As a front-line soldier in America’s war on drugs, Joe Occhipinti is an American hero. He became one of the most highly decorated federal agents in American history, with 78 commendations and awards in his 22 years of public service. His reward? He was set up by Dominican drug lords on specious civil rights violations; made to stand trial before Judge Constance Baker Motley, who denied him a new defense attorney when his own had a nervous breakdown and became suicidal; given a one-hour appeals hearing wherein the judges did not review the briefs and were intimidated by hundreds of Dominican protesters chanting “No justice, No peace!” and threatening to riot if the conviction was overturned; .sentenced to 57 months in a federal prison and sent, contrary to a court agreement, to an Oklahoma penitentiary where he was placed in the “general population” with convicted alien drug dealers.
Occhipinti is a native of Brooklyn, New York, who became a New Jersey resident 20 years ago. At age 42, he resides in Manalapan with his wife Angela and his three daughters. Occhipinti’s interest in community service steered him toward a career in law enforcement. Because he is too short for police service, he joined the U.S. Customs Service in 1972, where he investigated drug trafficking and organized crime. In less than five years, Occhipinti compiled the highest arrest record in Customs Service history. In 1976, feeling he had attained his highest potential at Customs, he applied to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Fluent in three languages, Occhipinti was assigned to a unit in Upper Manhattan, where over the years he developed a special expertise in the workings of Dominican organized crime. Compiling an impressive arrest record, he received his first of three Attorney General Awards in 1979, I lis work as an undercover agent with the INS led to the prosecution and conviction of over 40 organized crime figures. In 1982, authorities used information he had gathered to carry out what was at that time the largest drug seizure in our nation’s history, netting 62 pounds of cocaine from the Dulce Llaverias drug cartel.
In Occhipinti’s territory in Manhattan the small corner grocery stores—the bodegas—were often little more than fronts for illegal activity. Though there were routine grocery items for sale here, regular customers could also shop for counterfeit green cards and other government documents, obtain telephone “blue boxes” enabling them to make international calls without being charged, exchange food stamps for drugs, get cash for stolen Treasury checks, and purchase weapons and drugs. Many of these establishments also served as money-laundering outlets for drug lords.
On October 18, 1988, police officer Michael Buczek got caught in the crossfire of rival drug gangs and was murdered. When police authorities were unable to name the killers, the NYPD chief of detectives asked the INS district director to assign Occhipinti to the case. Occhipinti set up “Project Bodega,” which conducted consensual searches (ones agreed to by the owner) of bodegas throughout Washington Heights. As a result of the investigation. Project Bodega identified those responsible for the homicide, including the actual trigger man, whom they learned had fled the country. It took Occhipinti a year to get the Justice Department to arrange for a formal extradition of the suspect. But when NYPD detectives went to the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo to get him, they were told by authorities that the fugitive had committed suicide.
Occhipinti contends that the trigger man was silenced by a Dominican drug lord named Freddie Then. Project Bodega had uncovered evidence that Then was running an extensive drug operation from the Dominican Republic and was training young Dominicans to be his agents in New York City. Occhipinti also learned that Freddie Then had a former federal prosecutor on his payroll. According to Occhipinti’s source, the former official was using his influence to corrupt other federal prosecutors and was receiving cash and cocaine in return. Based on this information, Occhipinti organized a short-lived investigation he called “Project Esquire.”
Occhipinti took what he had learned to INS superiors and then to U.S. Attorney David Lawrence, chief of the Criminal Division, and to Deputy U.S. Attorney Jeh Johnson. Lawrence stressed to Occhipinti that his information was “sensitive” and ordered him not to discuss it with anyone. He arranged for federal prosecutors to interview Occhipinti’s informant and take custody of the evidence. However, Occhipinti was soon ordered to remove himself from the case and to terminate Project Esquire. When asked if he thought the project was shut down because it uncovered evidence about corruption in high places, Occhipinti responded, “No doubt about it.”
