SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Chi Meng Yang, 36, of Montague, and Gaosheng Laitinen, 41, of St. Paul, Minnesota, were sentenced today for their respective roles in a bribery scheme aimed at protecting illicit marijuana grows in Siskiyou County from law enforcement, U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced.
Yang was sentenced to five years and 11 months in prison to be followed by five years of supervised release. Laitinen was sentenced to time-served and a $50,000 fine to be followed by two years of supervised release.
On March 18, 2022, a federal jury had convicted Yang of bribery of a public official, conspiracy to commit bribery, and manufacturing more than 100 marijuana plants. Shortly before the trial, in February 2022, Laitinen—Yang’s sister—pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and conspiracy to manufacture marijuana.
According to evidence presented at trial, the charges arose from a four-month effort by Yang to bribe Jon Lopey, the elected sheriff of Siskiyou County, so that a county ordinance banning outdoor marijuana grows would not be enforced. As part of that scheme, Yang enlisted Laitinen to assist in structuring the scheme and developing a timeline for payments.
According to court documents, 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. Believing he was being offered a bribe, Sheriff Lopey called the FBI, who recorded all of the meetings that followed.
At the outset, Yang explained he wanted “no enforcement” on the properties or the two water trucks that he used to water the marijuana 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 made clear that he wanted the payments to be “private, discreet … anonymous.”
In total, Yang met with Sheriff Lopey seven times, with Laitinen present for two of these meetings. Together, Yang and Laitinen provided the sheriff with a list of eight properties that they wanted the sheriff not to raid. To guarantee the properties would not get raided before they could realize their profit, Yang and Laitinen offered $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. 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.
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 to his properties, so that he could grow marijuana 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, and he even asked the sheriff to raid a rival grower’s operation. Moreover, Yang asked if the sheriff could prevent the California Highway Patrol from enforcing the law against his water trucks, and 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. That day, law enforcement teams eradicated the more than 1,000 marijuana plants that were found on the eight properties identified by Yang and Laitinen.
This case was 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 prosecuted the case. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Beckwith, Kevin Khasigian, and Ross Pearson assisted in the prosecution.