Kelly Thornton (619) 546-9726
NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – January 28, 2021
SAN DIEGO – U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer has released the office’s 2020 Annual Report, which details its major cases and achievements during a year that posed unprecedented challenges to law enforcement and federal court operations in the district due to the pandemic.
“I am very proud of our significant enforcement, community outreach, and administrative accomplishments under difficult conditions,” Brewer said. “This 2020 Annual Report provides a window into a few of the many cases we worked on this year. While the report cannot possibly cover all the district’s significant cases, it effectively summarizes the great variety of work handled by this office, and illustrates the tremendous skills and experience our prosecutors and law enforcement professionals bring to bear on each and every case.”
During 2020, the Office met the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic while trying more cases than any other U.S. Attorney’s office in the Ninth Circuit. The Criminal Division and Civil Division successfully pursued enforcement priorities that made a direct impact on the safety of the District and upheld the rule of law. With the dedicated assistance from our Administrative Division, the Office also hired a record number of Assistant United States Attorneys.
Targeting Violent Crime and Seeking an End to Human Trafficking
In 2020 alone, the Office’s Violent Crimes and Human Trafficking Section (“VCHT”)successfully prosecuted more than 100 criminal street gang defendants, obtained significant prison sentences on gang members from our region’s most violent criminal street gangs, and prosecuted several individual firearm cases.
VCHT also led in the national effort to end human trafficking and child exploitation. According to a May 26, 2020 report from the Human Trafficking Institute, the Office was #1 in the nation in 2019 for charging the most new trafficking defendants. We were #4 in the nation for active cases, and we charged the largest human trafficking case in 2019 – a forced labor case involving 12 defendants.
Recently, in August 2020, VCHT led investigations resulting in the arrest of Luigi Popescu of Romania for his role in leading a seven-year alien smuggling operation. Popescu is expected to plead guilty in January 2021. Also, in September 2020, defendant Joseph Price was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to sex trafficking a 15-year-old minor.
Dismantling Organized Crime
The Southern District of California is a hub of drug smuggling by the world’s most dangerous international drug cartels. During 2020, the Office led and pushed for several bold new initiatives to dismantle these criminal organizations. For example, in March, our federal law enforcement partners shut down a nearly half mile-long subterranean drug tunnel with reinforced walls, ventilation, lighting, and a rail system – and seized $30 million of fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. In October, Sinaloa Cartel leader Jorge Valenzuela-Valenzuela was arrested in Massachusetts after he entered the United States using a fraudulent Mexican identity document. And in November 2020, agents arrested three individuals for trafficking huge quantities of illicit drugs for the Sinaloa Cartel in connection with the largest single seizure of cash, narcotics, and ammunition in this district’s history ($3.5 million in bulk U.S. currency, 685 kilograms of cocaine, 24 kilograms of fentanyl, and approximately 20,000 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition and hundreds of body armor vests).
Securing Our Border
The Border Enforcement Section (“BES”) was created in early 2019 to ensure that the Office devotes adequate resources to addressing crime at our six ports of entry. Creating a BES section has been particularly important during the past year because of the historic increase in drug smuggling along the border. For example, federal law enforcement agencies seized 83% more methamphetamine in June of 2020 compared to June 2019, and seized 410% more fentanyl in June 2020 compared to June 2019. Due to the dedicated efforts of BES attorneys and support staff, the Office has responded to this surge with a corresponding increase in successful prosecutions. In July 2020 alone, BES doubled its prosecution numbers and charged 322 cases involving the importation of controlled substances, compared to 157 cases in July 2019.
Diligent Prosecution of Several High-Profile Cases
The number and quality of the high-profile cases the Office has handled during 2020, including during the pandemic, are additional evidence of our commitment to excellence. The following are just a few examples:
- U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter was sentenced to 11 months in prison for stealing $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for his and his wife’s living and luxury expenses.
- Gina Champion-Cain pleaded guilty to masterminding the longest Ponzi scheme in San Diego history with hundreds of victims throughout California and the United States and losses estimated as high as $400 million.
- Abdullahi Ahmed Abdullahi, a Canadian national, was successfully extradited to the United States and faces trial on federal conspiracy charges of providing material support to terrorists.
- U.S. Navy Captain David Haas and former U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Brooks Alonzo Parks pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, representing the 22nd and 23rd defendants to have entered guilty pleas as part of the bribery and corruption scheme involving Glenn Defense Marine Asia and its leader, “Fat Leonard” Glenn Francis. The decade-long scandal involves scores of numerous U.S. Navy officials and officers, tens of millions of dollars in fraud, and millions of dollars in bribes. Eight more defendants await jury trial.
