OC's Saigon National Bank Laundered Cash For Drug Cartel, Feds Claim

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There once was a time years ago when this fact would have been considered ridiculously implausible: Both the U.S. Government and the lethal, Mexico-based Sinaloa drug cartel, the one that obtained weapons from federal agents in the infamous Operation Fast and Furious, enjoyed a financial stake in Orange County's Saigon National Bank.

With the economy collapsing in December 2008, President George W. Bush's administration handed $1.55 million in public funds to the private bank, which is located on Brookhurst Street in Westminster.

Yesterday, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles announced "Operation Phantom Bank" resulted in numerous indictments, including one against former Saigon National Bank president Tu Chau "Bill" Lu, based on Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges for, among other allegations, secretly working for Sinaloa crime bosses.

The 109-page main indictment claims Lu, a 71-year-old Fullerton resident, operated an international money laundering scheme that reached China, Mexico, Cambodia, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, and involved the proceeds from drug (cocaine, heroin, marijuana and ecstasy) and weapons trafficking.

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At one point during the investigation, federal agents learned that the drug cartel had purchased a $1 million ownership in the bank and that Lu offered to sell the business outright to the syndicate, according to a U.S. Department of Justice statement.

Unbeknownst to Lu, undercover agents and informants infiltrated his operation.

Other defendants include: Mina Chau, 32, of La Mesa; Ben Ho, 41, of Santa Ana; Tom Huynh (a.k.a. "The Fat Guy"), 57, of Westminster; Renaldo Negele, 51, of Liechtenstein; Jack Nguyen, 38, of Manhattan Beach; Luis Krueger, 58, of Malibu; Li Jessica Wei, 58, of Arcadia; Du Troung "Andrew" Nguyen, 34, of Westminster; Richard Cheung, 58, of El Monte; and Lien Tran, 41, of Santa Ana.

Operation Phantom Bank involved the FBI, IRS Criminal Division and the Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

Prosecutors in DOJ's organized crime and gang section will handle the case.

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