Corrupt U.S. agent amid warfare on medicine

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico –

Jose Irizarry accepts that he is referred to as essentially the most corrupt agent in U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration historical past, admitting he “turned one other man” in conspiring with Colombian cartels to construct a lavish way of life of pricey sportscars, Tiffany jewels and paramours world wide.

However as he used his remaining hours of freedom to inform his story to The Related Press, Irizarry says he will not go down for this alone, accusing some long-trusted DEA colleagues of becoming a member of him in skimming thousands and thousands of {dollars} from drug cash laundering stings to fund a decade’s price of luxurious abroad journey, nice eating, high seats at sporting occasions and frat house-style debauchery.

The best way Irizarry tells it, dozens of different federal brokers, prosecutors, informants and in some circumstances cartel smugglers themselves have been all in on the three-continent joyride referred to as “Workforce America” that selected cities for cash laundering pick-ups largely for get together functions or to coincide with Actual Madrid soccer or Rafael Nadal tennis matches. That included stops alongside the way in which in VIP rooms of Caribbean strip joints, Amsterdam’s red-light district and aboard a Colombian yacht that launched with loads of booze and greater than a dozen prostitutes.

“We had free entry to do no matter we needed,” the 48-year-old Irizarry advised the AP in a collection of interviews earlier than starting a 12-year federal jail sentence. “We’d generate cash pick-ups in locations we needed to go. And as soon as we obtained there it was about consuming and women.”

All this revelry was rooted, Irizarry mentioned, in a crushing realization amongst DEA brokers world wide that there is nothing they will do to make a dent within the drug warfare anyway. Solely nominal concern was given to really constructing circumstances or stemming a file circulation of unlawful cocaine and opioids into the USA that has pushed greater than 100,000 drug overdose deaths a 12 months.

“You possibly can’t win an unwinnable warfare. DEA is aware of this and the brokers know this,” Irizarry mentioned. “There’s a lot dope leaving Colombia. And there is a lot cash. We all know we’re not making a distinction.”

“The drug warfare is a sport. … It was a really enjoyable sport that we have been taking part in.”

Irizarry’s story, which some former colleagues have attacked as a fictionalized try to scale back his sentence, got here in days of contrite, bitter, generally tearful interviews with the AP within the historic quarter of his native San Juan. It was a lot the identical account he gave the FBI in prolonged debriefings and sealed courtroom papers obtained by the AP after he pleaded responsible in 2020 to 19 corruption counts, together with cash laundering and financial institution fraud.

However after years of portraying Irizarry as a rogue agent who acted alone, U.S. Justice Division investigators have in current months begun carefully following his confessional roadmap, questioning as many as two-dozen present and former DEA brokers and prosecutors accused by Irizarry of turning a blind eye to his flagrant abuses and generally becoming a member of in.

With little fanfare, the inquiry has targeted on a jet-setting former companion of Irizarry and a number of other different trusted DEA colleagues assigned to worldwide cash laundering. And a minimum of three present and former federal prosecutors have confronted questioning about Irizarry’s raucous events, together with one nonetheless in a senior function in Miami, one other who appeared on TV’s “The Bachelorette” and a former Ohio prosecutor who was confirmed to function the U.S. legal professional in Cleveland this 12 months earlier than abruptly backing out for unspecified household causes.

The increasing investigation comes because the nation’s premier narcotics regulation enforcement company has been rattled by repeated misconduct scandals in its 4,600-agent ranks, from one who took bribes from traffickers to a different accused of leaking confidential data to regulation enforcement targets. However by far the most important black eye is Irizarry, whose wholesale betrayal of the badge is on the coronary heart of an ongoing exterior overview of the DEA’s sprawling overseas operations in 69 international locations.

The once-standout agent has accused some former colleagues within the DEA’s Miami-based Group 4 of lining their pockets and falsifying information to replenish a slush fund used for overseas jaunts over the higher a part of a decade, till his resignation in 2018. He accused a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent of accepting a $20,000 bribe. And just lately, the FBI, Workplace of Inspector Common and a federal prosecutor interviewed Irizarry in jail about different federal staff and allegations he raised about misconduct in maritime interdictions.

