In July 2013, Department of Homeland Security investigators raided a popular Las Vegas Korean supper club, detaining its employees for intense hours-long interrogations. According to a lawsuit, they were acting under orders of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent, who portrayed it as a place of “prostitution and human trafficking.”
Then, with no federal court order or approval from a judge, the ICE special agent forced the restaurant owner’s then-fiancee to wear an electronic tracking device on her ankle for six months, claiming he had the legal authority to monitor her for “as long as he liked,” a lawsuit by the club’s owners alleges.
Authorities never found the owners of the restaurant, Club Yamang, responsible for the crimes. In fact, the lawsuit brought by those owners claims that ICE special agent Joohoon David Lee had been harassing the restaurant owners and employees in exchange for copious amounts of free food and drinks at a rival Las Vegas supper club, Club Sonagi, also popular for its Korean food, music and attractive hostesses. Lee and the owner of Club Sonagi “hatched a plan to drive Club Yamang out of business and into financial ruin” to benefit Club Sonagi, the lawsuit claims.
In return, Lee would allegedly consume expensive whiskey and food at Club Sonagi, generating tabs between $1,000 to $2,500 an evening, without ever having to pay up. The restaurant employees said it was commonly known that Lee would never be presented with a bill; all of his food and drinks were to be “comped.”
“It started becoming more and more apparent to us that this thing was sort of shady all around,” Paul Padda, a lawyer for the former restaurant owners and employees, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Then, in May 2015, Lee was indicted in an unrelated bribery case in Los Angeles, pleading guilty months later. The details of the case “corroborated what we had sensed regarding Lee’s ulterior motives,” Padda said.
The restaurant’s co-owners are now suing the federal government, seeking at least $100,000 each in damages for negligence and emotional distress caused by Lee’s alleged harassment. The lawsuit, filed this month on behalf of three investors and co-owners and the now-wife of the former owner, comes after a similar lawsuit filed in April on behalf of the restaurant’s former owner, Thomas Kim.
“The raid was not supported by legitimate reasons,” the lawsuit states. “Instead it was based almost entirely upon SA Lee’s representations and appeal to crass racial/ethnic stereotypes of Asian clubs as dens of prostitution and human trafficking, which SA Lee believed other government officials would be susceptible to believing.”
On one evening a few weeks before the initial investigation at Club Yamang, Lee got drunk at Club Sonagi and boasted to some of the club’s waitresses that he was going to “raid” Club Yamang, the lawsuit alleges. He made no secret of his status as a federal agent while eating at the restaurant.
Thomas Kim and his wife, Aeja Kim, did not learn until more than a year after the initial raid at their business that Lee’s investigation was “a complete fabrication,” the lawsuit alleged. By then, the damage was done. For months, Lee harassed Thomas, his employees and investors, they alleged. They alleged he placed Aeja Kim into a database that would flag her for questioning in airports — so each time she returned to the United States from a trip to her native South Korea, she would be detained for questioning for hours. “It was very deeply offensive to her,” Padda, the lawyer, said. Two of the restaurant co-owners, a married couple, also ran into similar issues with ICE, Padda said.
“You can play on stereotypes to make people believe the worst about someone,” Padda said. “It was a storm of all these things occurring.”
Lee allegedly went to the apartment building of one of Thomas Kim’s female employees and questioned her at length in the lobby of the complex, within earshot of other residents, about prostitution and illicit drug use. He told the woman, a naturalized citizen, that if she didn’t cooperate with him she could lose her citizenship.
As a result of the allegations against it, Club Yamang’s business took a significant hit. Thomas Kim told the Las Vegas Review Journal that the restaurant lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because of its damaged reputation.
“The word got out among people in the Asian community and potential customers,” Padda said. “It was just not a place people wanted to go to.”
The Kims became so frustrated by the constant surveillance and “stalking” — and the resulting blow to the business — that they moved to California two years ago, Padda said. Club Yamang is now under new ownership.
Meanwhile, Lee had become a target of the criminal bribery investigation in Los Angeles. In March 2012, Lee, then a special agent in the human trafficking unit of Homeland Security Investigations, interviewed a woman who claimed to be entering the United States to be a sex slave for a Korean businessman.
About a year after, Lee met with the businessman’s attorney and told him that if he would pay for his trip, he would fly to Korea and interview the businessman and submit a positive report on his behalf.
A family member of the man traveled to Las Vegas to give Lee $3,000 in cash, according to court papers. One day later, Lee deposited $1,000 in his bank account and bought a plane ticket to Seoul, where his hotel and entertainment were also paid for by the businessman. Lee solicited a second bribe for $100,000 to make the “immigration issues go away.” He eventually received about $6,000 to $8,000 in cash.
After returning to the United States, Lee filed an entry into a law enforcement database stating that although the businessman was suspected of human trafficking, the case was closed because of a lack of evidence. But after another agent alerted internal investigators about Lee’s interference in another case, his record was investigated and he was charged with bribery
Lee pleaded guilty in December 2015 to one count of bribery. In July, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald, who called the bribery “a very, very grave crime.” Lee’s former lawyer declined to comment when reached by The Post.
The case, however grave, was not isolated. A recently published review by the New York Times of thousands of court records and internal agency documents showed that over the last 10 years almost 200 employees and contract workers of the Department of Homeland Security have taken nearly $15 million in bribes.
According to the Associated Press, a massive hiring spree at U.S. Customs and Border Protection about a decade ago led the agency to balloon by nearly 8,000 agents in three years to more than 20,000 in 2009. The number of employees arrested for misconduct, such as civil rights violations or off-duty crimes like domestic violence, grew each year between 2007 and 2012, reaching 336, a 44 percent increase. Additionally, more than 100 employees were arrested or charged with corruption during the six-year span, including taking bribes to smuggle drugs or people.
The Kims’ case, Padda said, is a “classic tale of abuse of power.”
“What it does underscore is the tremendous power that federal agents have,” Padda said, “and how one federal agent alone can really wreak havoc in a person’s life.”