Jury convicts former DEA agent of obstruction but fails to reach verdict on Buffalo bribery charges

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — A federal jury on Friday convicted a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent of obstruction of justice and lying to federal agents. But jurors acquitted Joseph Bongiovanni of a charge that he improperly wiped his DEA cellphone and failed to reach a verdict on a dozen other charges, including allegations the longtime agent pocketed $250,000 in bribes from the Buffalo Mafia.

The mixed verdict followed a week of often-heated deliberations and a seven-week trial that cast a harsh light on the DEA’s supervision of agents amid a string of corruption scandals at the agency.

Bongiovanni is among at least 16 DEA agents brought up on federal charges since 2015, including several serving lengthy prison sentences. Two former DEA supervisors are awaiting sentencing in a separate bribery scandal in Miami involving intelligence leaks to defense attorneys.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Tripi said prosecutors will seek to retry Bongiovanni as soon as possible on the corruption charges that hung the jury, including allegations the agent shielded a sex-trafficking strip club outside Buffalo, New York, and derailed investigations into his childhood friends.

But defense attorney Robert Singer said he would move to dismiss those counts, saying the disagreement among jurors "calls into question whether this prosecution should continue.”

The mixed verdict “showed everybody that the government’s evidence was really not that convincing,” Singer said. “The only thing Mr. Bongiovanni was convicted of was taking a file from the DEA office to his house.”

Prosecutors alleged Bongiovanni provided an “umbrella of protection” to childhood friends who became drug dealers and other suspects with ties to organized crime, opening bogus case files to throw off colleagues, vouching for criminals, revealing the names of confidential informants and keeping tabs on whether trafficker friends were on law enforcement’s radar.

Prosecutors described Bongiovanni's betrayal as a “little dark secret” fueled by his own financial woes and a misplaced loyalty to the city's tight-knit Italian American community. At one point, they said, he admonished a DEA colleague to spend less time investigating Italians and more time on Blacks and Hispanics, allegedly using racial slurs for both groups.

“He chose loyalty to criminal friends over duty,” Tripi told jurors in his closing argument. “He enabled serious crimes and serious criminals to thrive under his watchful eye of protection."

The DEA did not respond to requests for comment on the verdict.

Bongiovanni did not take the stand in his own defense. But his attorneys vehemently denied the charges and said the government failed to prove the veteran DEA agent was on the take. They noted there was no evidence of extravagant spending found when federal authorities raided the agent's home.

The trial was part of a sprawling sex-trafficking prosecution involving the Pharoah’s Gentlemen’s Club outside Buffalo. Bongiovanni was childhood friends with the strip club's indicted owner, Peter Gerace Jr., who authorities say has close ties to both the Buffalo Mafia and the notoriously violent Outlaws Motorcycle Club. Gerace attorney Mark Foti said his client denies wrongdoing and looks forward to confronting the government’s allegations at his own trial.

Prosecutors said Bongiovanni went through financial struggles during his two-decade career that made him vulnerable to taking bribes. They pointed to tens of thousands of dollars of what they said were unexplained cash deposits into Bongiovanni's bank account.

Singer said Bongiovanni and his wife, Lindsay, lived paycheck to paycheck and relied on credit cards to support their lifestyle, something that wouldn’t be necessary with the influx of cash. “They took loans to pay off loans,” he said.

But Tripi, the prosecutor, said the cash bribes allowed Bongiovanni and his wife to take 22 trips between 2013 and 2018, and to buy and restore a 1960 Buick.

“Once he became a double agent, a sworn law enforcement officer working for the criminals, there was no turning back,” Tripi said.

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Mustian reported from Natchitoches, Louisiana.

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