Bogotá isn't the only dark trail into the U.S. Justice System

Department of Justice attorney Thomas M. Kent’s memorandum alleging widespread corruption in the Bogotá, Colombia, office of the Drug Enforcement Administration is only now seeing the light of day.

But the Bogotá DEA agents are not the first to have been accused of betraying informants or of participating in a narco-trafficking conspiracy. Similar tales of corruption involving overseas DEA agents have surfaced in the past.

One of those case centers on a convicted felon, a man named Gaetano DiGirolamo. According to DEA records, DiGirolamo is a “known associate of the Cotroni organized crime family based in Canada, and has an extensive narcotics background.”

And DiGirolamo has paid a price for his career choice. He spent much of the 1980s (1984-1990) in federal prison in Danbury, Conn.

So it should not be a big surprise to most people that he again found himself on the wrong end of the law in the early 1990s, shortly after his release from prison.

That run-in with the system — the DEA specifically — led to his indictment in 1991 and conviction in 1994 on drug conspiracy charges in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

The conspiracy charges against DiGirolamo stemmed from a meeting he arranged between a DEA informant and another individual who eventually purchased heroin from the informant.

However, DiGirolamo claims he had nothing to do with the drug deal. Despite what people might assume about him, he contends that he is not guilty of the charges brought against him in 1991; in fact, he claims that DEA agents framed him, seeking to use his case as a cover for their own illegal drug-smuggling activities.

DiGirolamo appealed his conviction, only to lose again in 1995. At that point, Steven B. Duke, a professor of law at Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn., stepped in, and took on DiGirolamo’s case pro bono. In 1997, Duke filed a post-conviction petition with the federal court seeking to vacate DiGirolamo’s conviction.

Among the claims raised in the post-conviction petition were that DiGirolamo was convicted “based upon perjury of three DEA agents” and that his court-appointed lawyer provided inadequate legal representation.

“(The DEA agents) testified that they were involved in importing drugs for use in ‘stings’ against me and others when in truth and in fact they were doing so for their own personal, criminal enrichment,” states DiGirolamo in his post-conviction petition.

According to court pleadings, the DEA agents transported the heroin from Pakistan to New York City, via commercial airlines, allegedly for the purpose of setting up undercover stings.

The petition goes on to raise major doubts about the veracity of the DEA agents’ purported sting against DiGirolamo — such as the fact that the alleged heroin brought in from Pakistan was never tested to assure it was the same heroin used in the sting, nor was the heroin ever produced at trial.

In addition, despite claims by the DEA agents involved in transporting the heroin that their operation had been sanctioned by DEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., as well as the French and Pakistani governments, Duke says those approvals were never produced.

“Where are they?” Duke asks in a court filing. “Where are the applications for such approvals? Where is the evidence that any of these approvals were sought, much less obtained?”

The DEA agents, of course, contend Duke’s allegations are baseless.

DiGirolamo and others were being targeted, according to the testimony of DEA agents, because they were believed to be distributors for a major heroin trafficking syndicate headed by a mysterious Pakistani figure named Jan. The 20 kilos of heroin imported from Pakistan by the DEA agents allegedly were acquired through undercover purchases from the Jan organization, legal filings in the DiGirolamo case state.

From the fall of 1991 to the summer of 1992, there were a total of nine other prosecutions that were related to the Jan syndicate sting. In each of those cases, the DEA agents tell the same story, according to court filings made by DiGirolamo’s defense team.

Despite this fact, the court filings claim, Jan and the drug syndicate being targeted by the DEA operation never figured out that repeated stings and arrests were occurring — even though the heroin involved in the nine prosecutions adds up to 50 kilos, 30 kilos more than was provided by the Jan organization.

“How could any organization think it had any of the 20 kilograms of heroin to sell after the first few arrests?” Duke states in a legal brief in the DiGirolamo case. “Moreover, Jan was an informant for the DEA.”

Duke was even able to track down a witness who claims to have purchased heroin from individuals fitting the description of the DEA agents in the DiGirolamo case. The witness, who is serving a life sentence on drug conspiracy charges in a federal prison in Pennsylvania, claims the drugs he and his partner acquired in those deals in Queens, N.Y. (some 40 ounces a week at $6,000 an ounce) were in turn sold on the streets of Philadelphia.

Duke made numerous requests of prosecutors in both Philadelphia and New York for various records that would help substantiate or disprove the claims being made by the witness, but “all those requests were ignored,” he claims.

In a letter to the judge in DiGirolamo’s case, Duke alleges that the DEA agents were, in reality, engaged in their own smuggling operation “for the purpose of selling the drugs and using ‘stings’ as a cover for their operation.”