By late 1989, Project Bodega had become so effective as a multiagency task force involving the INS, DEA, U.S. Customs, and IRS that the Manhattan District Attorney’s office assigned three full-time prosecutors, including John F. Kennedy, Jr., to prosecute the criminals being brought to justice. Occhipinti knew his efforts were succeeding when Dominicans attempted to bribe him. But because they found him incorruptible, they resorted to other, more subtle and deceitful, methods to destroy him.
The arrest of 62 illegals and 39 others through Project Bodega led to several important convictions and numerous investigations by other law enforcement agencies. The effort also led to the seizure of drugs, weapons, illegal gambling materials, and counterfeit government documents. Occhipinti’s efforts with Project Bodega, as well as with Project Intercept and the notorious Wells Fargo case, clearly hurt the Dominican drug operations, but he had also ruffled the feathers of some influential political figures in the process. Enter a group known as the Federation of Dominican Merchants and Industrialists of New York. In March 1990, members of this group—which Occhipinti says is nothing more than a front for Dominican organized crime—appealed to the New York City mayor’s office for help. Occhipinti was unjustly targeting the Dominican community, it said. The “federation” even organized a protest on the steps of City Hall.
Ever ready to cater to one of the city’s largest constituencies. Mayor David Dinkins issued a statement criticizing the INS for permitting Project Bodega and claiming it was a “Republican-backed conspiracy” to sabotage the census. According to Dinkins, Project Bodega was making residents fearful of any government official, even census takers. This would lead to a decreased head count and subsequent loss for the city of federal funding and congressional representation.
Dinkins’ histrionics achieved the desired result. The INS was inundated with complaints from citizens, census officials, other public officials, and area congressmen. Intimidated by the staged outcry, Occhipinti’s superiors at INS headquarters in Washington immediately shut down Project Bodega. Moreover, Dinkins publicly demanded an investigation of alleged civil rights violations perpetrated by Occhipinti, and Dinkins and the Dominican leaders got their wish. In March 1991, Occhipinti was indicted by a federal grand jury for alleged federal civil rights violations.
It should also be noted that, during Project Bodega, Occhipinti uncovered evidence of widespread voter fraud. His evidence showed that the “federation” had registered aliens en masse under false identities or with forged documents. Dinkins won the election by a mere 30,000 votes out of 1.78 million that were cast.
Joe Occhipinti had an agenda—to enforce the laws of the United States to the best of his ability. David Dinkins also had an agenda, one that continues today. As Dinkins screamed at his opponent, Rudy Giuliani, upon a chance meeting in July, “Hey Rudy, why don’t you go up to Washington Heights and explain to the folks about your pal, Occhipinti?”
Anyone who thinks that Joe Occhipinti’s case is one in a million should consider the Washington Heights drug riot of July 3, 1992. It was sparked when Officer Michael O’Keefe was attacked by a gun-wielding fugitive named Jose “Kiko” Garcia. O’Keefe drew his weapon and killed Garcia in order to save his own life. As if on cue, numerous “witnesses” came forward to condemn O’Keefe as a “corrupt rogue cop” who had killed an innocent youth. Rioting to protest the policeman’s actions then broke out in the area.
Especially anxious to quell the riots because New York was about to host the Democratic Convention, Mayor Dinkins pandered to the rioters. He visited the “bereaved” family while saying nothing to the traumatized policeman. He went so far as to arrange for Garcia’s funeral in the Dominican Republic and to provide his entire family—all of them illegal aliens—with round-trip airline tickets paid for by New York City taxpayers. Were it not for a handful of reporters from the New York Post, a few diligent detectives, and Phil Caruso of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association—who demonstrated that all of the “eyewitnesses” to the deadly encounter had perjured themselves at the behest of the drug lords—O’Keefe might well be in a jail cell, “convicted” like Occhipinti.
Washington Heights, known as “Dodge City,” is devoid of any law, order, or civil authority. Like Camden, New Jersey, it is controlled by the drug lords, whose tentacles and contributions permeate New York City politics. On July 16, 1993, when a police cruiser accidentally collided with a drug courier on a motorcycle, the “residents” planned revenge. A false fire alarm was sent in, an ambush was set, and a fire truck and its personnel were firebombed and set ablaze. Some residents cheered, some stared, but none offered help while the burned firefighters writhed in agony and flames on the ground.
