Joseph Bongiovanni, a former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, is facing federal bribery charges after being accused of accepting over $250,000 to provide protection to the mafia while also aiding drug traffickers in conducting their operations in New York.

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The former agent’s trial began this month and he could possibly spend the rest of his life in prison. The courtroom drama includes tales of deception, racism, and an egregious breach of trust.

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.”

Tripi described Bongiovanni as a “greedy racist” who leveraged his position to enrich himself and protect Italian suspects.

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Many of the 15 charges against the former DEA agent were related to his relationship to Peter Gerace Jr., the owner of Pharoah’s Gentleman’s Club in Cheektowaga and an alleged drug and sex trafficking operation. Gerace is believed to have ties with the Buffalo Mafia. Much of the prosecution’s case will rest on Louis Selva, Bongiovanni’s childhood friend.

It was Selva who pitched Bongiovanni on a formal arrangement with the drug-trafficking group that put the then-DEA agent on a retainer for $2,000 a month, eventually growing to $4,000 monthly, for upward of $250,000 over most of a decade, the prosecutor said. Selva was aware of Bongiovanni’s financial pressures and occasional cocaine use, so he felt safe broaching the idea, according to Tripi.

Another key witness will be Ronald Serio, who has never met Bongiovanni in person, but who, according to prosecutors, provided the cash for Bongiovanni’s monthly retainer to provide cover to the drug-trafficking organization, Tripi said.

“This is a simple case about a dishonest and corrupt special agent who violated his oath and duty to enforce the drug laws of this nation in exchange for up to a quarter of a million dollars in bribes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Tripi said Thursday in his opening statement at Joseph Bongiovanni’s trial.

The two co-conspirators have now become cooperating government witnesses.

“Two of them you’ll hear from will be Lou Selva and Ron Serio,” Tripi told the jury. “These are individuals with the inside and intimate knowledge of how this conspiracy worked. And their testimony will give you an inside look at how a drug-trafficking organization in Buffalo, N.Y., recruited and bribed an active DEA agent and caused him to become a double agent in violation of his sworn oath and duties.”

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Bongiovanni’s case is not an isolated one; it is symptomatic of a larger issue of corruption and criminality plaguing the DEA. In 2023, a federal jury convicted two former DEA agents in another bribery scandal.

As the trial progresses, it won’t only highlight the alleged wrongdoing on Bongiovanni’s part, but it will also place the DEA under more scrutiny. The agency has seen more than its share of corruption cases among its agents and this case could bring to light even more malfeasance.