The sentencing of a corrupt former Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent on Friday capped a case that reads like a “Narcos” episode.
Christopher V. Ciccione II, 52, a father of six from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, admitted in a plea agreement that he accepted bribes to arrange the dismissal of a 1996 Miami indictment for Jose Bayron Piedrahita Ceballos, a longtime fugitive drug kingpin whose work dates back to the Cali cartel.
Apparently, all it took was $20,000 in cash, a lavish dinner at the upscale Pesquera Jaramillo restaurant with a Colombian pop star and army colonel, a party at a Bogota Marriott hotel and prepaid prostitutes described as “three divine women,” prosecutors charged.
Piedrahita and fellow Colombian national Juan Carlos Velasco Cano met with Ciccione in Bogota, Colombia, for four days in December 2010, and the case against Piedrahita was dropped in October 2011.
“As a result of Ciccione’s repeated efforts and the resulting motion of the United States Attorney’s Office, U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler dismissed the charges … against 18 defendants, including Piedrahita,” according to the 2017 indictment against Ciccione, Piedrahita and Velasco.
Velasco was one of Ciccione’s informants, but federal prosecutors charged the information flowed in both directions. Ciccione disclosed the identities of confidential informants cooperating against Velasco, misled federal prosecutors and changed records in a Department of Homeland Security database to paint Piedrahita as a former suspect in a closed investigation rather than an indicted fugitive.
Ciccione persuaded federal officials that Piedrahita was “never positively identified” during the investigation, which flowed from the groundbreaking Operation Cornerstone probe targeting Cali cartel leaders starting in 1991.
Ciccione argued the Piedrahita case should be dismissed because of lack of probable cause for a superseding indictment, the Justice Department said. He also falsely indicated other federal agents agreed with him and attempted to get clearance for Piedrahita and his family to come to the United States.
“Christopher Ciccione abused his law enforcement authority for personal profit,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Cronan. “His actions not only compromised an ongoing investigation and nearly allowed a dangerous drug kingpin to escape justice, but they also betrayed the public trust placed in him to carry out his sworn duties with integrity.”
U.S. District Judge Robert N. Scola Jr. in Miami sentenced Ciccione to three years in federal prison for honest services fraud conspiracy, which carries a maximum statutory five-year sentence. Ciccione began his career with the Customs Service in 2001 and was based in Miami at the time of his crime. He served previously in the military.
Velasco was sentenced to 27 months in prison on Jan. 17 under his plea agreement.
Piedrahita was arrested last October and remains jailed in Colombia.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control named Piedrahita a specially designated narcotics trafficker in May 2016. The listing accused Piedrahita of working for the Cali and North Valley cartels and more recently The Office of Envigado drug organization. A 1997 federal indictment in Virginia charged Piedrahita in a money laundering conspiracy.
ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility, the DHS Office of Inspector General and the FBI investigated the case.
The Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs and Office of the Judicial Attache in Colombia and the Drug Enforcement Administration assisted with the investigation with support from the Colombian attorney general’s office.
Trial attorneys Luke Cass and Jennifer A. Clarke of the Justice Department’s criminal division’s public integrity section prosecuted the case.
Marc David Seitles of Seitles & Litwin in Miami, who represented Ciccione, was not available for immediate comment. He described his clients situation in a court filing.
“Mr. Ciccione’s reputation has been destroyed, as has his career. He was left on desk duty during the six years of this investigation and deemed persona non grata,” Seitles wrote. “Mr. Ciccione has had to endure far more than the average defendant due to this ongoing investigation, yet he now faces a similar fate of significant time in federal prison.”