Sony Dong, 46, and co-defendant Duc Le, 34, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles to federal charges of illegally importing wildlife, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark A. Williams said.
However, the government is asking that the judge sentence the men to six months or less in prison, according to court papers.
The defendants were named in a May 2009 eight-count federal indictment, charging them with illegally importing wildlife, including one injurious species, and lying to investigators.
Both were arrested after investigators discovered Dong had 14 live Asian songbirds, individually wrapped in cloth, strapped to his legs and ankles as he tried to pass through Los Angeles International Airport, according to court documents.
A search of Le's home turned up 51 additional songbirds and numerous cages, prosecutors said.
"This is one of the most extensive bird smuggling conspiracies this district has ever seen," Williams told U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson at a previous hearing.
Dong's attorney, Yasmin M. Cader, told the judge that her client owed money to Le -- whom she described as a "loan shark" -- prompting the smuggling attempt in order to pay back the debt.
Williams said the government was asking that Dong be sentenced to four months in prison and Le, who also pleaded guilty, to six months behind bars.
Cader urged Wilson not to sentence both men at the same time, saying that Le had "threatened" Dong after he found out Dong was cooperating in the investigation. The defense attorney said her client may be in danger if the two appeared in court together.
But Wilson rejected that suggestion, and sentencing is expected for both men this afternoon.
"Is this some Third World country?" the judge said. "You're talking about bird smugglers here -- you're not talking about Frank Costello."
Dong, who was described as a truck driver and longtime Orange County resident who lives with his elderly mother, told the judge through a Vietnamese interpreter that he was "very remorseful."
The colorful songbirds are sold to collectors and exhibitors in the United States for up to $800 apiece, Williams said.