At the insistence of the Dinkins administration, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District conducted a “civil rights” investigation of Occhipinti and his actions. It interviewed owners and employees at all 56 premises that had been part of Project Bodega. The charge against Occhipinti was that although he had an INS “consent to search” form prepared in both English and Spanish, he had had suspects sign after rather than before the search. Forty-two of those investigated admitted they signed and gave permission prior to the search. Fourteen claimed that Occhipinti and his task force searched first, uncovered illegal activity, then “forced” them to sign—hence, their civil rights were “violated.” Is it a coincidence that the 42 were not members of the Dominican Federation but that the 14 were?
Occhipinti vigorously denied the charge and demonstrated that he had performed over one thousand consensual searches during his career without a single similar complaint. Numerous law enforcement officers testified that they had witnessed Occhipinti obtaining signed consent prior to any searches. Interestingly, no other officers were charged with this “crime,” just Occhipinti—the target of the Dominican Federation. Upon examining the minutes of the grand jury, Occhipinti also discovered that the witnesses had portrayed themselves as law-abiding citizens. The U.S. Attorney withheld from the grand jury information about the criminal records of the complainants, as well as the fact that contraband and illegal activity were uncovered at each of their locations.
Anyone who follows New York City politics knows of the group known as “The Foursome”—four politically powerful friends from Harlem. They are former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, Congressman Charles Rangel, Mayor David Dinkins, and Judge Constance Baker Motley. In the court system where Occhipinti was tried, judges are randomly selected for cases with the help of a mechanical wheel. A defendant, therefore, has the luck of the draw regarding who will preside. But, in Occhipinti’s case. Judge Motley was assigned without benefit of the wheel.
Motley immediately issued a gag order forbidding Occhipinti to discuss his case with the press. When she learned that Occhipinti’s supporters had assembled 55 tape recordings containing information showing that the prosecution’s witnesses had engaged in criminal activity and that the Dominican Federation was behind the charges against him, she ordered the tapes surrendered to the U.S. Attorney and refused to allow them in the trial. But perhaps the most glaring injustice of the trial was that Occhipinti was denied competent defense counsel. His attorney, Norman Mordkofsky, had suffered a nervous breakdown, was under a doctor’s care receiving large doses of medication, and had even exhibited overt suicidal tendencies. Mordkofsky had asked to be excused so that Occhipinti could obtain a healthy and competent attorney. Judge Motley called Mordkofsky a liar, pounded her gavel, and denied his request. Occhipinti was then given only two months from the date of his indictment to prepare his 25-count defense, an unprecedentedly brief time span. After the five-week trial, with the jury denied the information proving that the prosecution’s witnesses were unreliable, Occhipinti was found guilty and sentenced to 37 months in a federal penitentiary. The prosecutor even demanded additional sentencing because Occhipinti had gone to the press proclaiming his innocence. That request was denied by the court. By coincidence, the prosecutor in Occhipinti’s case, Jeh Johnson, was the man who had closed down Project Esquire and is alleged to be the godson of Judge Motley.
Eleven months after the trial, Occhipinti appealed his conviction. Armed with a new attorney and an 800-page brief, he was confident that justice would prevail, The appeal, however, was heard only two weeks after the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of four policemen charged with beating Rodney King. As Joe Occhipinti and his wife approached the court, they were greeted with scores of protesters shouting “No Justice, No Peace!” The protesters clearly threatened to riot if Occhipinti’s conviction were overturned.
The actual appeal lasted only 30 minutes, and Occhipinti’s attorney, Stephen Frankel, was allowed only 15 minutes to present his case. During oral arguments, the Dominican Federation’s protesters burst into the courtroom—again implying that a riot or worse would follow if the judges dared to overturn the conviction. According to Occhipinti, the three judges were so intimidated that they never even read his attorney’s carefully prepared brief. Within another hour, the verdict was in and the conviction upheld. The press was even told of the result before the defendant, for the purpose of placating the threatening mob.
