Company ordered to forfeit $1 million seized during federal probe

A federal judge Monday ordered the corporate owners of a now-defunct Baton Rouge convenience store to forfeit nearly $1 million in money-laundering and drug-dealing proceeds to the federal government.

Katelyn & Claire Inc. and Alex T. Inc. did business as Quality Express, a convenience store at 1526 N. Foster Drive that offered check cashing, currency exchanges and money transfers. The Baton Rouge companies pleaded guilty in March to money-laundering charges and failing to file currency transaction reports.

Quality Express deposited $178.5 million into a Hancock Bank account between July 2006 and December 2011, and another $41.9 million at Dow Louisiana Federal Credit Union between June 2010 and December 2011, according to a May 2012 Internal Revenue Service affidavit.

Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson also sentenced Son “Tattoo” Nguyen, a former Quality Express employee, to 57 months in federal prison Monday. He previously pleaded guilty to distribution of Ecstasy.

Jackson, however, pushed back to July 26 the sentencing of Thang Minh “Tommy” Tran, who is accused of using the convenience store he founded to launder drug money and deal drugs. Tran previously pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to launder money.

The judge delayed Tran’s sentencing after Assistant U.S. Attorney Lane Ewing Jr. said the government is pushing for an enhanced sentence due to the sophisticated nature of the money-laundering scheme. Ewing said the scheme used multiple bank accounts, other family members’ names, and shell corporations.

“He was the brains behind the money-laundering operation,” Ewing argued.

Tran’s attorney, David Bourland, countered there was nothing unusually sophisticated about the money-laundering scheme.

“There was always a paper trail. Nothing was hidden here,” he told Jackson, stressing that no offshore accounts were used.

The judge said he wants to hear more evidence before deciding whether he should give Tran, 43, of Baton Rouge, a stiffer sentence than federal sentencing guidelines call for in his case.

Nguyen’s guideline range called for him to receive a sentence of 57 to 71 months.

“I know what I did was wrong. I take responsibility for what I did,” Nguyen, 39, of Baton Rouge, told Jackson.

His attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Mark Upton, called Nguyen a “very low-level” player in the scheme and asked that he be sentenced at or near the low end of the range.

“He was present and was aware of what was going on,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kleinpeter argued, adding that Nguyen was not an “innocent bystander.”

Jackson put Katelyn & Claire Inc. and Alex T. Inc. on probation for one year in addition to ordering them to forfeit a combined $992,000-plus to the government. That money was found in two bank accounts during a search by federal agents.

Ian Hipwell, an attorney for Katelyn & Claire, told the judge the company — which faced a fine of up to $3.5 million — is “essentially defunct.”

“There really are no more assets,” he said. “It (the company) is gone.”

“It’s been out of business,” added Katelyn & Claire’s corporate representative, Trang Dang “Sabrina” Tran, 36. She is Tommy Tran’s sister.

Jackson noted that she is not a drug dealer and added that her brother is “the real culprit here.”

Logan Greenberg, an attorney for Alex T. Inc., said Katelyn & Claire and Alex T. were separate entities only on paper.

Sam Tran, brother of Tommy and Sabrina Tran, attended the sentencing hearing as Alex T.’s corporate representative.

“The corporate representatives in these cases were involved on paper only and they are upstanding businessmen in the community and will remain that way,” Greenberg said outside the courtroom.

Hipwell said the corporate representatives “broke their fiduciary duty” and have paid for their mistakes through the civil forfeiture.

Tommy Tran charged drug dealers and other customers one percent to convert their small bills to hundreds, the affidavit stated, while drug dealers were charged three percent for cash moved out of the state.

Money poured into the Hancock and Dow accounts moved out nearly as quickly as it was deposited, the affidavit noted.