‘Little dark secret’: DEA agent on trial accused of taking $250K in bribes from Mafia

Former DEA agent Joseph Bongiovanni arrives at the Robert H. Jackson U.S. Court House for a hearing for an upcoming trial on drug and bribery charges, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The veteran U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent is on trial in Buffalo, N.Y., on charges he took $250,000 in bribes from the Mafia to derail investigations and keep his childhood friends out of prison. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News via AP)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The way prosecutors tell it, Joseph Bongiovanni went to work for years with a “little dark secret.”

Behind the veneer of a veteran U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, they alleged, was a turncoat on the take from the Buffalo Mafia, offering an “umbrella of protection” that derailed investigations of his childhood friends, covered for a sex-trafficking strip club and even helped a connected high school English teacher keep his marijuana-growing side hustle.


In a federal trial that began this month, prosecutors portrayed Bongiovanni as a greedy racist who pocketed more than $250,000 in cash-stuffed envelopes over a decade and threw his colleagues off by opening bogus case files and encouraging them to spend less time investigating Italians and more time on Blacks and Hispanics, “n——- and s——” he was alleged to have called them. When authorities finally unmasked him in 2019, he hastily retired and wiped his cellphone clean.

“Sometimes the DEA doesn’t get it right,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Tripi told jurors. “He was able to manipulate everyone because, in law enforcement, there’s a certain amount of trust that’s inherent. He did it under the watch of supervisors who under-supervised him.”

The 59-year-old Bongiovanni has denied the counts of bribery, conspiracy and obstruction of justice that could land him behind bars for life, charges his attorney says are built on lies “so fanciful they don’t just strain credibility, they rip it apart.”

The trial is the latest gut punch to the 4,100-agent DEA, which has seen at least 16 agents brought up on federal charges since 2015, a parade of misconduct that has revealed gaping holes in the agency’s supervision.

The crimes have included child pornography, drug trafficking, leaking intelligence to defense attorneys and selling firearms to cartel associates, an Associated Press analysis found. One carried a “Liberty or Death” flag and flashed his badge outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. Another infiltrated the DEA in Chicago and helped traffickers smuggle thousands of kilos of cocaine from Puerto Rico to New York.

At least three veteran agents are serving prison sentences of a decade or longer, including one who laundered money for cartels in Colombia and spent lavishly on expensive sports cars and Tiffany jewels, and an Arkansas-based agent recorded taking a bribe inside a Las Vegas casino.

The DEA declined to comment. DEA Administrator Anne Milgram is herself the subject of an ongoing Inspector General inquiry examining whether the agency improperly hired some of her past associates.

Like other DEA scandals, the Bongiovanni case underscores recurring questions about the agency’s hiring standards and ability to root out corruption. Background checks didn’t turn up Bongiovanni’s prior drug use and ties to Italian organized crime in his native Buffalo, prosecutors said, and not a single member of law enforcement was on to him until a trafficker paying for Bongiovanni’s protection was arrested by another agency. “He’s got that little dark secret,” Tripi said.

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