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On March 18, 2022, a federal jury convicted Chi Meng Yang, 36, of Montague, of bribery of a public official, conspiracy to commit bribery, and manufacturing more than 100 marijuana plants, U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced.
According to evidence presented at trial, the charges arose from a four-month effort by Yang and Gaosheng Laitinen, Yang’s sister and co-defendant, to bribe Sheriff Jon Lopey, the elected sheriff of Siskiyou County, not to enforce a county ordinance banning outdoor marijuana grows.
On May 17, 2017, Yang met with Sheriff Lopey and offered a million-dollar donation to the charity of the sheriff’s choice in exchange for the sheriff’s “friendship” and help with a lobbying effort to legalize medical marijuana in Missouri. Yang, a Siskiyou County resident, also purported to represent a group of local cannabis farmers. Yang’s exact intentions were unclear, but Sheriff Lopey suspected that the mention of “friendship” implied some kind of improper law enforcement assistance. Sheriff Lopey called the FBI.
The FBI recorded the next meeting between Sheriff Lopey and Yang. In that meeting, Yang clarified that the donation could be paid to the Sheriff’s Office, or it could go to the sheriff himself—as Yang put it—“privately.” Yang added that he was growing marijuana on 10 plots of land, owned by members of his family, despite a Siskiyou County ordinance banning all outdoor grows. He offered the sheriff $5,000 per parcel for “protection,” with another $5,000 per parcel as a contribution to the sheriff’s re-election campaign. He offered to collect the money himself and to pay the sheriff in cash or a cashier’s check. Either way, he wanted it to be “private, discreet … anonymous.” He also made clear that what he wanted was “no enforcement” on the properties or the two water trucks that he used to water the grows.
Yang brought his sister, Gaosheng Laitinen, to the next meeting. Yang and Laitinen confirmed they wanted protection for their family’s marijuana grows. They offered to pay $1,000 per property up front, with the remaining $4,000 in protection fees and $5,000 in re-election money to be paid after the harvest, to guarantee the properties would not get raided before they could realize their profit.
In total, Yang met with Sheriff Lopey seven times. Together, Yang and Laitinen provided the sheriff with a list of eight properties that they wanted the sheriff not to raid. They paid $8,000—in envelopes of cash—as the initial protection payment for each of the eight properties. They also gave the sheriff cash bonuses totaling $2,500. The FBI caught all of these transactions on video.
Over time, Yang asked for favors outside the original protection scheme. He told the sheriff he wanted to add more marijuana plants to each property and to add greenhouses, which would allow him to grow throughout the year. He asked the sheriff to send his deputies to serve other growers with violation notices to get them to join the protection racket. At one point, Yang told Sheriff Lopey about a rival grower’s operation and suggested the sheriff “go out there and take care of it.” Yang also asked if the sheriff could influence other law enforcement agencies for Yang’s benefit. For example, Yang asked the sheriff if he could prevent the California Highway Patrol from enforcing the law against his water trucks, and he also asked for the sheriff’s help concerning a family member’s DUI arrest.
Eventually, FBI agents arrested Yang at a final meeting in Sheriff Lopey’s office on Aug. 31, 2017. Once Yang was in custody, the FBI gave a signal to eight teams of state and federal agents poised to search the eight “protected” properties. In total, agents eradicated 1,168 plants that were found on these eight properties.
This case is the product of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Land Management, the Siskiyou Unified Major Investigations Team, the Shasta Interagency Narcotics Task Force, the North State Marijuana Investigation Team, and the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office. Assistant U.S. Attorneys James Conolly and Aaron Pennekamp are prosecuting the case. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Beckwith, Kevin Khasigian, and Ross Pearson assisted in the prosecution.
A week before the trial was to begin, Gaosheng Laitinen pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit bribery and conspiracy to manufacture marijuana. She is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 23, 2022.
Yang is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez on June 28, 2022. Yang faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for conspiracy to commit bribery, up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for bribery of a public official, and a mandatory minimum sentence of five years and up to 40 years in prison and a $5 million fine for manufacturing more than 100 marijuana plants. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.