Orange County Man Agrees to Plead Guilty to Operating Illegal Casinos in Santa Ana and Paying Bribes to Police Officer

Orange County Man Agrees to Plead Guilty to Operating Illegal Casinos in Santa Ana and Paying Bribes to Police Officer

          SANTA ANA, California – A Fountain Valley man has agreed to plead guilty to federal offenses for operating illegal gambling dens and paying $128,000 in cash bribes to a Santa Ana Police officer to avoid law enforcement scrutiny of his underground casinos, according to a plea agreement filed today in federal court.

          Niem Ngoc Ha, aka “Dung Body,” 47, agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy, operating an illegal gambling business and bribery. These three offenses cumulatively carry a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. Ha is expected to formally enter the guilty pleas in court in the coming weeks.

          In the plea agreement, Ha admitted that he opened and operated four illegal casinos commonly called “nets” (if they are in a commercial district) or “slaphouses” (for those in residential areas), all of which were located in Santa Ana. Ha admitted to conspiring with three others to operate the casinos, which featured video gambling machines and generated thousands of dollars in profits each day.

          Ha acknowledged that acts of violence took place at the casinos. In one case, Ha directed a co-conspirator to physically assault a casino patron who had started a fight, and, in a separate incident, a worker at another casino was shot in the neck, according to the plea agreement.

          Ha also admitted that over the course of about six months in 2020 he paid approximately $128,000 to then-Santa Ana Police Officer Steven Lopez in an effort to protect his illicit casinos from law enforcement intervention. Lopez, who pleaded guilty in December 2020 to accepting the bribes and is no longer employed by the Santa Ana Police Department, is scheduled to be sentenced on June 5, 2023.

          Ha was one of nine defendants named in three indictments focusing on illegal gambling, attempted extortion and drug trafficking that were unsealed following a law enforcement takedown in May. Ha was named in an indictment that charges three other alleged co-conspirators, all of whom are currently scheduled to go on trial next May.

          An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.

          The investigation into illegal gambling houses in Orange County is being conducted under the auspices of the Orange County Asian Organized Crime Task Force. The primary investigatory agencies are the FBI; the Santa Ana Police Department; the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Gambling Control; IRS Criminal Investigation; and the United States Postal Inspection Service.

          Assistant United States Attorneys Daniel S. Lim and Benjamin D. Lichtman of the Santa Ana Branch Office are prosecuting this case.

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