NEW YORK (AP) — The indictment of a former federal agent charged with pocketing $250,000 in bribes to protect the Mafia is rooted in a “racial animus” toward Italian Americans, his lawyer contends.
Federal prosecutors have failed to identify “a single penny” Joseph Bongiovanni took from gangsters in Buffalo, New York, during his two decades with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, his defense attorney alleges in new court filings. “The government has noticed that all of the participants have Italian last names, and as such, has imagined the existence of an Italian-American organized crime syndicate,” the attorney, James Harrington, wrote in the filings.
He said the criminal organization cited by prosecutors, the Buffalo Crime Family, "does not appear to exist, yet the lore of the Italian mafia is so pervasive in our society that the government can benefit just from alleging a connection without having to prove it.”
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Buffalo declined to comment.
Bongiovanni, who was raised in a tightknit Italian American community in North Buffalo, is accused of leaking information to drug traffickers and using his badge to “dissuade other members of law enforcement” from bringing cases against friends involved in “Italian Organized Crime,” according to an indictment handed up in 2019.
The charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements should be dismissed, Bongiovanni's lawyers say, claiming an “avalanche of financial information” turned over by the government does not incriminate the former agent.
The indictment alleges Bongiovanni took the bribes between 2008 and 2017. He retired from the DEA two years ago.
Harrington, in a 114-page court filing this month, sought to cast doubt on the case.
“Mr. Bongiovanni’s lifestyle does not reflect that of a man who has supposedly taken a quarter of a million dollars in bribes," Harrington wrote. "A classic car in his garage, which he bought with a loan several years ago and has slowly restored a few parts at a time, is his only uniquely prized possession.”
Prosecutors wrongly concluded Bongiovanni provided cover for drug dealers out of disbelief that so many major marijuana traffickers had been “left at liberty by the DEA for so long,” the defense alleges.
“In sum, the government’s sensational case appears to be a reverse-engineered narrative, starting with conclusions and working backwards,” Harrington wrote, “despite an absence of clear evidence.”
Bongiovanni's proceedings have been delayed in part by the coronavirus pandemic, and no trial date has been set. He remains free on bond and has been caring for his parents, according to his attorney.