Occhipinti surrendered himself on June 16, 1992. This “dangerous criminal” was shackled in leg irons, body chains, and handcuffs for 12 hours, transported to Oklahoma’s El Reno maximum-security penitentiary, and placed in the midst of the general prison population, surrounded by hundreds of convicted drug criminals, some of whom recognized Occhipinti because they also were from New York. He quickly realized that his sentence was not 37 months; it was death at the hands of jailed criminals.
He immediately identified himself to sympathetic guards, who were outraged that they had been given no notice of his arrival. To protect Occhipinti, thev placed him in “solitary,” where he suffered a breakdown. He was transferred to a prison medical center in Rochester, Minnesota, where he involuntarily ended up in a psychiatric ward, a step he felt was taken to discredit him. Although doctors at the Minnesota facility recommended that Occhipinti be transferred to a minimum security prison in Fairton, New Jersey, to be near his family and out of harm’s way, the Bureau of Prisons vetoed the recommendations. Occhipinti contends that, because they knew he would continue working to clear his name, the goal was to keep him away from his family, his supporters, and the media. Instead, he was transferred to a military prison at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where it was difficult to communicate with the press.
Numerous supporters came forward to seek justice for Occhipinti, including talk-show host Bob Grant, Guardian Angels Curtis and Lisa Sliwa, New York Post reporter Mike McAlary, and—in the forefront—former Congressman and current Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari. An extensive file of documents compiled by Molinari’s office shows beyond any reasonable doubt that the witnesses against Occhipinti were engaged in illegal activity and committed perjury, and that two of them were paid over $20,000 each by the “federation” to give their fraudulent testimonies. Among the evidence compiled by Molinari’s office is an affidavit signed by newspaper editor Manuel de Dios on January 14, 1992. This tough and brave newsman and antidrug crusader went undercover and garnered evidence of Occhipinti’s innocence. Mimicking their modus operandus in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, the drug lords assassinated De Dios on March 11, 1992. In December 1992, Molinari spearheaded a grass-roots campaign to convince outgoing President George Bush to commute Occhipinti’s sentence and grant him a full pardon. In spite of stonewalling by the Justice Department, Bush commuted the sentence on January 15, 1993, but he withheld a pardon.
Joe arrived home on January 16, 1993. Though no longer behind bars, he remains a prisoner of sorts. His life in economic ruin—no job, no pension, depleted life savings—and partially disabled, he still fights daily to clear his name. His new attorney, Anthony Pope, armed with exhaustive new evidence, filed an application for a new trial in June, along with a motion for Judge Motley to recuse herself due to conflicts of interest and a motion for a change of venue. One piece of new evidence is an affidavit signed by Alma Camarena, a former assistant in the law firm of Andres Aranda and Jorge Guttlein, attorneys for the “federation.” She stated under oath, “I heard them talking about how Occhipinti, then head of the antismuggling unit, was putting tremendous pressure on the illegal activities of their Dominican clients. Mr. Aranda told Mr. Guttlein that he would like to see Mr. Occhipinti ‘eliminated.’ Mr. Guttlein felt that was not the right thing to do. Mr. Guttlein stated instead that they should think up a plan to set Mr. Occhipinti up and have him prosecuted for violating the civil rights of Dominicans.” Described as a reliable police informant, Camarena gave this information to the U.S. Attorney’s Office a year prior to Occhipinti’s indictment. She was even interviewed by Jeh Johnson, who buried the information and withheld it at the trial.
The Occhipinti case earned headlines in New York and New Jersey throughout June, as the news media began to report the evidence confirming his innocence. On June 17, for example, there were front-page headlines when three bodega owners who had testified against Occhipinti were arrested by the NYPD on charges of gambling, narcotics, and attempted bribery. According to Sergeant Frank Perez, when Fidelio Medina, Joaquin Checo, and Javier Checo were being cuffed, an irate Dominican woman screamed at the officers, “We’re going to do you like we did Occhipinti!” According to Occhipinti, those arrested were relatives of Jose Liberato Checo, the reputed head of the Cibao drug cartel.
