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Undercover FBI agent's conduct denounced at arms trafficking hearing

The defense says the man used public funds to pay for sex for the defendants in the Philippines to induce them to participate in the smuggling scheme.

January 17, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times
  • An FBI agent is accused of using public funds to pay for prostitutes, possibly including minors, to induce participation in a smuggling scheme. Above, prostitutes and strip clubs in the Philippines.
An FBI agent is accused of using public funds to pay for prostitutes, possibly… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Sergio Santiago Syjuco said he looked up to Richard Han, who was older, wealthy and clearly important.

When Han went into karaoke clubs in the Philippines — which were widely known to double as brothels — he always got the biggest private rooms and the best service, Syjuco said.

Managers would offer dozens of young women as paid companions for Han and members of his party, Syjuco said.

Han boasted that he was an international arms dealer and he picked up the tab for all the booze and sex, Syjuco said.

Han, however, was not wealthy. Nor was he a criminal. His name wasn't even Han. It's Charles Ro and he's an FBI agent who went undercover to ensnare Syjuco and two other men in a weapons-trafficking scheme.

But on Thursday, it was Ro's conduct that was on trial in downtown Los Angeles.

Syjuco, a Filipino national, testified as part of a defense motion seeking to throw out the criminal charges against the defendants, alleging that Ro committed “outrageous government misconduct” while investigating the case.

Deputy Federal Public Defender John Littrell, who represents Syjuco, has accused Ro of using public funds to pay for prostitutes, possibly including minors, for the defendants to induce them to participate in the smuggling scheme.

The “government's actions in this case, if committed by a private citizen, would be serious federal crimes,” Littrell said in court documents.

Government attorneys and Ro dispute the allegations. Prosecutors are expected to present evidence rebutting the allegations Friday.

Federal prosecutors have acknowledged in court filings, however, that the government reimbursed Ro for $14,500 worth of entertainment, cocktails and tips over a period of less than a year in 2010 and 2011 in connection with the case.

The expenses included $1,600 at a club known as Area 51, which was later raided by Filipino authorities for employing 19 underage girls. In a news release, the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation wrote that the minors danced in the nude and provided “sex services” for pay.

Syjuco, Cesar Ubaldo and Filipino customs official Arjyl Revereza were charged with smuggling assault rifles, grenade launchers and mortar launchers from the Philippines to Long Beach in June 2011 in containers labeled “Used Personal Effects.”

They have pleaded not guilty and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, authorities said.

In a sworn declaration, Ro said he met with the suspects three times at Area 51 and three times at another club, Air Force One. During each meeting, undercover agents and local investigators were present, providing security.

Ro's undercover persona was that of an arms broker for wealthy Mexican drug cartels that wanted to import illegal weapons into the United States, according to his declaration.

“I never saw any defendant engage in any sexual act,” the agent wrote. “I was never told by any manager that the bill included prostitution, nor did I ever see prostitution, in any term, listed on any bill.”

Ro said customers in the clubs were expected to buy drinks and food for female hostesses who sat near them and to pay a sitting fee.

Syjuco, who was at ease on the witness stand and smiling during his testimony, said it is common knowledge that the karaoke clubs they visited offered prostitution.

At both clubs, there were areas called the “aquarium,” where young women sat behind glass in rows and awaited selection by male customers, he said. The women, known as “guest relations officers,” were scantily clad and wore numbers to make selecting them easier, Syjuco said.

Syjuco described Ro as a “very persuasive person,” who invited him and the others to the clubs. He said Ro pressured them to drink alcohol and have sex with the women in private rooms.

Ubaldo also testified that he had sex with prostitutes paid for by Ro. Syjuco and Ubaldo said Ro had the female hostesses drink shots of alcohol. He would line up the shots for the women to drink, and whoever drank the most would be his companion for the evening, they testified.

In his declaration, Ro denied he did so. Prosecutors said Thursday that Ro held the meetings at the clubs to discuss weapons deals.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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