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Officer charged in pot case was FBI informant

Jorge I. Melendez had experience working with law enforcement before he became a Buffalo police officer four years ago.

But city police brass recently found out the line of work he was involved with is usually reserved for criminals looking to stay out of jail or make money.

Melendez became an FBI confidential informant in New York City after his voice was caught on a wiretap talking to drug dealers, law enforcement sources said. No criminal charges were filed against Melendez, but he began helping in the probe.

Now Buffalo police officials are wondering why they ever hired Melendez, who was immediately fired earlier this month when federal drug enforcement agents arrested him for allegedly overseeing a major marijuana grow operation in South Buffalo, often driving up in a patrol car on duty and in uniform.

"He was working as a confidential informant for the FBI in New York City shortly before he joined the Buffalo Police Department several years ago," a police official familiar with the marijuana operation said Monday.

FBI agents lacked enough evidence to arrest Melendez, but felt comfortable enough to recruit him, the official said.

Two other police sources also confirmed Melendez's work as a confidential informant.

"The FBI was conducting a drug investigation involving cocaine in New York City and Melendez was intercepted on a wire tap," the police official told The Buffalo News. "Agents had enough to confront him and he cooperated."

Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda declined to comment on Melendez's past, but said the department will examine how it goes about screening prospective officers in the future. "We are going to review the hiring process with the Human Resource Division and Civil Service," Derenda said.

Melendez, 41, the son of a police officer who died in an off-duty boating accident, is required to stay at his second-floor Niagara Street apartment under the terms of his release on a $250,000 bond.

He and two others, Jason R. Elardo of South Buffalo, and Robert L. Osika of Eden, were arrested for allegedly growing the marijuana plants in warehouses at 2157 South Park Ave. and 1372 Clinton St.

More than 1,000 plants were seized, capping off a yearlong investigation that began after state police received a tip. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, FBI agents, state and city police conducted the joint investigation.

Melendez and his co-defendants are due back in federal court June 25.

He did not answer the door to his residence Monday afternoon, but a man identifying himself as a relative said the ex-officer was at home but did not wish to comment.

Defense attorney Jeremy D. Schwartz, who is representing Melendez, said his client's previous activities as an FBI confidential informant were of no consequence in his work as a police officer.

"I don't know all the circumstances, but if it is something he was not charged with, I don't see how that should have affected his employment with the Buffalo police or have any bearing on the present allegations against him," Schwartz said.

But city police administrators on Monday said they would not have hired someone even remotely involved in drug dealing.

And Derenda said he stands completely behind his decision to fire Melendez.

"We had solid evidence," the commissioner said. "He admitted what he was doing."

How did Melendez get past the screening process?

Years ago, the Buffalo Police Department conducted its own background investigations and polygraph tests on candidates for police officer, but in recent years those tasks have been contracted out to private vendors.

So police officials say they can only speculate that whoever conducted the background review did not dig deep enough.

And Melendez, they said, apparently did not volunteer information on his involvement as an informant.

"The right question was not asked in the screening process," a city police investigator said.

The News has attempted to learn the names of the private firms that conducted the screening and polygraph on Melendez, but as of late Monday was unable to obtain them.

A check with several other area police departments, including the state police, revealed that members of those law enforcement agencies conduct the vetting process.

"To ensure the integrity of the operation and the hiring process, we take on the task of conducting applicant background investigations ourselves," State Police spokesman Sgt. Kern A. Swoboda said from Albany. "We know what we are looking for and we've been doing it this way since our first class of troopers in 1917."

At the Erie County Sheriff's Office, Chief Scott Joslyn said he oversees investigation into prospective deputies.

"We prefer upper administration involvement to ensure the accuracy and depth of the background review," Joslyn said.