Undercover sting: FBI agents posed as Internet repairmen

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(CNN) — In sting operation last July, undercover FBI agents gained access to a hotel suite by disabling the hotel’s Internet, and then posing as Internet repair technicians.

Now one of the suspects who was charged in the sting is crying foul.

At Caesar’s Palace, a casino hotel on the Strip in Las Vegas, FBI agents deliberately cut off the Internet for a suite used by Paul Phua, a high-stakes gambler. Then, they showed up at the suite and made a bogus service call.

On their undercover video, you can hear the imposters asking their targets what the trouble is.

“Good morning. We’re going to see if we can get the DSL working again,” one of them says.

But during the visit, the agents were actually videotaping the hotel room and its occupants in secret, looking for evidence of online gambling.

Phua was subsequently charged with operating an illegal gambling business, some of which was allegedly conducted using the computers set up at the hotel.

Authorities allege he is a high-ranking member of the 14-K triad, an Asian crime syndicate. But he is fighting the charges, saying they are based on evidence collected under false pretenses, and that any evidence obtained through a warrantless search based on deception should be tossed out.

“The evidence is the fruit of a flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment,” his lawyers said in a court filing.

The FBI declined to comment, referring inquiries to the prosecutor’s office in Las Vegas. The prosecutors’ office said it will respond in court to the complaint, but could not comment to the media on a pending case.

But former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes, who served on the agency’s review committee for undercover operations for five years, said undercover operations are carefully reviewed before they are conducted, including by agency lawyers.

“The idea that the entire division went rogue and ran this operation without FBI headquarters’ concurrence, or senior executive management concurrence and approval, and the United States attorneys, it just doesn’t sound right to me,” Fuentes said.

He also said a citizen might not be able to expect the same right to privacy in the common room of his hotel suite, as he would at home in his bedroom.

But Tom Goldstein, an attorney for Phua, says the public should be concerned that authorities are trying to surreptitiously conduct searches, using a service interruption as a pretext.

“The danger here is that agents will cut off not only the Internet, but your electricity, your phone, your cable television,” said Goldstein, “or at least, you’ll worry that it’s the government — every time you have a problem in your house — that maybe it’s an undercover agent that responds.”

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