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‘Greed and corruption’: Federal jury convicts veteran DEA agents in bribery conspiracy

by Assoicated Press
November 15, 2023

NEW YORK (AP) A federal jury convicted two longtime U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration supervisors Wednesday of leaking confidential information to defense attorneys as part of a bribery conspiracy that prosecutors say imperiled high-profile cases and the lives of overseas drug informants.

The Manhattan jury found John Costanzo Jr. and Manny Recio guilty of bribery and honest-services wire fraud after a two-week trial that cast a harsh light on DEA’s handling of government secrets, including testimony about one breach so sensitive the judge closed the courtroom to avoid what he called "serious diplomatic repercussions.’’

"It’s about greed and corruption,’’ Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Deininger said in her closing argument. "What they were doing was wrong, and they knew it.’’

Recio and Costanzo join a growing list of more than a dozen DEA agents convicted of federal charges in recent years, including one who laundered money for Colombian cartels. Another is scheduled to stand trial in January on charges he took $250,000 in bribes to protect the Mafia in Buffalo, New York.

The DEA declined to comment on the verdict.

Much of the case turned on text messages and wiretapped phone calls between the longtime lawmen, who remained close after Recio retired from DEA in 2018 and began recruiting clients as a private investigator for Miami defense lawyers.

Recio repeatedly asked Costanzo to query names in a confidential DEA database to keep abreast of federal investigations that would interest his new employers. The two also discussed the timing of high-profile arrests and the exact date in 2019 when prosecutors planned to bring charges against businessman Alex Saab, a top criminal target in Venezuela and suspected bag man for the country’s president, Nicolas Maduro.

In exchange, prosecutors said, Recio secretly funneled $73,000 in purchases to Costanzo, including plane tickets and a down payment on his condo in suburban Coral Gables, Florida.

The scheme relied on middlemen, including Costanzo’s father, himself a retired and decorated DEA agent who prosecutors said lied to the FBI. Prosecutors said Costanzo and Recio also used sham invoices and a company listing its address as a UPS store to disguise the bribe payments while deleting hundreds of messages and calls to a burner phone.

"Over and over they concealed and lied," Deininger said. "Recio and Costanzo cared so much about the money that they put people and investigations at risk.’’

Recio and Costanzo did not testify but have long denied the charges. Their attorneys said prosecutors failed to connect the payments to the leaks, portraying the investigation as speculative and sloppy.

"That is a remarkable failure of proof," defense lawyer Marc Mukasey told jurors in his summation. "In a case about bribery and conspiracy, no one testified about bribery or conspiracy."

The defense also attacked the credibility of key witness Jorge Hernández, a career criminal and snitch who first implicated Recio and wore a wire for the FBI to record him. Hernández, a beefy, bald-headed figure known by the Spanish nickname Boliche, bowling ball, said he had been blacklisted as an informant by the DEA and would be executed within "two hours" should he ever return to his native Colombia.

Recio and Costanzo showed little emotion as they listened to the verdict finding them guilty on four criminal counts each.

"It was a difficult case because we all trust law enforcement,’’ the jury forewoman, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press. ‘’But as a public official, the public expects a certain standard of behavior."

The proceedings were notable for other prominent figures who avoided charges, including Miami defense lawyers Luis Guerra and David Macey, who were mentioned repeatedly yet not called as witnesses.

The attorneys valued advance notice of federal arrests as they courted deep- pocketed clients, usually with the aim of brokering a cooperation agreement with the government. Prosecutors told jurors the "crooked attorneys" had "paid handsomely for DEA secrets’’ but they have not explained why neither was indicted.

Guerra and Macey have not responded to repeated requests for comment. Nor has the Florida Bar, which lists both attorneys as members in good standing.

"This trial revealed the dark underbelly of the drug defense bar,’’ said Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor who now defends accused money launderers and drug traffickers. ‘’If the evidence is as was presented during the trial, it is shocking that the attorneys themselves were not charged."

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