- Rabbi Ysiroel Goldstein, former Director of Chabad of Poway Synagogue, and five of his associates pleaded guilty to fraud charges, admitting they participated in a complex, years-long, multi-million dollar tax-evasion scheme and other illegal financial transactions involving theft of public money.
- Former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, former Honolulu prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, were sentenced to 84 months and 156 months in prison, respectively, for a wide range of criminal conduct, including framing their relative with a crime to conceal their own fraud. Additionally, the Kealohas’ co-conspirators, former Honolulu police officers Derek Wayne Hahn and Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, received 42 months and 54 months, respectively, for their involvement in what has been called the largest case of corruption in Hawaii in decades.
- Dr. Jennings Ryan Staley, a licensed physician, was indicted for mail fraud and additional crimes arising from his business venture selling alleged COVID-19 “treatment kits” and agreeing with a Chinese supplier to smuggle hydroxychloroquine powder in the U.S., including lying to U.S. Customs by mislabeling a shipment as “yam extract.”
Excellence in Civil Litigation
Our Civil Division includes 23 attorneys who represent the United States and its agencies and employees in affirmative and defensive civil litigation. Much of our civil work arises out of the federal government’s activities along the southwest border and the military’s strong presence in the district.
Despite the pandemic, in 2020 alone, the Civil Division recovered $46 million on affirmative cases involving allegations of healthcare fraud, defense contracting fraud, and opioid over-prescribing. Since March 2020, when the lockdown occurred, the Office took on more than 100 new defensive cases, including successfully defending over 25 TROs. The Civil Division also responded to dozens of individual prisoner habeas corpus petitions and defended significant class action cases.
Successful Diversion Programs
In 2020, the Office continued the great work of two of the Southern District of California’s diversion programs, the Alternative to Prison Solutions (APS) Diversion Program and the Veteran’s Diversion Program (VDP).
In 2020, APS celebrated its 10-year anniversary as a flagship collaborative effort between the U.S. Attorney’s Office, U.S. Pretrial Services Office, defense bar, and federal bench. This unique program offers select criminal defendants who plead guilty to felony charges an alternative to incarceration with an opportunity to have their case dismissed after 12 months in exchange for compliance with certain court requirements, such as obtaining employment, enrolling in education programs, and obtaining mental health and addiction treatment. When successful participants graduate from APS, their charges are dismissed and they re-enter society as productive citizens with their personal trajectories altered, often in remarkably inspiring ways. During 2020, we substantially added to the number of successful graduates from the program, resulting in a 92% success rate over the past two years.
The Office also expanded the important work of VDP, which is the collaborative effort of our office, Pretrial Services, U.S. Magistrates, defense counsel, and the Veterans Administration. The program’s game-changing element is the Veterans Treatment Court, admission to which requires a service-related injury. VDP provides veterans a second chance at a meaningful future. Even in the pandemic, the VDP team has continued its work seamlessly online, providing resources, encouragement, and oversight that is significantly improving the lives of veterans in our community.
Leading the Way through Community Outreach Initiatives
The U.S. Atorney’s Office also prioritized our community outreach programs focused on the prevention of violent crime, fentanyl abuse, tribal relations, hate crimes, and other enforcement priorities. For example, in February 2020, the U.S. Attorney joined five other U.S. Attorneys from the Southwest Border in a series of briefings and meetings with senior Mexican law enforcement government officials and embassy personnel regarding coordinated efforts to combat transnational crime and trafficking of arms and illicit drugs. Our community outreach team has devoted significant resources to raise fentanyl abuse awareness through press releases and press conferences. Also, the Office prioritized our work on tribal relations through several initiatives that were implemented by a designated tribal liaison AUSA. Finally, the Office led successful community meetings and education programs regarding hate crime prevention and civil rights issues. These programs, which are just a few examples, have strengthened our relationship with the community by fostering important dialogue between our district’s law enforcement agencies and the citizens we serve.
“Despite the pandemic, the U.S. Attorney’s Office remains open for business, and throughout the year we fulfilled our critical mission,” said Brewer. “As I reflect on this extraordinary year, I am so impressed that even under the most difficult circumstances, the public servants in this office and throughout the criminal justice system maintained safety and security by adopting creative operational responses. I applaud the lawyers and staff in this office and our partners: the officers, agents, and first responders who continue to meet any challenge regardless of the risks they face, each and every day.”