“It was too outlandish for them to imagine that is truly occurring,” Irizarry mentioned of investigators. “The indictment paints an image of me, the corrupt agent that did this whole scheme. However it would not discuss the remainder of DEA. I wasn’t the mastermind.”

The federal choose in Tampa who sentenced Irizarry final 12 months appeared to agree, saying different brokers corrupted by the “attract of straightforward cash” must be investigated. “This has to cease,” Choose Charlene Honeywell advised prosecutors, including Irizarry was “the one who obtained caught however it’s obvious to this courtroom that there are others.”

The Justice Division declined to remark. A DEA spokesperson mentioned: “Jose Irizarry is a felony who violated his oath as a federal regulation enforcement officer and violated the belief of the American folks. Over the previous 16 months, DEA has labored vigorously to additional strengthen our self-discipline and hiring insurance policies to make sure the integrity and effectiveness of our important work.”

AP was in a position to corroborate some, however not all, of Irizarry’s accusations by means of hundreds of confidential regulation enforcement information and dozens of interviews with these accustomed to his claims and the continued investigation, together with a number of who spoke on the situation of anonymity as a result of they weren’t licensed to debate them.

   The probe is targeted partially on George Zoumberos, one among Irizarry’s former companions who travelled abroad extensively for cash laundering investigations. Irizarry advised AP that Zoumberos loved unfettered entry to so-called fee funds and improperly tapped that cash for private purchases and unwarranted journeys, utilizing names of individuals that did not exist in DEA studies justifying the excesses.

Zoumberos remained a DEA agent even after he was arrested and briefly detained on allegations of sexual assault throughout a visit to Madrid in 2018. He resigned solely after being stripped of his gun, badge and safety clearance for invoking his Fifth Modification rights to remain silent in late 2019, when the identical prosecutor who charged Irizarry summoned him to testify earlier than a federal grand jury in Tampa.

Authorities are so targeted on Zoumberos that in addition they subpoenaed his brother, a Florida wedding ceremony photographer who travelled and partied world wide with DEA brokers, and even granted him immunity to induce his cooperation. However Michael Zoumberos additionally refused to testify and has been jailed outdoors Tampa since March for “civil contempt” — an exceedingly uncommon stress tactic that underscores the rising temperature of the investigation.

“I did not do something unsuitable, however I am not going to speak about my brother,” Michael Zoumberos advised AP in a jailhouse interview. “I am principally being held as a political prisoner of the FBI. They need to coerce me into cooperating.”

Some present and former DEA brokers say Irizarry’s claims are overblown or flat-out fabrications. The previous ICE agent scoffed at Irizarry’s accusation he took a $20,000 bribe, saying he raised early crimson flags about Irizarry. And the lawyer for the Zoumberos brothers says prosecutors are on a “fishing expedition” to deliver extra indictments due to the embarrassment of the Irizarry scandal.

“Everyone they connect with Jose is extraneous to his thefts,” mentioned legal professional Raymond Mansolillo. “They’re seeking to discover a crime to suit this case versus a criminal offense that truly occurred. However it doesn’t matter what occurs they’ll cost anyone with one thing as a result of they do not need to come out of all of this after 5 years and have solely charged Jose.”

Making Irizarry’s allegations extra egregious is that they got here on the heels of a 2015 Inspector Common’s report that slammed DEA brokers for collaborating in “intercourse events” with prostitutes employed by Colombian cartels. That prompted the suspension of a number of brokers and the retirement of Michele Leonhart, the DEA’s administrator on the time.

Central to the Irizarry investigation are overly cozy relationships developed between brokers and informants — strictly forbidden underneath federal pointers — and unfastened controls on the DEA’s undercover drug cash laundering operations that few Individuals know exist.

Yearly, the DEA launders tens of thousands and thousands of {dollars} on behalf of the world’s most-violent drug cartels by means of shell firms, a tactic touted in long-running abroad investigations corresponding to Operation White Wash that resulted in additional than 100 arrests and the seizure of greater than $100 million and a ton of cocaine.

However the DEA has additionally confronted criticism for permitting big quantities of cash within the operations to go unseized, enabling cartels to proceed plying their commerce, and for failing to tightly monitor and observe the stings, making it troublesome to judge outcomes.

