threatened her with arrest and imprisonment when she fell behind on making payments to the accused loan shark.
Despite those mafia-like undertones, Shaun Khojayan—the Los Angeles-based defense attorney for Do—is portraying Le's civil lawsuit and the government's criminal case as distortions of the facts. In court briefs, Khojayan claims his client was kind and generous to Le, even allowing her to live at his Fountain Valley home briefly while she struggled financially. He also insists the cop's role in the deal was benign.
"As a favor to Do, Donner would pick up [Le's] loan payments from her business," Khojayan wrote. "When interviewed [by federal authorities], Donner admitted to collecting some money for Do and making two loans to [Le] himself."
But expect the defense to focus primarily on trying to undermine Le's credibility with the belief that if future jurors don't find her believable or honest, the criminal case collapses. It's true her record isn't clean. The undercover federal probe began, for example, after Le paid a police officer $3,700 in bribes and, according to a federal wiretap affidavit, openly discussed other attempts to bribe government officials from harassing her business. Khojayan additionally claims the alleged loan-shark victim was a wily businesswoman because she "sought and received (and did not pay back) several other private loans from other members of the Vietnamese community," according to a Feb. 28 brief.
"The credibility of [Le's] testimony is crucial and material to the defense of this case," wrote Khojayan, who wants all of the government's records on the businesswoman, including her "rap sheet," police reports, lawsuits, "drug use information" and "any other impeachment information."
At the heart of the trial will be wiretaps and text messages nabbed by the FBI during its investigation. Le incessantly used her cell phone, a virtual treasure trove of data, with 7,632 text messages and 2,117 calls during one month alone. The government has provided the defense a small portion of that information for records it deems "pertinent": contacts between Le, Donner and Do. Khojayan—who has asserted Le may have concocted a loan-sharking story for the FBI as a way to avoid paying off Do's loan—wants Assistant United States Attorney Brett A. Sagel to release all of the captured records. Sagel responded by saying he will fully comply with any outstanding discovery obligations several months before the scheduled June 17 trial inside U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter's Santa Ana courtroom.
Mark W. Eisenberg, Le's Irvine-based attorney, says his client suffered severe emotional distress from Do's use of police officers as hostile enforcers for extortion, and she deserves monetary damages. Carter will preside in the civil case, too. After Do, Westminster PD and its accused officers denied any wrongdoing and demanded a jury trial, the judge called for a June 2 scheduling conference inside Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse.
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INTERNET DATING SCAM CASE TO PROCEED
Late last month, a three-justice panel at the California Court of Appeal rejected arguments by a Newport Beach businesswoman hoping to kill a libel lawsuit stemming from a 2011 ABC 20/20 broadcast that purported to highlight anonymous Internet dating criminals who'd lured cash from unsuspecting women with promises of romance. Kelley Cahill appeared on the national broadcast with then-host Chris Cuomo and accused David Williams, once her live-in boyfriend, of being a "con man" who'd "cost her a fortune" and had a history of "preying" on women.
Last year, Superior Court Judge Franz E. Miller decided Williams had met initial legal burdens to proceed to trial based on the theory Cahill's comments were libelous. ABC settled with the plaintiff after Miller's ruling, but Cahill—who turned her alleged victimhood into a business that investigates potential boyfriends for paying clients—had her lawyers tell the appellate justices that her additional, negative descriptions of Williams in online posts, emails and in a YouTube video are constitutionally protected free speech not intended to be taken as factual by the public, but merely "hyperbole" designed to release emotional steam after an ugly breakup.