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BUFFALO — A retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent from Tonawanda was charged Tuesday with taking at least a quarter of a million dollars in bribes to protect "friends and associates" connect with "Italian organized crime" from narcotics-related investigations.

A federal grand jury in Buffalo handed up an 11-count indictment charging Joseph Bongiovanni, 55, with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, accepting a bribe, obstruction of justice and making false statements to an agency of the U.S.

The drug conspiracy charge carries a maximum possible sentence of up to life in prison, while the maximum sentences for the remaining counts in the indictment range from five years to 20 years in prison.

Bongiovanni  was an Erie County Sheriff's deputy from 1995 to 1998 when he became a special agent with the DEA and left the Buffalo area. He returned to Western New York in 2001 and served as a DEA special agent in the Buffalo Resident Office of the agency until his retirement in February.

According to the indictment, between 2008 and June, Bongiovanni friends and associates who he knew were "involved in the possession, use, distribution, and importation of controlled substances including marijuana and cocaine." Federal prosecutors said those friends and associates included persons who Bongiovanni believed were members of, connected to, or associated with Italian Organized Crime (IOC).

Prosecutors charged that Bongiovanni used his position as a DEA special agent to shield his friends and associates from criminal investigations in exchange for monetary payments. They said he also used his position to discourage other law enforcement agents from conducting investigations of the individuals who were paying him bribes.

According to the indictment, between 2008 and 2017, Bongiovanni received bribes totaling at least $250,000.

In return for the bribes, which prosecutors said were paid on a regular basis, Bongiovanni allegedly provided regular debriefings which included information designed to protect and conceal the drug trafficking activities of his friends, associates, and co-conspirators.

Bongiovanni has pleaded not guilty to the charges and was allowed to remain free, on conditions, by a U.S, Magistrate judge.

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