By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
The Justice Department asked a federal judge yesterday to toss drug charges against a Chinese-born Mexican millionaire, saying that U.S. prosecutors had run into "evidentiary concerns" and that Mexico would be a better place to try him.
The request concerns Zhenli Ye Gon, who was arrested in July 2007 and was indicted by a federal grand jury in the District on charges of aiding and abetting a conspiracy to make methamphetamine that would be sold in the United States.
The charges came several months after a raid of his Mexico City mansion, where Mexican authorities seized $207 million in cash, most of it in $100 bills. Gon, who fled Mexico before the raid, was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration while eating dinner at a bistro in Wheaton with a female acquaintance.
The government's request is the latest twist in what has become a global saga involving alleged drugs, Las Vegas casinos and accusations by Gon that the seized money was an illegal slush fund amassed by a political party during Mexico's 2006 presidential campaign.
On behalf of the Mexican government, the Justice Department last year filed court papers seeking permission to send Gon, 46, to Mexico for trial even as it prepared to prosecute him here. A hearing on the extradition request is scheduled for August.
In court papers, federal prosecutors yesterday said Gon should be tried in Mexico because "the prosecution of this case in Mexico is of considerable public interest and is important to Mexico's counter-narcotics policy."
However, they acknowledged running into evidentiary problems as they neared trial, scheduled to begin in September before U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan.
Sullivan -- who presided over the trial of former Sen. Ted Stevens and criticized prosecutors for how they handled witnesses and evidence in that case -- has chastised the Justice Department about its conduct in Gon's prosecution.
At a recent hearing, Sullivan expressed irritation with prosecutors for not turning over evidence quickly to Gon's defense lawyers about a key witness who had recanted earlier statements.
In court papers filed yesterday, prosecutors cited the recantation and another witness who has "expressed an unwillingness to testify" as reasons for seeking the dismissal of Gon's charges.
At a brief hearing yesterday, Sullivan again scolded prosecutors for not telling him or defense lawyers earlier about the witness problems, which the Justice Department learned about months ago.
Sullivan ordered Justice Department officials to file court papers by Wednesday explaining why it took them so long to disclose the information. The judge indicated that he would grant the government's dismissal request but hadn't decided whether to toss the case "with prejudice," meaning the Justice Department could not bring it again.
After a private conference at his bench with prosecutors and defense lawyers, Sullivan said he was "not pleased at all by anything I've heard from the government."
Sullivan later said government prosecutors "ought to resign" if they did not think they had to comply with rules requiring such evidence to be turned over to defense lawyers. "I want to know why the government is failing to abide by" its obligations to turn over such material, the judge said.
Laura Sweeney, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Gon's attorneys said they were delighted by the Justice Department's decision.
"We're pleased for our client, but we know we've got a big project ahead of us fighting extradition," said Manuel J. Retureta, one of his lawyers.
In a related matter, the government moved to dismiss charges against one of Gon's friends, Michele Wong, a former Las Vegas casino host who was accused of helping Gon make methamphetamine and of laundering Mexican drug money.
Gon, who was born in Shanghai, lived in Mexico and ran a large pharmaceuticals company. Authorities allege that the company was a front that supplied Mexican drug cartels with massive quantities of a chemical used to make the street drug methamphetamine. Gon has expressed concerns about being tried in Mexico and accused authorities of planting "fraudulently fabricated evidence" at his mansion.