Homeland Security nominee Jeh Johnson orchestrated a controversial prosecution of a highly decorated immigration officer in what became the first prosecution of a law enforcement official for civil rights violations. The case attracted national condemnation from advocates of law enforcement and ultimately led to a federal commutation.
Immigration and Naturalization Service agent Joseph Occhipinti was sentenced to 37 months in prison for an illegal consent search of Dominican-drug cartel connected businesses as part of Project Bodega in 1991.
Project Bodega was based on intelligence that the Dominican cartels were buying up Dominican-owned groceries in New York City to help distribute drugs.
Occhipinti made a series of routine consent searches of Dominicans in and around those shops that landed him in hot water. He did not fill out the paperwork but asked suspects if they would consent to the searches. Occhipinti said they did and he thought the matter was over. It wasn’t.
Though normally dealt with administratively, Occhipinti’s searches became the subject of a federal inquiry once Johnson, who had previously worked with Occhipinti on Project Esquire as an assistant U.S. Attorney, saw the case as a way of advancing himself politically, says Occhipinti.
As the former INS Chief for Anti-Smuggling, Occhipinti led numerous drug interdiction programs and task force operations that successfully prosecuted major organized crime figures. For five years, Occhipinti worked undercover infiltrating the “Dominican Federation,” a front for the cartel, where he exposed corruption and is credited for one of the largest seizures recorded.
According to congressional and court testimony, during a police homicide investigation in 1988, Occhipinti uncovered evidence that a Dominican drug cartel reportedly employed a former federal prosecutor who allegedly held private sex and drug parties to get more lenient sentences for the cartel’s members. Occhipinti’s Project Esquire had revealed that there was corruption within Johnson’s office before it was mysteriously shut down.
Occhipinti testified that Johnson should have recused himself as the prosecutor for conflict of interest since he was intimately involved in the Operation Esquire investigation, which alleged official corruption at the SDNY [the Southern District of New York], Occhipinti testified before Congress in 2000.
Occhipinti pressed forward through the support of state prosecutors and developed “Operation Bodega” to target the cartel that was using area grocery stores to facilitate their drug trafficking and money laundering activities.
As Occhipinti got closer to identifying the web of corruption, there was political pushback, he says.
On April 4, 1989, the “Dominican Federation”, a front for the Dominican drug cartel according to the NYPD, held a press conference at City Hall calling the operation a “Republican Conspiracy” that was sabotaging the 1990 census. They accused the operation of violating the federal civil rights of hard working Dominican merchants.