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While Americans turned their attention.
(Ryan Van Velzer)
Piedrahita was one of close to 100 defendants indicted in South Florida in the mid-1990s in “Operation Cornerstone,” a massive federal investigation that led to the seizure of more than 32 tons of cocaine and dozens of convictions.
He remained a fugitive in Colombia but – until Ciccione got involved – there was an active arrest warrant that would have been triggered if Piedrahita tried to enter the U.S. Many of the people indicted with him between 1993 and 1996 had been caught, convicted and sentenced to federal prison, but the others were still considered wanted men.
Ciccione previously worked as a state prison guard in Pennsylvania and served more than 12 years in the military – the navy, reserves and army national guard – including dangerous overseas deployments for four years. In 2001, he joined the agency that later became Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and, as a Homeland Security Investigations agent, worked on big drug enforcement cases.
Around 2008, Ciccione took over as lead agent on the remaining fugitive cases and began working with Velasco about a year later.
Authorities said he took advantage of the fact that the prosecutors and agents who worked on the cases in the 1990s had moved on. The cases were being “babysat” by newer prosecutors and agents who relied on him to bring them up to speed.
In late 2010, the agent told his pals in Colombia that he was going to be transferred and wanted to help Piedrahita before he moved, but was concerned because there were too many “frogs,” or snitches.
“Listen, we got a good thing going … I don’t know where it’s coming from or why, but l’m trying to keep it from causing problems. Cause… all it does is cause problems,” Ciccione told the men in a November 2010 conversation that was secretly intercepted by Colombian investigators.
In late 2010, Ciccione lied and told his bosses he needed to go to Bogota, Colombia for an unrelated case.
Between Dec. 6 and 9 of 2010, the agent secretly met with Piedrahita and Velasco in Bogota. The drug lord gave him $20,000 in cash, picked up the tab for his stay at the Marriott Bogota, hosted a party with “prepaid prostitutes” for him, paid for the services of a prostitute who stayed in the agent’s room, and treated him to liquor and an expensive dinner.
Some of the money went to buy a 2011 Jeep Wrangler and Ciccione also made several unusual cash deposits into his bank accounts.
Ciccione altered law enforcement databases to show that Piedrahita was a former suspect of a closed investigation, not a wanted man.
Ciccione also repeatedly lobbied and lied to his bosses and prosecutors to dismiss the indictment against Piedrahita. To cover his tracks, he also asked for charges to be dropped against 18 or so other suspects. Among his many lies, he claimed agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration also wanted the case dismissed. He said no arrest warrants had ever been issued, claimed there had not been enough evidence to charge the men, some had never been positively identified, and that Piedrahita and the others had no criminal records.
Eventually, in late 2011, a federal judge in South Florida dismissed the charges against Piedrahita and several others, at the request of the prosecution. Ciccione quickly emailed a copy of the dismissal – from his personal email address – to Velasco.
Ciccione also tried to get permission for Piedrahita to enter the U.S., supposedly to work as an informant for him. That request was never approved.
In August 2011, officials from ICE and the Homeland Security’s inspector general’s office began investigating a “suspicion” that Ciccione had accepted payments from non-citizens seeking immigration benefits. Investigators soon discovered the cartel bribes.
For reasons that have not been publicly revealed, the investigation stretched on for more than six years. Ciccione, who had moved with his family to Phoenixville in the Philadelphia suburbs, was allowed to continue working for the federal agency the entire time.
He was placed on restricted desk duty and was treated as a “pariah,” the defense said. He cooperated in the investigation and reported several agents and government employees he suspected of corruption and theft.
Ciccione eventually resigned in early October 2017, just a few weeks before he was indicted and arrested. A month later, he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit several different felonies, including a public corruption offense, bribery, fraud and obstruction of justice. The maximum possible punishment was five years in federal prison.
During the sentencing hearing Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Scola told Ciccione he was particularly troubled that the former agent had identified informants who could have been injured or killed by the cartel. Ciccione’s corruption also diminished the public’s trust in the justice system and in honest police officers and agents, he said.
“This is a very serious offense that not only undermines the integrity of our criminal justice system but also calls into question the trust we put in our federal agents,” the judge said. “These kinds of offenses cause a great deal of harm. They really do affect people’s perceptions of law enforcement.”