Former DEA Agent and His Wife Plead Guilty for Roles in Scheme to Divert Drug Proceeds From Undercover Money Laundering Investigations

A former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agent and his wife pleaded guilty Monday to all charges in a 19-count indictment unsealed against them on Feb. 21, 2020.  U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Wilson accepted the guilty pleas in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.  

Jose Ismael Irizarry, 46, and his wife, Nathalia Gomez-Irizarry, 36, admitted to participating in a seven-year scheme to divert over $9 million in drug proceeds from undercover money laundering investigations into bank accounts that they and co-conspirators controlled.  Irizarry and Gomez-Irizarry are scheduled to be sentenced at a later date.

“In a shocking breach of the public’s trust, former DEA Special Agent Jose Irizarry, together with his wife, Nathalia Gomez-Irizarry, abused his position by illegally diverting millions of dollars in drug proceeds from undercover operations to personally benefit themselves,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.  “Sworn law enforcement agents are entrusted with great responsibility, and the department will hold accountable those who exploit their positions to profit from public corruption.”

“Irizarry joined forces with the same criminal drug organizations he promised to investigate and prosecute, “said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak for the Northern District of Georgia.  “He and his wife now stand as convicted felons, potentially facing years in federal prison with little to show for the betrayal of his oath to uphold the law.”

“This former federal agent turned his back on the people he swore to protect and caved to greed and deceit,” said Special Agent in Charge Michael F. McPherson of the FBI’s Tampa Field Office.  “The FBI will not tolerate those who abuse the public trust and will persist in safeguarding the American people from public corruption.”  

“HSI is committed to maintaining the public’s confidence in our law enforcement community by rooting out those corrupt individuals and criminal organizations who abuse the U.S. financial system for their own personal gain,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Kevin Sibley of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Tampa Field Office.  “By working in partnership with federal, state, local and international partners, this investigation is a prime example of law enforcement agencies working collaboratively in pursuit of justice.”  

“Rather than upholding his oath to stop drug trafficking and money laundering, Irizarry actively participated in these schemes and collected millions of dollars for himself and his associates,” said Special Agent in Charge James F. Boyersmith of the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General (OIG) Miami Field Office.  “Irizarry’s conduct enabled criminals, endangered the public, and jeopardized public trust in law enforcement.”

“DEA worked with the FBI, the U.S. Attorney, and others in law enforcement to investigate and bring Irizarry to justice,” said DEA Acting Administrator Timothy J. Shea.  “Law enforcement, at any level, is based upon integrity and public trust.  DEA employees work tirelessly every day to keep our communities safe from drug-related crime, and former DEA Special Agent Jose Irizarry’s criminal actions do not reflect the high standards of conduct we demand of our employees and our agents.  Corruption and betrayal of the American people – the very people we stand to protect – have no place at DEA, and neither does Mr. Irizarry.”

“It’s never pleasant to employ our unique financial investigative skills against a member of the law enforcement community, but no one dislikes a bad cop more than a good cop,” said Special Agent in Charge Brian Payne of the IRS Criminal Investigation’s (IRS-CI) Tampa Field Office.  “Thankfully, the vast majority of federal, state, and local law enforcement officers vigilantly honor the badge, and we take great pride in teaming up with them.  Together with our federal partners, we worked tirelessly to uncover the disgrace this particular agent attempted to bring on our profession.”

Irizarry filed for personal bankruptcy protection in December of 2010.  As part of his plea, he admitted that soon after his bankruptcy was filed he began to exploit his position of public trust as a special agent to divert funds from undercover DEA money laundering investigations to himself and to co-conspirators.  Diverted funds were then used to purchase jewelry, luxury cars, and a home.  The scheme lasted throughout Irizarry’s assignments to the DEA’s Miami Field Division and to its office in Cartagena, Colombia.  Irizarry resigned from the DEA in January of 2018. 

Irizarry further admitted that he and his criminal associates opened a bank account with a stolen identity and then utilized the account to secretly send and receive drug proceeds from active DEA investigations.  Gomez-Irizarry admitted that she allowed her bank accounts and a Florida corporation in her name to be used in the scheme.  By his own admission, Irizarry was in personal bankruptcy proceedings for nearly the duration of his criminal conduct and failed to disclose any of his illicit income to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

Irizarry pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder monetary instruments, honest services wire fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, conspiracy to commit identity theft, and aggravated identity theft.  Gomez-Irizarry pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder monetary instruments.

