Former federal agent sentenced to prison in sex-slave bribery case

A former U.S. immigration agent was sentenced Tuesday to 10 months in prison for soliciting a bribe from a South Korean businessman who had been falsely accused of trafficking a sex slave into the country.

While handing down the sentence in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald said Joohoon David Lee committed “a very, very grave crime.” Still, the judge opted for a lower prison term than the 18 months sought by prosecutors.

Lee, who was working for Homeland Security Investigations’ human trafficking division, interviewed a woman in 2012 who alleged that she was brought to the U.S. as a “sex slave” for a Korean businessman, according to court papers.

After the interview, Lee placed a notice in the homeland security database that would trigger an alert if the businessman, identified only as H.S., tried to enter the U.S. 

In March 2013, the businessman’s lawyer met with Lee and another immigration officer to try to resolve outstanding immigration issues.

Both Lee and his colleague advised the lawyer that clearing the man’s entry issues into the U.S. would require him to submit a waiver to the U.S. consulate in South Korea.

But two days later, prosecutors alleged, Lee offered a faster, if more costly method: H.S. could pay for Lee’s trip to South Korea, where Lee could interview the man and later file a positive report on his behalf.

A family member of H.S. traveled to Las Vegas to give Lee $3,000 cash, according to court papers. One day later, Lee deposited $1,000 in his bank account and bought a plane ticket to Seoul.

In South Korea, Lee’s hotel and entertainment were paid by H.S., and Lee solicited a second bribe for $100,000 “to make [his] immigration issues go away,” according to court papers. He eventually received about $6,000 to $8,000 in cash, prosecutors said.

After returning to the U.S., Lee filed an entry into the law enforcement database stating that although H.S. was suspected of human trafficking, the case was closed because of a lack of evidence.

Federal authorities said they did not detect any of Lee’s malfeasance until he interfered in a separate sex trafficking probe involving a brother of H.S.

The officer handling that probe said that Lee vouched for a Korean woman suspected of working as a prostitute. Lee insisted that she was eligible to enter the U.S. and that she was actually in a romantic relationship with H.S.’ brother. 

The interference by Lee prompted the officer to alert internal watchdogs to possible misconduct.

“This defendant sold his position of authority as a law enforcement officer for a few thousand dollars,” United States Atty. Eileen M. Decker said. “As a consequence of this abuse of trust, he will now pay a far more significant price.”

Lee, now 43, pleaded guilty in December 2015 to a count of bribery.

Lee’s defense lawyer asked the judge not to place her client in prison, arguing that he risked being abused.

Attorney Jennifer Uyeda also told the judge that Lee fell in love with the woman who claimed to be a sex slave. Through the relationship, Lee learned that the businessman was not harboring her in a human trafficking scheme, the lawyer wrote.

The attorney also stated that Lee had already closed the felony investigation into H.S. when he solicited the free trip to South Korea, which he saw as an opportunity to get financial compensation for the woman who had claimed to be a sex slave. Whatever he later wrote into the law enforcement database after the trip did not impact any investigation into H.S. because it had concluded, she argued.

“He got caught up in a fantasy where he could be the hero, and abused his position of authority,” Uyeda wrote in a sentencing memo. At the time of the crime, Lee was embroiled in a custody dispute over his two sons with his ex-wife, and the relationship with the woman gave him “comfort and confidence,” his lawyer said.

Lee has since turned in his badge and works as a limousine driver, according to his attorney.

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

For more news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

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