A veteran Drug Enforcement Administration agent working out of the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. is accused of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for internal agency secrets, prosecutors announced Friday.
John Costanzo, Jr., 47, traded “nonpublic DEA information, including information about forthcoming, sealed indictments and nonpublic investigations, such as the identities of individuals charged and the anticipated timing of arrests; and intelligence which Costanzo obtained from a confidential DEA database,” according to an indictment unsealed in Manhattan federal court.
Costanzo, who allegedly used a so-called burner phone to throw investigators off the scent, spent the money on repairs to his Porsche, airline tickets, and a $50,000 down payment on a condominium, the filing alleges.
The feds say Costanzo shared the sensitive data on an “as-needed basis” to former DEA Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Manuel Recio, 53, who worked out of the Miami Field Office until his retirement in 2018. He then began working as a private investigator for defense lawyers in Miami, using privileged info to help them recruit new clients and get a leg up on the government in court, the indictment states. On top of providing restricted data, the filing alleges that Costanzo—while on the DEA payroll—in fact “assisted Recio in his work as a private investigator on behalf of charged defendants.”
Both men are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit bribery, one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, and one count of honest services wire fraud. Additionally, Constanzo is charged with accepting a bribe—from Recio—and Recio is charged with giving a bribe—to Costanzo.
Costanzo joined the DEA in 2004 and has been assigned to DEA Headquarters since 2019. Prior to that, he was a group supervisor in the agency’s Miami Field Office, and is a past president of the Association of Federal Narcotics Agents.
In a statement emailed Friday to The Daily Beast, Costanzo’s lawyer, Marc Mukasey, said, “John Costanzo is a decorated DEA agent who risks his life every day to protect vulnerable communities and children from the scourge of illegal drugs. The theory of this case is misguided and he will be vindicated.”
Recio, whose phones were reportedly tapped for a stretch in 2019 by federal agents, specialized in illicit finance as an agent and was described by former coworkers last year as soft-spoken and friendly. His company, Global Legal Consultants, “conducts investigations for attorneys, private businesses, corporations and individuals in South Florida and throughout the United States,” its website says. “We are based in Miami, Florida and we specialize in investigations involving South America, Central America, Europe, Australia, and the Carribean.”
Reached by phone, Recio’s attorney, Phil Reizenstein, told The Daily Beast that he was suffering from COVID and hadn’t yet had a chance to fully review the indictment. However, he said, “I’m familiar with the bribery thing—it’s not a surprise here.” Prosecutors allowed Recio to surrender quietly, which Reizenstein said he very much appreciated.
Still, he pointed to what he described as various weaknesses in the government’s case and said he thinks Recio will choose to go to trial.
The ranks of the DEA have been hit hard in recent years by allegations of serious misconduct. On May 12, former DEA agent Nathan Koen was sentenced to 11 years and 3 months in federal prison for taking thousands of dollars in bribes from a drug trafficker. Last August, former DEA agent Chad Allen Scott was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison for, among other things, accepting a truck from a drug dealer and perjuring himself in court. Another agent, José Irizarry, was sentenced to more than 12 years for helping a Colombian drug cartel launder their ill-gotten gains. Recio at one time supervised investigations that Irizarry worked on, according to the Associated Press.
The scheme allegedly carried out by Costanzo and Recio can be traced back to November 2018, prosecutors say. Before retiring from the DEA, Recio met with a defense lawyer identified in the indictment only as “Attorney-1,” to discuss Recio’s plan to start his new firm.
Although Attorney-1 is not named in court filings, one of the lawyers who engaged Recio’s services shortly after he retired was identified by the AP in 2020 as Miami-based Luis Guerra, who represents a roster of alleged Colombian narcotraffickers and money launderers. It was not clear, however, if Recio’s alleged work for Guerra factored into the indictment.
Costanzo, like all DEA agents, had access to an internal computer database called the Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Information System, or “NADDIS.” The system contains records and reports on individuals under investigation by the DEA, as well as those associated with the agency’s targets.
“Because DEA investigations are typically kept confidential until they result in charges against individuals, and to preserve the integrity of these investigations, the information in NADDIS is confidential and DEA policy prohibits DEA agents from sharing this information except with other law enforcement agents,” the indictment states.
On July 31, 2019, Costanzo allegedly told Recio about “the impending and confidential arrest plans of a high-level drug trafficker,” whom prosecutors say Recio had been trying to recruit as a client for Attorney-1.
The trafficker, who is identified in court filings as “DEA Target-5,” had been charged in an indictment that was still sealed at the time, and the feds say Costanzo told Recio that Target-5 would be “gone in two weeks.”
“Approximately three weeks later, the DEA unsuccessfully attempted to arrest DEA Target-5,” according to the indictment.
A few months earlier, Recio allegedly sent Costanzo a text message saying, “John I need your help trying to see if you could help me find any of these guys. You looked before and you said the names were to [sic] vague but [Attorney-1] is placing a lot of pressure on me.”
Recio sent Castanzo six names and a phone number, asking Costanzo to “run it,” the indictment states. Costanzo then queried NADDIS for the information Recio requested, and texted back what he found, according to the documents. On another occasion, an unnamed task force officer working out of the DEA offices queried NADDIS for two names that Recio sent Costanzo the day before, the indictment said.
Costanzo is also accused of funneling privileged DEA information to defense attorneys to help their clients beat their cases. In one instance, Costanzo allegedly helped Recio write a letter to prosecutors in a bid for leniency in sentencing a client of a lawyer identified in the indictment as “Attorney-2.”
“Recio and Costanzo exchanged a draft of the document via email and had a phone call in which Recio asked Costanzo to ‘make it look good. This is thirty grand right here,’” the indictment says. “Costanzo stated that, for some of the sensitive information in the submission pertaining to DEA investigations, ‘I don’t even know if I can talk about it.’ Nevertheless, Costanzo continued to share information with Recio and emailed Recio a revised copy of the document later that day.”
Recio purchased a burner phone for Costanzo to use and make their discussions harder for investigators to track, according to the feds. The two are also said to have talked about how to play it cool when using confidential info, with Recio telling a DEA informant he wanted things to look “natural… because people are going to wonder, ‘How did you know?’ Do you understand?’”
Both men denied it all under questioning by federal agents, the indictment states.
But investigators followed the money. In all, the feds say Recio paid Costanzo more than $70,000 to leak DEA secrets to him.
The funds were routed through a network of bank accounts controlled by coworkers, family members, and associates, according to prosecutors. In one example, feds say the unnamed task force officer working with the DEA incorporated a company that Recio used to transfer more than $20,000 to Costanzo. The transactions were memorialized in texts between Costanzo and the task force officer, with Costanzo asking for “the exact name of the company,” and the task force officer replying with a photo of his checkbook.
In a statement on Friday, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said, “The conduct alleged in the indictment violates the core duty of law enforcement officers to protect and serve the public, rather than to use their access to sensitive information to enrich themselves… It is critical for federal law enforcement officers to preserve the integrity of ongoing investigations and not divulge confidential information to the private sector in exchange for financial benefits.”
If convicted on all counts, Costanzo and Recio each face a maximum of 60 years behind bars.
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