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A State Liquor Official Shook Down Koreatown Bars For Years, Police Say

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Bribes, threats, and coercion run amok

Inside Magal BBQ, Koreatown
Inside Magal BBQ, Koreatown
Wonho Frank Lee

Koreatown bar owners are hopefully sleeping a little better these days, now that an alleged rogue actor within the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has been brought to court on a litany of fraud charges. The scam, says federal prosecutors, involved multiple people and mostly surrounded issues of enforcement and punishment surrounding the liquor licenses of more than half-a-dozen different bars around the neighborhood.

The LA Times has the full scoop on the indictment, which charges Wilbur Salao and Scott Seo with conspiring to defraud multiple businesses to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Both are now out on bond after pleading not guilty to the federal charges.

Here’s how the scam allegedly worked: Salao, while working as an ABC employee with the state, conspired with Seo, a former ABC employee now running a consulting company, to determine which Koreatown bars to target for investigations and possible punishment. Seo would pick businesses to focus on, and Salao would direct investigations and even raids their way, leaving Seo’s consulting company to then reach out and offer expensive services in order to help the businesses keep their license. Some of the money paid out by those businesses would then be sent, via Seo, back to Salao in the form of a direct kickback, prosecutors say.

As the Times notes, Koreatown is among the densest restaurant and bar neighborhoods anywhere in Southern California, which already makes it a target for ABC raids and investigations. That cover helped Salao and Seo allegedly stay under the radar with their scheme for years, even as they reportedly spoke openly about their tactics for years over text message. Now they’re awaiting a trial date, with U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna quoted by the Times as saying: “We will not tolerate the shakedown of local businesses by corrupt public officials and their cohorts.”

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