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.
The Occhipinti trial and verdict received national attention and became the subject of congressional inquiries. According to Occhipinti, Professor Bennett L. Gershman of Pace University, the nation’s leading expert on prosecutorial misconduct, has testified that the Occhipinti case is one of the worst examples of misconduct he has ever seen. Gershman, however, did not recall making those comments when reached by The Daily Caller.
Johnson, who was then an assistant U.S. attorney, did not advise the grand jury of exculpatory evidence from a NYPD detective that clearly showed the involvement of a Dominican drug cartel in the public relations campaign, Occhipinti told the House Judiciary Committee in 2000.
Occhipinti says that Johnson should have recused himself because of his close social ties to Judge Constance Baker Motley, the federal judge for whom he had clerked and with whom he remained close. During the trial it appeared that Johnson had some ex-parte communications with the judge without the approval of the defense. Johnson also went to the media and criticized reporters who defended Occhipinti.
A New American (Brooklyn, NY), article (February 21, 1994) reported on
There was bad blood between [Johnson] and Occhipinti as a result of the Project Esquire investigation of corruption within [Johnson’s] office. Further some of Johnson’s associates alleged that he had boasted that an Occhipinti conviction would land him a high-paying private sector job—a prediction that was fulfilled. Today, Johnson’s office walls at the prestigious New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton and Garrison are adorned with artists’ renderings of the Occhipinti trial, which Johnson regards as “trophies.”
Reached for comment at his home, Occhipinti stressed that he harbors no ill will toward Johnson but said that it is “undeniable” that Johnson’s aggressive prosecution of Occhipinti has harmed law enforcement’s “ability to do their job.”
“It’s not just me saying it,” Occhipinti told The Daily Caller. “Ever since the trial there has been a chilling effect on law enforcement’s ability to do routine police work, especially as it relates to immigration [issues].”
Occhipinti wouldn’t comment on whether he thought Johnson was a good choice to head Homeland Security, saying only that he had moved on with his life.
Occhipinti sounded worried throughout the call. He had declined comment in a previous email but consented to speak after this reporter followed up.
The case has had political implications. Then likely mayoral candidate Rudi Guiliani backed a new trial for Occhipinti. Borough President Guy V. Molinari of Staten Island resigned his involvement with the Bush-Quayle campaign because he felt not enough was being done to address Occhipinti’s case by Justice Department officials. President George H. W. Bush ultimately gave Occhipinti a commutation over the objections of his own Justice Department.
Occhipinti was put into jail with the very same Dominican drug lords he put away. “I’m lucky to be alive,” he said. Today Occhipinti heads the National Police Defense Foundation, one of the nation’s largest law enforcement foundations, where he helps defend other police officers from going through what he did.
Occhipinti hopes the Obama administration takes up his pardon request. The Obama White House has pardoned several drug traffickers but rejected Occhipinti’s request.
Johnson could not be reached for comment. He pledged his loyalty to President Obama during the nomination speech earlier this week.