A 2020 Justice Division Inspector Common’s report faulted the DEA for failing since a minimum of 2006 to file annual studies to Congress about these stings, referred to as Legal professional Common Exempted Operations. That rebuke, coupled with the embarrassment introduced on by Irizarry’s confession, prompted DEA Administrator Anne Milgram to order an outdoor overview of the company’s overseas operations, which is ongoing.

“Within the overwhelming majority of those operations, no one is watching,” mentioned Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor in New York and outspoken critic of DEA cash laundering. “Within the Irizarry operation, no one cared how a lot cash they have been laundering. No one cared that they weren’t making any circumstances. No one was minding the home. There have been no controls.”

Rob Feitel, one other former federal prosecutor, mentioned the DEA’s lax oversight made it straightforward to divert funds for every kind of unapproved functions. And so long as cash seizures stored driving stats increased — a low bar given ample provide — few questions have been requested.

“The opposite brokers aren’t silly. They knew there have been no controls and a variety of them might have accomplished what Irizarry did,” mentioned Feitel, who represents a former DEA agent underneath scrutiny within the inquiry. “The road that separates Irizarry from the others is he did it with each palms and he did it again and again and over. He did not simply take a look at the waters, he took a full tub in it.”

Irizarry, who speaks in a easy sample that seamlessly switches between English and Spanish, was a federal air marshal and Border Patrol agent earlier than becoming a member of the DEA in 2009. He mentioned he realized the tips of the commerce as a DEA rookie from veteran cops who got here up in New York Metropolis within the Nineties when cocaine flooded American streets.

However one other key a part of his training got here from Diego Marin, a longtime U.S. informant recognized to investigators as Colombia’s “Contraband King” for allegedly laundering dope cash by means of imported home equipment and different items. Irizarry mentioned Marin taught him higher than any agent ever might the nuances of the black-market peso change utilized by narcotraffickers internationally.

Irizarry parlayed that information into a lifetime of luxurious that prosecutors say was bankrolled by $9 million he and his Colombian co-conspirators diverted from cash laundering investigations.

To additional the scheme, Irizarry filed false studies and ordered DEA employees to wire cash slated for undercover stings to worldwide accounts he and associates managed. Hardened informants who stored a hefty fee from each money switch sanctioned by the DEA additionally stepped in to fund among the revelries in what amounted to unlawful kickbacks.

Irizarry’s spending habits shortly started to imitate the ostentatious tastes of the narcos he was tasked with focusing on, with spoils together with a $30,000 Tiffany diamond ring for his spouse, luxurious sports activities vehicles and a $767,000 house within the Colombian resort metropolis of Cartagena. He’d journey firstclass to Europe with Louis Vuitton baggage and sporting a gold Hublot watch.

“I used to be excellent at what I did however I turned anyone I wasn’t. … I turned a distinct man,” Irizarry mentioned. “I obtained caught up within the way of life. I obtained caught up with the informants and partying.”

 Irizarry contends as many as 90% of his group’s work journeys have been “bogus,” dictated by partying and sporting occasions, not actual work. And he says the U.S. authorities cash that helped pay for it was justified in studies as “case-related — however that is a really obscure time period.”

Living proof: an August 2014 journey to Madrid for the Spanish Supercup soccer finals that was charged as an expense to Operation White Wash.

However Irizarry advised investigators there was little precise work to be accomplished apart from courtesy calls to a couple pleasant Spanish cops. As an alternative, he mentioned, brokers spent their time eating at expensive eating places — racking up a 1,000-euro invoice at one — and having fun with field-side seats for the championship match between Actual and Atletico Madrid.

Becoming a member of the posse of brokers on the sport was Michael J. Garofola, a then-Miami federal prosecutor and erstwhile contestant on “The Bachelorette” who posted a thumbs-up picture on Instagram standing subsequent to Irizarry and one other agent — all clad in white Actual Madrid jerseys.

“Absorbing the final little bit of Spanish tradition earlier than saying adios,” he posted just a few days later outdoors a pub.

