- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A judge asked federal prosecutors in a major drug-dealing case Tuesday whether they have a pattern of mishandling evidence after a second high-profile prosecution fell apart in his courtroom because of witness problems.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said he saw similar prosecutorial mishandling in the dismissed corruption conviction against former Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, this spring and now in the Justice Department’s move to drop drug charges against Chinese-Mexican businessman Zhenli Ye Gon.

Ye Gon has been jailed for two years on charges of importing methamphetamine from Mexico into the United States. Authorities said they seized more than $205 million from his Mexico City mansion, which they called the largest drug-related cash seizure in history.

But since his arrest, prosecutors said one witness has recanted and another has refused to testify, and they have asked Judge Sullivan to dismiss the case. Judge Sullivan said he will throw out the indictment during a final hearing July 30, when he will also decide whether to allow prosecutors the option of charging Ye Gon again.

At the hearing, Ye Gon, wearing an orange-and-white-striped jail jumpsuit, listened to a simultaneous translation as Judge Sullivan criticized prosecutors for revealing the witness problems only last week even though they’ve known about them for at least six months.

Judge Sullivan said the prosecution only belatedly revealed the witness problems, despite being required to by Justice Department policy and the Constitution. Meanwhile, he said that without knowing of the problems he repeatedly delayed the trial at the prosecutors’ request while Ye Gon was “essentially in solitary confinement” at a Washington jail.

“All of this raises legitimate questions about whether the government ever intended to abide by its constitutional obligations to provide that information to the defendant,” Judge Sullivan said.

Ye Gon has since been transferred to a federal lockup in Virginia. Mexico has requested that he be extradited to face organized crime, drug trafficking and weapons charges there.

Mexican officials say Ye Gon was involved in one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest networks for trafficking pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in methamphetamines. Ye Gon said the chemicals imported by his company, Unimed Pharm Chem de Mexico SA, were legitimate and intended for use in prescription drugs.

Judge Sullivan has ordered a criminal investigation into the handling of evidence in the Stevens case. Prosecutors admitted after a jury returned a guilty verdict that they did not turn over important witness statements that could have aided the former senator’s defense.

Judge Sullivan gave prosecutors 10 days to file a written response answering his concerns about their handling of the Ye Gon case. Among his concerns is how their conduct fits with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s statement after dismissing the charges against Mr. Stevens that prosecutors should be more concerned with justice than winning cases.

He also asked whether the Justice Department’s approach is to withhold information from defendants in criminal prosecutions and then dismiss the cases if they get caught.

“That would be shocking,” Judge Sullivan said.

Paul O’Brien, chief of the Justice Department’s narcotics section, disputed Judge Sullivan’s characterizations of the prosecution and said he hoped a written response will help “educate the court.”

“I believe some of the characterizations may not be accurate,” Mr. O’Brien said. Judge Sullivan responded that he wasn’t making any legal findings yet, but raising points for the prosecutors to address.

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