By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007
An interesting question arose this week about the government's sensational allegations that a Mexico City pharmaceutical executive arrested last month was an international drug distributor:
Where's the proof?
Two federal judges have prodded prosecutors and drug enforcement agents about the evidence they have to back up their charges that Zhenli Ye Gon conspired to import tons of illegal methamphetamine into the United States. One raised concerns about the "thin" evidence the government has produced so far to tie Ye Gon to the crime.
Any hint that the case against Ye Gon isn't strong probably will fan the flames of cynicism among the Mexican citizenry, many of whom have said it is conceivable that, as Ye Gon claims, corrupt Mexican officials framed him to hide their own crimes.
U.S. authorities arrested the Chinese-born millionaire July 23 in a Wheaton restaurant and said he had been illegally providing key ingredients to meth labs in Mexico since 2005. Ye Gon, who was in the Washington area to consult with his attorneys, has been in a D.C. jail ever since.
The arrest came four months after Mexican authorities seized $207 million in cash and several guns from his Mexico City mansion. U.S. authorities said that it was the largest seizure of drug proceeds in history and that Ye Gon was laying the groundwork to become the leading meth supplier to U.S. dealers.
Ye Gon and his attorneys contend that Mexican officials fabricated evidence against him to conceal that Mexico's ruling party had forced the 44-year-old pharmaceutical wholesaler to hide an illegal presidential slush fund.
Ye Gon's defense attorneys have said from the start of the case that there is something obviously wrong when the evidence cited so often by authorities is no longer available. Mexican authorities recirculated into the financial system the money that was seized at Ye Gon's mansion. In December, Mexican authorities said, they seized 19 tons of chemicals containing pseudoephedrine that were being illegally imported from China to Mexico for Ye Gon's pharmaceutical company. Ye Gon planned to use the chemicals for meth manufacturing, authorities said. But those chemicals have been destroyed, Ye Gon's defense attorneys said.
"To say this case has political overtones is to greatly understate the situation," said lead defense attorney Martin F. McMahon. "Most of the so-called evidence has been destroyed."
Federal prosecutors acknowledged at a hearing Thursday that several of the hard facts and documents they need to prosecute Ye Gon are not in the U.S. government's possession. Presiding U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan pressed them to sum up the status of the case.
Justice Department attorney Paul Laymon told the judge that the government will need to begin a time-consuming effort -- possibly lasting a year or more -- to formally obtain some key evidence from the governments of Mexico, China, Germany and Switzerland.
"It will be a fairly lengthy process," Laymon said. "We may have access to it . . . but we don't have it in our hands."
That concession came just three days after Magistrate Judge Alan Kay ruled Monday that he would hold Ye Gon in jail without bond, as the government requested, because he said he agreed that Ye Gon was a flight risk. But Kay noted that another important factor, "the weight of the evidence, does not strongly favor detention."
"The Court recognizes that a grand jury has already found probable cause to believe that Defendant has committed the alleged offenses," Kay wrote. "However, at the detention hearing, the government proffered only thin evidence in support of its case."
Kay said the seized chemicals and a coded note cited by prosecutors "do suggest Defendant's involvement in the illegal importation of goods into Mexico. However, aside from the cash and weapons seized at Defendant's home, there was little before the Court at the hearing to establish Defendant's involvement in a conspiracy to import illegal drugs into the United States."
Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration officials declined to comment yesterday on the nature of their evidence against Ye Gon. But they acknowledged they don't have the cash that Mexican authorities said they seized.
"No, I don't have the cash," Laymon said. In the hearing, the prosecutor told the judge he would turn over information to the defense, a pretrial process called discovery, as soon as possible after the government obtained the information.
Sullivan quipped: "It sounds like there's going to be mutual discovery. The government needs to discover some evidence."