Irizarry alleged that Garofola additionally joined brokers, cartel informants and others within the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo in 2014 for an evening at a strip membership referred to as Doll Home. In a memo to the courtroom searching for a discount in his sentence, Irizarry recalled being within the VIP room with one other agent and Garofola, racking up a $2,300 invoice paid for by a violent emissary of Marin with a menacing nickname to match: Iguana.

Garofola mentioned the journeys included official enterprise and he assumed all the pieces was being paid for out of DEA funds.

“There have been issues about these journeys that made me query why I used to be there,” Garofola advised AP. “However Irizarry completely used me to ratify this behaviour. I used to be model new and inexperienced and desperate to work cash laundering circumstances. He used me simply by my being there.”

When Irizarry was awarded with a switch to Cartagena in 2015, the get together adopted. The agent’s rooftop pool, with sweeping ocean views, turned an compulsory cease for visiting brokers and prosecutors from the U.S.

One which Irizarry recollects seeing there was Marisa Darden, a prosecutor from Cleveland who he says travelled to Colombia in September 2017 and was at a gathering the place he witnessed two DEA brokers taking ecstasy. Irizarry says he did not see Darden taking medicine.

Federal authorities have taken a eager curiosity in that get together, quizzing Irizarry about it as just lately as this summer season. No less than one DEA agent who attended has been positioned on administrative go away.

Darden went on to turn out to be a companion in a high-powered Cleveland regulation agency and final 12 months was nominated by President Joe Biden to be the primary Black lady U.S. legal professional in northern Ohio. However quickly after she was confirmed, Darden abruptly withdrew in Could, citing solely “the significance of prioritizing household.”

Darden refused to reply questions from AP however her legal professional mentioned in a press release that she “cooperated totally” with the federal investigation into “alleged criminality by federal brokers,” an inquiry separate from the FBI background verify she confronted within the affirmation course of.

“There isn’t a proof that she participated in any criminality,” Darden’s legal professional, James Wooley, wrote in an e mail to AP.

A White Home official mentioned the allegations didn’t come up within the vetting course of. And U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who put Darden’s title up for the put up, was additionally unaware of the allegations within the nomination course of, his workplace mentioned, and had he recognized “would have withdrawn his help.”

One other federal prosecutor named by Irizarry and questioned by federal brokers was Monique Botero, who was just lately promoted to move the narcotics division on the U.S. legal professional’s workplace in Miami. Irizarry advised investigators and the AP that Botero joined a gaggle of brokers, informants, Colombian police and prostitutes for a celebration on a luxurious yacht.

Botero’s legal professionals acknowledge she was on the yacht in September 2015 for what she thought was a cruise organized by native police, however they are saying “categorically and unequivocally, Monique by no means noticed or participated in something unlawful or unethical.”

“Irizarry has admitted that he lied to everybody round him for varied nefarious causes. These lies about Monique are a part of the same sample,” mentioned her legal professional, Benjamin Greenberg. “It’s appalling that Monique is being maligned and defamed by somebody as disgraced as Irizarry.”

Irizarry’s downfall was as sudden because it was inevitable — the outgrowth of a lavish way of life that raised too many eyebrows, even amongst colleagues prepared to bend the foundations themselves. Ultimately, he was betrayed by one among his closest confidants, a Venezuelan-American informant who confessed to diverting funds from the undercover stings.

“Jose’s drawback is that he took issues to the purpose of stupidity and trashed the get together for everybody else,” mentioned one defence legal professional who travelled with Irizarry and different brokers. “However there is not any doubt he did not act alone.”

Since his arrest, Irizarry has written a self-published e-book titled “Getting Again on Monitor,” a part of his try to come clean with his errors and pursue an easier path after bringing a lot disgrace upon himself and his household.

Just lately, his Colombian-born spouse — who was spared jail time on a cash laundering cost in change for Irizarry’s confession — advised him she was searching for a divorce.

Including to Irizarry’s despair is that he’s nonetheless the one one to pay such a heavy worth for a sample of misconduct that he says the DEA allowed to fester. Thus far, prosecutors have but to cost another brokers, and a number of other former colleagues have quietly retired moderately than endure the shame of probably being fired.

“I’ve advised them all the pieces I do know,” Irizarry mentioned. “All they must do is dig.”

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Aritz Parra in Madrid and Chris Megerian in Washington contributed to this report.

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