Miami ICE agent arrested on extortion and bribe-taking charges

 

achardy@elnuevoherald.com

Federal investigators arrested one of their own — a special agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — on charges of extortion and bribe-taking.

Special Agent Juan Felipe Martínez appeared before a federal magistrate in Miami on Friday to face charges that he led an effort to extort money from a private Colombian company, in exchange for not placing its name on a federal list of persons and businesses linked to drug trafficking and terrorism, according to the indictment.

Martínez, an agent of the former U.S. Customs service and a former Miami police officer, is the latest ICE member to be arrested and indicted in a South Florida federal court, according to CBS4, which first reported on the case.

In 2012, a federal judge sentenced a former head of ICE in Miami, Anthony Mangione, to 70 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to child pornography charges.

In a statement issued Friday night, the Miami office of ICE said it could not comment on the case because it is still under investigation.

“ICE takes accusations of misconduct very seriously,” the statement said. “As the matter is currently under investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment on this specific case. As public servants working for a law enforcement agency, every employee at ICE is held to the highest standard of professional and ethical conduct.”

Silvia B. Piñera-Vázquez, Martínez's attorney, could not be reached for comment Friday, but she earlier told CBS4 that her client is not guilty and that he would demonstrate his innocence during the trial.

“We disagree with the government 100 percent. Agent Martínez has been a law enforcement agent for over 20 years. He has dutifully served his country. He denies every single paragraph of that indictment and is looking forward to a trial where his innocence will be proven,” the attorney told CBS4.

The indictment presented in federal court on Thursday does not say which federal agency investigated the case but CBS4 says the investigation was conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which did not comment.

According to the grand jury indictment, Martínez and several unidentified accomplices in 2010 contacted officials of a commercial and residential construction firm in the city of Pereira, about 200 miles west of Bogotá. The group informed the Colombian officials — falsely — that the company was under investigation and that the U.S. Treasury Department was about to add the company to the list known as Specially Designated Nationals (SDN).

The list, managed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), is used by the Treasury Department to freeze bank accounts of designated persons or businesses if they are suspected of illegal dealings. The individuals on the list also can have their visas or other immigration documents revoked.

In exchange for keeping the company and its executives off the SDN list, Martínez and his associates received payments totaling about $150,000, according to the indictment.

According to CBS4, the federal agents came across Martínez while investigating the company in 2011. Investigators followed an accomplice carrying $110,000 in cash and saw him deliver it to Martínez in Bayside, in downtown Miami.

CBS4 also said that Martínez and his associates may have received $2 million from their victims in cash, airplane tickets, liquor and other unspecified goods. The indictment says that Martínez also received a rifle with a scope.

“After payment by the company [...] Martinez and members of the conspiracy delivered to the company and the company individuals documents indicating that they were no longer the targets of an investigation,” the indictment says.

The indictment, which is accessible in the federal court's electronic archives, contains a total of 12 counts of extortion and bribe-taking. If found guilty, Martínez could be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

Martínez could be released on a $250,000 bond if he can prove at a hearing Monday that the money comes from legitimate sources, according to CBS4.

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