MIAMI — A current Drug Enforcement Administration agent and a retired agent — both of whom had worked in the agency's Miami field office for years — surrendered Friday on corruption charges involving the payment of thousands of dollars in bribes for confidential investigative information about drug-trafficking suspects.
The two defendants were charged by federal prosecutors in New York because of conflict of interest issues in South Florida.
Manuel Recio, 53, retired from the DEA in 2018 and had worked as an assistant special agent in charge of the Miami office along with other offices over 20 years. He was currently working as an investigative consultant in South Florida, where the alleged criminal conspiracy took place. John Costanzo Jr., 47, was most recently working at DEA headquarters in the Washington, D.C., area and had previously worked as a supervisor in the agency's Miami office, authorities said.
Both men — well known in South Florida's law enforcement and legal circles — are charged with conspiracy to bribe a public official, conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, and honest services wire fraud. Both had their first appearances in federal court Friday, and they were released on a $30,000 personal recognizance bond, according to Nicholas Biase, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York.
The Drug Enforcement Administration's headquarters in Washington, D.C., issued a statement condemning the agents' actions for betraying the DEA's mission to protect the safety of communities.
"Conduct that is inconsistent with that responsibility will not be tolerated," a DEA official said in the statement. "If it is determined that an employee of the DEA has violated a law or an internal DEA policy, we will take appropriate action to hold that individual accountable."
Upon his retirement in November 2018, Recio began operating a Miami private investigative service, Global Legal Consulting LLC, that catered to South Florida defense attorneys and also helped them recruit clients. According to an indictment, Recio agreed to bribe Costanzo, who was a DEA supervisor in Miami, in exchange for his providing the PI with confidential information about narcotics investigations through November 2019, according to the indictment.
Costanzo gave Recio information about sealed indictments and secret investigations, including the identities of suspects and the anticipated timing of their arrests, the indictment says. Costanzo also shared intelligence from the Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Information System ("NADDIS"), a DEA database that contains information about targets under investigation. Recio paid Costanzo for this information, which in turn Recio used to help recruit new clients for defense attorneys.
According to the indictment, Recio paid Costanzo $2,500 in November 2018, shortly after Recio's retirement from the DEA in Miami. The payment was funneled to Costanzo through a company owned by a close family member, the indictment says. At the same time, Recio began asking Costanzo to run searches in the DEA database on drug-trafficking targets and investigations.
After that initial payment, Recio and others continued to pay Costanzo tens of thousands of dollars that were funneled through a company created by a DEA task force officer, according to the indictment. Among the alleged bribes: a $50,000 payment to Costanzo through a close family member — money that prosecutors say Costanzo used to buy a condominium in early 2019.
In return, Constanzo continued to provide Recio with confidential information about the timing of forthcoming indictments and about DEA plans to arrest certain drug-trafficking suspects, according to the indictment. Costanzo also searched the DEA database for the names of suspects on dozens of occasions and provided confidential information about certain defendants, so that the Recio could share it with their defense attorneys.
During the scheme, Costanzo and Recio took steps to hide their illicit activities, the indictment says, by structuring payments between through third parties. Costanzo also used a cellphone provided by Recio.
Their case comes on the heels of another scandal involving disgraced DEA agent Jose Irizarry, who had also worked in the agency's Miami office. Last year, Irizarry was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to siphoning millions from undercover money-laundering operations targeting narcotraffickers.
Irizarry, accused of laundering $9 million in drug proceeds, pleaded guilty in 2020 in Tampa federal court to conspiracy, corruption, bank fraud and identity theft charges. His wife, Nathalia Gomez-Irizarry pleaded guilty to the sole conspiracy charge and was given a five-year probationary sentence.
Irizarry, 48, who worked in the DEA's Miami and Cartagena, Colombia, offices from 2009 to 2017 before his resignation the following year, was arrested along with his wife at their home near San Juan in early 2020.
At the time, Justice Department officials described Irizarry's crimes as a "shocking breach of the public's trust" because he abused his position as a DEA agent and personally benefited.
His job in South Florida and Colombia was to launder DEA money by moving it through drug-trafficking organizations to follow its path through banks and currency exchange systems in an effort to gather intelligence on illegal drug operations. In turn, Irizarry pocketed kickbacks from narco-traffckers and used the money to buy real estate and luxury goods, including a Range Rover for himself and Tiffany diamond ring for his wife, according to federal prosecutors.
Irizarry's case was prosecuted in Tampa by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta.
His case enveloped the DEA's Miami field office and its undercover money-laundering operations in controversy, generating not only the criminal investigation but internal probes by the Justice Department.
In a news release, Justice Department officials said Irizarry, his wife, Gomez-Irizarry, and other co-conspirators used the drug proceeds to buy jewelry, luxury vehicles, a home and cash gifts for friends and family. Federal prosecutors seized his Range Rover, properties in Puerto Rico and one Tiffany diamond ring, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars from dozens of illicit transactions.
©2022 Miami Herald. Visit at miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.