Pharmacist gets federal probation for selling COVID vaccination cards on eBay (but some jurors thought the government was being petty)

CHICAGO — A pharmacist accused of selling blank COVID-19 vaccination cards on eBay as the nation’s immunization effort ramped up in 2021 was sentenced to a year of federal probation on Tuesday, according to court records.

Tangtang Zhao, 36, was found guilty of 12 counts of theft of government property during a jury trial in June. However, some jurors also suggested that they found the government’s prosecution of Zhao to be petty behavior.

Three jurors signed a note sent to the judge along with the full panel’s message that they had reached a verdict: “Your Honor, we have collectively come to an agreement regarding the claims against Tangtang Zhao. We do feel that although we have reached our decision, it is important for us, as citizens, to share that we feel this case has been extraneous.”

Zhao lived in Streeterville and worked for Walgreens in early 2021 when the company began administering COVID vaccines and providing recipients with government-issued vaccination cards.

Prosecutors said in 2021 that Zhao sold 125 blank CDC vaccination cards to eleven people on eBay between March 25 and April 11, 2021. The buyers allegedly purchased between eight and seventeen cards each for about $10 apiece.

A portion of the court transcript documenting the judge’s reading of the jurors’ notes. | U.S. District Court records

In a sentencing memo, prosecutors asked Judge Manish Shah to levy a $5,600 fine against Zhao, the amount they believe he collected by selling the COVID cards. Shah imposed that fine and a $1,200 special assessment during Tuesday’s sentencing hearing.

Among the documents filed with the court were two notices from eBay to Zhao that the company had removed his vaccination card offers because a government entity claimed ownership of the cards.

Zhao’s attorneys argued at trial that the government gave the cards to Walgreens for distribution and, thus, they were no longer government property.

In the defense sentencing memo, attorney Michael J. Petro said Zhao “is technically still a licensed pharmacist, but this [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] exclusion makes it impossible for him to work as a pharmacist.”

He is currently supporting his family by “working forty-five plus hours every week as an Uber driver in Chicago,” Petro continued.

Petro also submitted letters of support from seven of Zhao’s friends and colleagues.

Federal officials issued a press release to publicize their prosecution of Zhao as COVID vaccines rolled out. At the time, many restaurants, bars, and other businesses required COVID vaccination cards for admission, making them valuable to people who did not want to get immunized or could not get an appointment.

“Knowingly selling COVID vaccination cards to unvaccinated individuals puts millions of Americans at risk of serious injury or death,” Emmerson Buie Jr., the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Chicago Field Office at the time, said in the government’s 2021 press release. “To put such a small price on the safety of our nation is not only an insult to those who are doing their part in the fight to stop COVID-19, but a federal crime with serious consequences.”

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About Tim Hecke 217 Articles
Tim Hecke is CWBChicago's managing partner. He started his career at KMOX, the legendary news radio station in St. Louis. From there, he moved on to work at stations in Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York City. Tim went on to build syndicated radio news and content services that served every one of America's 100 largest radio markets. He became CWBChicago's managing partner in 2019. His email address is tim@cwbchicago.com