Little Saigon Political Pioneer at Center of Money Laundering Investigation

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At the center of subpoenas for the phone and bank records of 11 contributors to county Supervisor and State Senate candidate Janet Nguyen is former Westminster city councilman Tony Lam, a veteran of Little Saigon politics and one of Nguyen’s key political allies.

As Voice of OC reported last week, the state Fair Political Practices Commission has been investigating potential political money laundering in connection to contributions made to the political committee, Friends of Supervisor Janet Nguyen, since 2013. 

With the election just two weeks away, some have framed the investigation as a political ploy by Nguyen’s opponents to upset her chances at winning the 34th district State Senate seat, an outcome that could prevent Democrats from regaining a supermajority.

In an interview with the Vietnamese-language paper Nguoi Viet, Nguyen’s chief of staff Andrew Do said the FPPC “went too far” and needs to have specific evidence of wrongdoing before it could subpoena records.

“I question why this matter is coming out just as the election approaches,” Do said.

Yet the investigation became public after James M. Crawford, the attorney representing all 11 donors, filed a court complaint Sept. 9 to quash the subpoenas, arguing they are too broad and vague and infringe of constitutional rights to privacy, according to an Oct. 1 FPPC report. 

Last Friday a judge told the state agency to return for a hearing Dec. 5 with additional evidence to support the subpoenas, the earliest of which were issued Aug. 4, according to court documents. 

The FPPC is targeting 11 people who donated to Nguyen’s political committee as part of an investigation involving political contributions made in the name of persons other than the true contributor, according to court records. 

Crawford, a criminal defense attorney based in Orange, declined to comment on how he came represent the 11 contributors.

“They just came to me and asked me to represent them,” Crawford said. 

Nguyen’s political consultant Dave Gilliard did not return calls for comment. 

Nguyen’s campaign forms have drawn some scrutiny for a large number of unemployed donors, nearly 60 individuals between 2009 and 2012.

The supervisor has defended her fundraising strategy in the past by saying that her own grassroots background and the nature of her heavily immigrant district has required her to rely on smaller contributions, rather than deep-pocketed establishment donors, for fundraising.

At the center of the controversy is Tony Lam, the 78-year-old Little Saigon trailblazer known for becoming the first Vietnamese-American elected to public office in 1992, when he was elected to the Westminster city council by mostly non-Vietnamese votes. His election paved the way for a number of other Vietnamese-American candidates, including former state assemblyman Van Tran. 

Although Lam’s win was widely celebrated, he later drew heavy scrutiny for being insufficiently anti-communist.

Little Saigon was a hotbed of dissent in the late 1990s, as the United States sought to normalize its relationship with Vietnam and refugees took to the streets for demonstrations. In this polarized environment, Lam’s moderate brand of politics drew ire from those who felt Hanoi’s advances should be met by an ardently anti-communist overseas community.

In 1999, when thousands of Vietnamese gathered to protest a portrait of communist leader Ho Chi Minh displayed prominently in the storefront of HiTek Video, Lam distanced himself from the protests on the advice of Westminster city attorney Richard Jones. 

That prompted more than 200 protestors to target Vien Dong, his family restaurant, for weeks of picketing, and rumors proliferated about Lam’s loyalties. The fallout from that incident caused Lam to announce his retirement from elected office in 2002 after three terms on the city council.

Since then, Lam has played a quiet role in local politics and as valuable ally to Nguyen, whose long-standing rivalry with Tran has ostracized her from some of the Vietnamese American political leadership. 

Lam was appointed by Nguyen to the county Planning Commission from 2007 to 2011, and the Airport Commission from 2011 to April 2014.

He also began working for CalOptima in 2011 as a contract ethnic community consultant at a rate of $1,650 a month, according to the agency’s press office.

Lam receives additional income from a rental property and from Premier Health, according to a 2014 statement of economic interests filed with the county.

Lam, who declined Monday to comment for this story, has ties in the food service industry and helps manage both his nephew’s tofu company and a Westminster branch of the successful chain Lee’s Sandwiches.

The Le family, which founded the San Jose-based fast food sandwich restaurant, has supported many Vietnamese American candidates in their campaigns.

Between 2004 and 2013, Nguyen received at least $62,450 in campaign contributions from individuals associated with the corporation and local Orange County franchisees.

Nguyen’s husband Thomas Bonikowski, Do and his wife, OC Superior Court Judge Cheri Pham, were owners of a Lee’s Sandwiches restaurant in Stanton between November 2007 and January 2011, according to city records.

Nguyen last reported income from her husband’s Lee’s franchise in 2010. By May 2011, Do and Pham had sold the restaurant to another franchisee, according to state records.

Although it is not known why the FPPC has subpoenaed Lam or the other 10 donors, the investigation focuses on contributions to Nguyen’s committee between 2011 and 2012.

During that time, Lam gave $1,700 to the committee. More recently, he also gave $500 to her Senate campaign.

His nephew’s company, Dong Phuong Tofu or Dang-Vu Inc., contributed $2,000 between 2011 and 2012, later returning $200 to remain under local contribution limits. Between 2013 and 2014 the company also gave $5,100 to Nguyen’s Senate campaign.

An additional incorporation owned by his nephew’s wife, DTJA, Inc., gave $400 in 2012.

Five of the subpoenaed donors appear to have connections to Minh’s Meats, a Santa Ana-based wholesale poultry seller. Owner Minh Huynh, his wife Ying Fang and a 26-year old relative Elise Huynh each gave $1,800 to Nguyen’s campaign in 2011. In 2012, the company’s general manager, David Mercado, and his wife Mimi also gave $1,800 each.    

The company was charged in 2004 for violating federal food safety laws when it smuggled chicken and duck feet, falsely labeled as coconuts and other fruits, according to the Los Angeles Times. Vietnamese poultry are banned from the U.S. as they could spread Newcastle disease.  

Troy Thang Nguyen, a self-employed web designer, gave $1,500 in 2011 and $1,300 in 2012, although he later returned $1,000 from the latter contribution.

The remaining four individuals, who are all listed on contribution forms as not employed, made contributions between November 2011 and February 2012:

Vinh P. Du, $1,500; Hoa Nguyen Nghiem, $1,800; Kiki Tran, $1,800; and An Phuc Nguyen, who gave two contributions of $1,600 and $1,800.

Please contact Thy Vo directly at thyanhvo@gmail.com.

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