In the June 17 New York Daily News, police spokesman Raymond O’Donnell referred to the “federation” as a “Dominican organized crime organization.” In June 1991, “federation” vice president Erasmos Tavaros pled guilty to laundering $70 million in drug profits. His sentence in the Southern District was probation. Occhipinti’s, remember, was 37 months and possible death behind bars. New Jersey Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Frank Ginesi declared “that the evidence seems to indicate that Occhipinti was intentionally subjected to a selective and malicious prosecution . . . which was generated by a major Dominican drug cartel that the agent was investigating.”
For the last seven months, devoid of badge and gun, not only has Joe Occhipinti battled to clear his name, but, as the foremost expert on Third World ethnic organized crime, he has attempted to make his files public in order to enlighten the citizenry and law enforcement agents. He is now cooperating with several law enforcement intelligence groups.
On July 13, 1993, Occhipinti, myself, Curtis Sliwa, and others testified before the New Jersey Senate Committee on Law and Public Safety. The senators were aghast as Joe documented the extensive crimes he had uncovered while investigating the organized crime operated by aliens: narcotics smuggling, gambling, loan sharking, smuggling and harboring of illegal aliens, money laundering, illegal wire transfers, armed carjackings and stolen car rings, currency and document counterfeiting, bribery of New Jersey officials, wire fraud, food stamp and welfare fraud, other entitlement fraud, organized theft of Treasury checks, theft and exportation to the Dominican Republic of agricultural products originally intended for New Jersey’s poor, distribution of untaxed liquor, illegal firearms and stolen property, assassinations, and terrorism. When one senator questioned his innocence, Occhipinti responded, “I’ve demanded a new trial. If again convicted, I face prison and death. Senator, does that sound like the action of a guilty man?”
Physically and financially exhausted, Occhipinti proclaims that “the only way the drug lords will stop me from clearing my name and exposing their crime, is through assassination. The public must realize that the only winners in our multi-billion-dollar war on drugs have been the drug cartels. My vindication will be the first step back. If I lose, nothing will stop the country I love from degenerating into a Third World banana republic, where the rule of law will be supplanted by drug dealers’ dollars.”
The president of the federal agents’ Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Dick Callahan, has noted that in the year prior to Occhipinti’s conviction, the local office of the federal DEA had conducted 2,700 investigations. That number shrank to 500 in the year after the conviction because of fear that the tactic used to send Occhipinti to prison would be used against other federal agents. Also as a result of Occhipinti’s conviction, the president of the New York-New Jersey Port Authority Police Union announced that his officers have ceased all consensual searches and drug interdiction activity in the ports of New York and New Jersey, fearing that criminal charges regarding civil rights violations would be their reward for effective police work.
Support for Joe’s cause cuts across party lines, as every citizen and lawman is adversely affected by his conviction. On January 25, 1993, I prepared a resolution for the New Jersey Assembly that was introduced by Assemblyman Dick Kamin on February 8 and that passed unanimously on February 18. As Assemblyman Kamin declared when introducing resolution AR-107, “Mr. Speaker, the democratic process can sometimes make mistakes—in this case, a tragic one. No law enforcement officer wants to be the next Joe Occhipinti. By passage of this Resolution, we can help the democratic process to restore his good name.” The resolution, which passed 76-0, urges the Clinton administration to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the alleged conspiracy against Occhipinti; a prosecutor to investigate what appears to be a Justice Department cover-up of the handling of the Occhipinti case; and a congressional panel to investigate the extent of Dominican and Third World drug operations in the United States, especially in New York and New Jersey. The resolution calls for a full pardon for Occhipinti if the results of these investigations warrant such action. It also calls for a new trial if the results are inconclusive. On July 13, the New Jersey Senate Committee on Law and Public Safety voted unanimously to release SR-86 (the Senate companion to AR-I07) for a full floor vote. Passage was expected as this article went to press. The states of New York and Pennsylvania have introduced identical bills. The Clinton administration, however, has thus far ignored the New Jersey legislature’s appeals.