Trial Attorneys Joseph Palazzo and Mark A. Irish of the Criminal Division’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt Erskine of the Northern District of Georgia, are prosecuting the case.

The FBI, HSI, Justice Department’s OIG, DEA, and IRS-CI investigated the case with significant contributions from former Assistant U.S. Attorney James Mandolfo and investigators William Campbell and Paul Serletti.  The U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs, the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section’s Judicial Attaché’s Office in Bogota, Colombia, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the District of Puerto Rico, Southern District of New York, and the Eastern District of Texas, the Colombian Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalia General de la Nacion), the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, and the South Florida Money Laundering Strike Force at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office provided valuable assistance.

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    The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took steps prior to the 2018 disasters in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Guam, and Hawaii to facilitate response in the region, where time and distance from the continental United States create unique challenges. For instance, FEMA increased the capacity of two Pacific-area supply distribution centers and helped develop area specific disaster response plans. FEMA and its federal partners, such as the Department of Defense (DOD), had varied response roles, which local officials in the CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii considered effective. For example, DOD provided temporary roof repair for disaster survivors in the CNMI. Damage from Typhoon Yutu in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (left) and the Kilauea Volcano Eruption in Hawaii (right) As of October 2020, FEMA obligated $877 million—more than 70 percent of which was for Individual and Public Assistance missions—following the 2018 disasters and made progress addressing some region specific challenges. However, FEMA has not fully addressed housing assistance issues in the CNMI. For example, it experienced delays implementing its Permanent Housing Construction program in the CNMI due to contracting shortfalls and lack of experienced staff. As of October 2020, only about 30 percent of homes were completed and returned to survivors. GAO found that these housing assistance challenges are consistent with lessons learned from prior FEMA missions in other remote areas of the U.S. Developing guidance that addresses lessons learned in the Permanent Housing Construction program could help streamline assistance to disaster survivors. GAO also identified delays in FEMA's obligation of Public Assistance program funds—used to repair or replace disaster-damaged public infrastructure such as utilities, roads, and schools—in the CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii. Specifically, on average, it took over a year for FEMA to approve funds for projects awarded after the 2018 disasters. FEMA and local officials identified potential reasons for the delays, including cost estimation challenges. FEMA established cost factors in the CNMI to account for higher construction costs, and GAO found that FEMA collects some data on the timeliness of individual steps in the process. However, FEMA has not analyzed the data to help identify causes of the delays, which could allow it to target solutions to address them. The CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii experienced an unprecedented number of natural disasters in 2018—including typhoons, earthquakes, mudslides, and volcanic eruptions. FEMA is the lead federal agency responsible for helping states and territories prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters. Due to the remoteness of Hawaii and the Pacific territories, disaster response and recovery can be challenging. Title IX of the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019 includes a provision for GAO to review FEMA's response and recovery efforts for 2018 natural disasters, including those in the Pacific region. This report examines (1) how FEMA and its federal partners prepared for and responded to the 2018 disasters in the CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii; and (2) the extent to which FEMA assisted the CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii in recovering from the 2018 natural disasters. GAO analyzed program documents, response plans, and data on FEMA obligations, expenditures, and grant process steps as of October 2020; interviewed federal, state, territorial, and local officials; and visited disaster-damaged areas in Hawaii. GAO is making four recommendations, including that FEMA (1) incorporate lessons learned into Permanent Housing Construction guidance; and (2) use performance data to identify and address inefficiencies in the Public Assistance program. The Department of Homeland Security concurred, and FEMA is taking actions in response. For more information, contact Chris Currie at (404) 679-1875 or curriec@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) met its goal to expand the 287(g) program. However, ICE has not established performance goals that cover all program activities, such as ICE's oversight of its law enforcement agency (LEA) partners, or measures to assess the program's performance, such as the percentage of LEA partners in compliance with annual training requirements. As a result, ICE is not well-positioned to determine the extent to which the program is achieving intended results. ICE considers a number of factors, such as LEAs' capability