Hawaii restaurateur sentenced for money laundering


HONOLULU — A businessman with a chain of Italian restaurants in Hawaii was sentenced Wednesday to six months in prison for laundering $1.3 million in illegal gambling funds through his eateries.

Thomas Ky, who owns five Assaggio restaurants in Oahu, was also sentenced to three years of supervised release and ordered to pay a $50,000 fine. He previously agreed to forfeit the $1.3 million.

Ky’s sentence was far less than the maximum possible term of 20 years and only half of the yearlong sentence that Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Butrick had agreed to seek. Prosecutors and Ky’s defense lawyers spent more than an hour at a hearing haggling over the terms of the sentence.

U.S. District Judge Derrick K. Watson said Ky’s lack of previous criminal history, his personal generosity and the lengths to which he went to express his shame all weighed in his favor. That Ky flew to New York to tell his foster parents of his wrongdoing was a unique show of contrition, the judge said.

About 60 people nearly packed the gallery to watch the sentencing. Many people wrote letters to the court on Ky’s behalf.

At sentencing, Ky asked for forgiveness and said he would accept the judgment with respect.

“What I did was totally unacceptable and wrongful, and I apologize for it,” he said. “Because of this lesson I have to watch who I help. If I don’t know any better, I should ask my lawyers.”

While the judge called the chance of Ky reoffending “virtually nonexistent,” the quantity of fraudulent transactions — hundreds, between 2009 and 2012 — also influenced Watson. The judge asked Ky how he could square his actions with his rise as a formerly impoverished immigrant.

“Is this how you reward America?” Watson said. “By not living up to its laws, and knowingly violating those laws?”

Ky admitted to being part of a larger Internet gambling operation, with more than 20 people pleading guilty, including head bookie Felix Gee Won Tom.

Ky’s role in the $700 million operation was relatively tiny, his attorney Stephen Pingree argued.

His involvement began, Pingree said in an interview, when former employees of Ky’s who were involved in the gambling scheme came and asked for help. “That’s Thomas’ Achilles’ heel,” the attorney said.

Pingree said he thought three months in prison would have been a more just sentence.

Prosecutors have said they had others willing to testify against Ky had he decided to go to trial.

Ky, 47, opened his first Assaggio in Kailua in 1989 after selling his share in another Italian restaurant. He learned the restaurant business in New York after emigrating from Vietnam as a teenager.