The DEA agents characterized the claims raised by Duke as “untrue and absurd,” according to court records.

The judge in the case also dismissed Duke’s arguments, contending instead that DiGirolamo was convicted on overwhelming evidence that he conspired to possess heroin.

In addition, according to court records, the judge found there was insufficient evidence to support the claim that the DEA agents were illegally importing heroin for their own drug trafficking operation. And even if those allegations were true, the judge reasoned, it would simply make DiGirolamo a co-conspirator with the DEA agents.

“In December 1999, (the judge) dismissed the entire case in one of the most bizarre opinions I have ever seen,” Duke says. “... Essentially, (the judge) said it didn’t matter if the DEA agents were corrupt smugglers.”

More Connections?

Duke continued to pursue the DiGirolamo case, and in 2002 uncovered a possible connection between his case and allegations of corruption centered on U.S. Customs operations at JFK International Airport in New York City. Those Customs-related allegations were brought forth by Diane Kleiman, a former federal agent turned whistleblower. Kleiman claims that she was targeted for retaliation and finally fired after attempting to expose the allegedly corrupt practices at U.S. Customs’ JFK office.

Among the corruption Kleiman brought to light was the suspicious deaths of three narcotics agents at JFK.

Kleiman even managed to get U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D.-Conn., to look into her allegations that the three federal agents at JFK died under suspicious circumstances in the early 1990s. (One of those agents worked for DEA.)

The agents were assigned to a drug unit at the airport that, Kleiman alleges, was overseen at the time by Thomas Flood — who would later become Kleiman’s supervisor. In a letter Kleiman sent in July 2001 to the Office of Special Counsel (a government watchdog agency), she claims that two of the federal agents died of heroin overdoses and the third committed suicide — allegedly after all three had been implicated in stealing drugs from their unit.

Customs responded in writing in April 2003 to Sen. Lieberman’s official inquiry into the matter as follows:

In her letter, Ms. Kleiman raised issues regarding the deaths of former Customs Special Agents Thomas Sullivan and Thomas Calamia. Mr. Sullivan was arrested during June 1991 after it was determined he was involved in the theft of drugs from Customs’ custody. In February 1992, subsequent to his conviction in federal court, Mr. Sullivan took his own life.

Mr. Calamia died in September 1992 while he was a Customs employee. Mr. Calamia’s death was investigated by Nassau County Police Department and ruled a drug overdose. Customs employees were not involved in the discovery of Mr. Calamia’s body and were not implicated in Mr. Calamia’s death. A subsequent investigation conducted by the Office of Internal Affairs determined that Mr. Calamia was involved in the theft of drugs from Customs’ custody.

Special Agent Gary St. Hillaire was an employee of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Accordingly, BICE (the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security) possesses no records regarding the allegations of misconduct on the part of Mr. St. Hillaire....

Kleiman claims that at a minimum, the drug-thefts and deaths are evidence that her corruption charges are not out of bounds when it comes to Customs’ operations at JFK.

Kleiman adds, “Three agents died, all within about a year of each other, and they were stealing drugs from their unit.”

Expendable Lives

The lives of informants, too, are often expendable in the dark corners of the drug war. A 2004 case filed in U.S. District Court in Georgia underscores that reality.

In the case, a former DEA informant accuses a cop turned author of violating his privacy because of details revealed about the informant’s life in the cop’s book, “Without a Badge: Undercover in the World’s Deadliest Criminal Organization.”

 The informant, Paul Lir Alexander, helped the DEA run stings on Latin American narco-traffickers until he was caught double-crossing the feds by running his own narco-trafficking operation on the side. Alexander, according to the litigation, pled guilty in 1993 to conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States, and has been in prison since that time.

The author, Gerald Speziale, is a former New York narcotics cop who wrote about undercover stings that he worked with the assistance of Alexander.

From the lawsuit:

Speziale explains how he was able to infiltrate powerful drug distribution cartels and dupe them into believing that he was a trustworthy member of the illegal drug importing network. In fact, Speziale and the others involved in the undercover investigation would arrange for the shipments to be seized, and then attempt to foist off blame on other members of the importation network. This casting of blame was critical to the success of the undercover activities because the people found to be responsible for drug seizures were no longer trusted and were liable to be killed by the Colombian drug lords running the cocaine cartels. In his book, Speziale describes how Alexander’s sophistication and familiarity with the customs of these drug lords and the distribution network were critical to the success of the government’s undertakings.

In the end, the court ruled that Speziale’s book did not violate Alexander’s privacy, and the case was dismissed. It appears the lives of the individuals who were set up to take the fall, to be killed, by the law enforcers’ sting operations also have been dismissed.

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