$530 million in 5 years known
A former owner of a Baton Rouge convenience store that collected more than $530 million in five years was sentenced Thursday to nearly six years in prison for laundering drug money.
Thang “Tommy” Minh Tran, 43, had pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to launder money and two counts of money laundering. Trans also forfeited $855,885 seized after his arrest and was ordered to report to prison no later than 2 p.m. Oct. 21.
J. David Bourland and Charles Flood, Tran’s attorneys, asked Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson to consider a sentence below the guidelines of 70 months to 87 months in prison.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer M. Kleinpeter argued that no such lenience was justified.
“The financials don’t lie, your honor,” Kleinpeter said. “This grocery store did over $530 million of business over a five-year period.”
Bourland countered that IRS and DEA investigators were unable to specify how much of that money was laundered drug cash.
Kleinpeter agreed, but noted that most of the money was withdrawn from bank accounts as soon as it was deposited on behalf of Quality Express, Tran’s former convenience store at 1526 N. Foster Drive.
The prosecutor also noted in court filings that the $530 million was distributed from 2005 through 2009 among 37 bank accounts in Tran’s name or the names of family members and associated businesses.
“These are staggering amounts of money that you have laundered,” Jackson told Tran. “This is a record amount, at least for me,” the judge said of his past years as a federal prosecutor and judge.
Jackson also had reviewed a prosecution filing that detailed instructions on money laundering that Tran gave a person he did not realize was an undercover DEA agent.
In that recorded conversation, Tran told the agent to get 10 different bank accounts in other people’s names and deposit no more than $9,500 into each account daily.
Overnight delivery services also can be effective means of moving large amounts of cash, Tran allegedly told the undercover agent.
“Fed Ex is the best thing,” Tran reportedly told the agent. “You know why? It’s not considered government. Okay? “UPS is cheaper, right? United Postal Service. But they consider, they considered government.” Tran apparently used the acronym for the private United Parcel Service instead of the U.S. Postal Service. “That’s why they — they will pop you. But Fed Ex? Man, I been doing this for years.”
In July 2010, according to a transcript of a DEA recording, Tran told the undercover agent, “You’re going to love Fed Ex.” But he warned the agent not to put too much cash in Fed Ex packages. Tran said the most cash he ever sent by one Fed Ex package was $50,000. He said he preferred to send no more than $20,000 per box.
In a court-filed affidavit, IRS Special Agent Andre Guilott explained that Tran charged drug dealers one percent for changing small-denomination cash into $100 bills.
Guillot said Tran’s price for moving cash out of Louisiana was three percent of the total.
In addition to his money laundering services, Guillot said in his affidavit, informants labeled Tran a significant drug dealer and bookmaker.
One of those informants, Guillot reported, said he purchased about 65 kilograms of cocaine from Tran from 2005 through 2007.
At that time, the wholesale price for cocaine ranged from $20,000 to $25,000 per kilogram, according to information in an unrelated federal cocaine case. That price has since increased to as much as $30,000 per kilogram, which is about 2.2 pounds.
Guilott also said a DEA undercover agent reported Tran offered to sell him “30 to 40 pounds of ‘purple weed’ (marijuana) per week at $4,500 per pound.”
The same agent reported that Tran revealed “he sells Ecstasy at places like LSU and the University of Oklahoma.”
And two Quality Express employees — brothers Son “Tatoo” Nguyen, 39, of Baton Rouge, and Thahn “Money” Nguyen, 30, of New Orleans — admitted they sold 1,000 tablets of Ecstasy in the parking lot of the convenience store on Feb. 25, 2009.
Son Nguyen is serving a 57-month prison term; Thahn Nguyen is serving 27 months.
Tran repeatedly told drug dealers his efforts to hold bank deposits of drug cash to less than $10,000 avoided cash transaction reports by banks to the IRS, according to prosecution documents.
But Guilott said in his affidavit that Tran’s convenience store deposits sparked more than 2,400 cash transaction reports from 2005 through 2009. And that cash totaled the $530 million mentioned by Kleinpeter.
Many of those deposits were in the names of Quality Express’ corporate owners, Katelyn & Claire Inc. and Alex T. Inc. But Guilott said Tran was listed as an individual who conducted many of those transactions.
Each corporation pleaded guilty in March to a money laundering charge. Together, they forfeited $992,462 seized from their bank accounts.