to act as an ICE force multiplier, when reviewing their suitability to join the program; however, ICE has not assessed how to optimize the use of its resources and program benefits to guide its recruitment of future 287(g) participants. For example, ICE has two models in which LEAs can participate with varying levels of immigration enforcement responsibilities. In the Jail Enforcement Model (JEM), designated state or local officers identify and process removable foreign nationals who have been arrested and booked into the LEA's correctional facility, whereas in the Warrant Service Officer (WSO) model, the designated officers only serve warrants to such individuals. However, ICE has not assessed the mix of participants for each model that would address resource limitations, as each model has differing resource and oversight requirements. By assessing how to leverage its program resources and optimize benefits received, ICE could approach recruitment more strategically and optimize program benefits. 287(g) Participants in January 2017 and September 2020 ICE uses a number of mechanisms to oversee 287(g) JEM participants' compliance with their agreements, such as conducting inspections and reviewing reported complaints. However, at the time of GAO's review, ICE did not have an oversight mechanism for participants' in the WSO model. For example, ICE did not have clear policies on 287(g) field supervisors' oversight responsibilities or plan to conduct compliance inspections for WSO participants. An oversight mechanism could help ICE ensure that WSO participants comply with their 287(g) agreement and other relevant ICE policies and procedures. The 287(g) program authorizes ICE to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies to assist with enforcing immigration laws. The program expanded from 35 agreements in January 2017 to 150 as of September 2020. GAO was asked to review ICE's management and oversight of the program. This report examines (1) the extent to which ICE has developed performance goals and measures to assess the 287(g) program; (2) how ICE determines eligibility for 287(g) program participation and considers program resources; and (3) how ICE conducts oversight of 287(g) program participant compliance and addresses noncompliance. GAO reviewed ICE policies and documentation, and interviewed officials from ICE headquarters and field offices. GAO also interviewed 11 LEAs selected based on the type of 287(g) agreement, length of participation, and facility type (e.g. state or local).While not generalizable, information collected from the selected LEAs provided insights into 287(g) program operations and oversight of program participants. GAO analyzed data on 287(g) inspection results and complaints from fiscal years 2015 through 2020. GAO recommends that ICE (1) establish performance goals and related performance measures; (2) assess the 287(g) program's composition to help leverage its resources and optimize program benefits; and (3) develop and implement an oversight mechanism for the WSO model. DHS concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or GamblerR@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) Veterans Health Administration (VHA) provides training to more than 45,000 medical and dental residents annually through its Graduate Medical Education (GME) program. VHA has established policy for its GME program that details many roles and responsibilities for overseeing VA medical facilities' reimbursements to affiliated academic institutions for residents' salaries and benefits. However, this policy does not define key roles and responsibilities for VHA's central office components, its regional networks, or its medical facilities. For example, VHA's regional networks do not have defined roles and responsibilities for overseeing GME disbursements—contributing to noninvolvement or inconsistent involvement in disbursement agreement oversight. VHA officials reported that they are in the process of updating disbursement agreement policy, but did not indicate if the updates would address all identified concerns. While VHA officials said that VHA's two disbursement agreement oversight mechanisms—facility periodic audits and the Resident Disbursement Audit Process (ReDPro) checklist—are meant to have distinct but complementary purposes, GAO found that VHA policy, guidance, and the tools distributed for these oversight mechanisms did not reflect the distinct purposes officials described. VHA officials said that periodic audits are intended to be a first level of defense and to review actual payments to affiliates, whereas the ReDPro checklist is intended to be a second level of defense, aimed at reviewing the process to see if the rules related to disbursement agreements are being followed by VA medical facilities. However, the ReDPro checklist tool and VHA's recommended periodic audit tool have numerous areas of overlap, including duplicative questions. This overlap causes inefficiencies and unnecessary burden on VA medical facility staff. GAO also found additional weaknesses in the tools, guidance, and training for the two oversight mechanisms. For example, GAO found an unclear ReDPro checklist tool, along with insufficient guidance and training related to conducting the ReDPro reviews. Officials from eight of 13 facilities in GAO's review indicated that the ReDPro checklist instructions were unclear regarding appropriate supporting documents for checklist responses. These weaknesses contributed to errors and inconsistencies in ReDPro responses. the lack of a standard audit tool, and inadequate guidance and training for periodic audit teams that contributed to problematic inconsistencies in the methodologies used by the audit teams and deficiencies in some of the audits conducted. Officials from 10 of 13 facilities in GAO's review indicated that they would benefit from more tools, guidance, or training related to conducting periodic audits. These weaknesses limit the effectiveness of VHA's oversight mechanisms, and put VHA at increased risk of both not being able to identify and correct facilities' lack of adherence to disbursement agreement policy and of possible improper payments to GME affiliates. Under VHA's GME program, VA medical facilities use disbursement agreements to reimburse affiliated academic institutions for residents' salaries and benefits. VHA developed policy related to establishing and administering disbursement agreements, but audits have found that facilities have not always adhered to VHA policy—resulting in improper payments to affiliates. GAO was asked to review VHA policies and procedures related to reimbursements to affiliates for GME. This report examines (1) oversight roles and responsibilities for GME disbursement agreements and (2) VHA's mechanisms for ensuring VA medical facilities adhere to policy. GAO reviewed relevant VHA documents and federal internal control standards and interviewed VHA officials. GAO also reviewed ReDPro checklist responses and documentation from 13 VA medical facilities—selected based on factors including geographic variation, GME program size, and number of affiliates. GAO also visited four of the 13 facilities and interviewed officials at the other nine facilities. GAO is making seven recommendations to VA to define key roles in policy, reduce overlap between the ReDPro checklist and facility periodic audits, and improve the oversight mechanisms' tools, guidance, and training. VA concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Sharon M. Silas at (202) 512-7114 or silass@gao.gov.
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    The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) disclosure rule broadly requires that certain companies submit a filing that describes their efforts to conduct a reasonable country-of-origin inquiry (RCOI), and depending on the preliminary determination, perform due diligence to determine the source and chain of custody of their conflict minerals—gold and specific ores for tantalum, tin, and tungsten. After conducting RCOI, an estimated 50 percent of companies filing in 2019 reported preliminary determinations as to whether the conflict minerals came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or adjoining countries (covered countries) or from scrap or recycled sources. The percentage of companies able to make such preliminary determinations increased significantly between 2014 and 2015, and has since leveled off, as shown below. Source of Conflict Minerals in Products as Determined by Companies' Reasonable Country-of-Origin Inquiries, Reporting Years 2014-2019 However, fewer companies reported such determinations after conducting due diligence. In 2019, an estimated 85 percent of companies made preliminary determinations that required them to then perform due diligence. Of those companies, an estimated 17 percent determined that the minerals came from covered countries—a significantly lower percentage of companies making that determination than the 37 percent reported in 2017 or the 35 percent in 2018. Since 2014, companies have noted various challenges they face in making such determinations; however, SEC staff told GAO that they did not know what factors contributed to the decrease in 2019. We will examine this issue during our future review. While the Department of State (State) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have implemented the U.S. conflict minerals strategy since 2011, they have not established performance indicators for all of the strategic objectives. For example, they have no such indicators for the objectives of strengthening regional and international efforts and promoting due diligence and responsible trade through public outreach. Without performance indicators, the agencies cannot comprehensively assess their progress toward achieving these objectives or the overall goal of addressing armed groups' exploitation of conflict minerals. Armed groups in eastern DRC continue to commit severe human rights abuses and to profit from the exploitation of “conflict minerals,” according to State. Provisions in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act required, among other things, that State, USAID, and the SEC take certain actions to promote peace and security. In 2011, State created the U.S. conflict minerals strategy in consultation with USAID to address armed groups' exploitation of conflict minerals. In 2012, the SEC also promulgated regulations containing disclosure and reporting requirements for companies that use conflict minerals from covered countries. The act also included a provision for GAO to annually assess, among other things, the SEC regulations' effectiveness in promoting peace and security. In this report, GAO examines, among other things, how companies responded to the SEC conflict minerals disclosure rule when filing in 2019 and the extent to which State and USAID assessed progress toward the U.S. conflict minerals strategy's objectives and goal. GAO analyzed a generalizable sample of SEC filings, reviewed documents, and interviewed U.S. officials State, in consultation with USAID, should develop performance indicators for assessing progress toward the strategic objectives and goal of the U.S. conflict minerals strategy. State and USAID concurred with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact Kimberly M. Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or gianopoulosk@gao.gov.
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