After two decades as a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Joseph Bongiovanni found out what it was like to be the target of a criminal investigation at 6 a.m. on June 6, 2019.
He awoke with a start when a flash-bang grenade exploded inside his home. In his underwear, he rushed down the stairs, where a team of heavily armed federal agents, wearing military-style gear, broke down a door, stormed inside and pointed rifles at Bongiovanni’s head and at his wife and his teenage stepson.
“My first conscious thought was that an airplane had crashed very near my home because the sound was so loud,” said Bongiovanni, describing the hectic scene in court papers.
Bongiovanni said an agent from Homeland Security began questioning him with these words: Tell us "all about the Mafia.”
Five months after the raid, Bongiovanni was arrested on felony charges that he accepted $250,000 in bribes and used his position in the DEA to help Buffalo drug dealers – including some the government says are connected to organized crime – avoid arrest.
Bongiovanni, 56, who is referred to by the nickname of “Joe Bong” in some prosecution documents, denies the allegations.
His attorneys, James P. Harrington and Jesse C. Pyle, filed court papers accusing the U.S. Justice Department of “selective prosecution,” saying the feds unfairly targeted Bongiovanni and others because of their Italian-American heritage.
The defense attorneys acknowledged Bongiovanni grew up with some individuals who have been targeted in past investigations, including Pharaoh's strip club owner Peter G. Gerace Jr., the nephew of Joseph A. Todaro, who law enforcement authorities have claimed for years headed the Buffalo Mafia.
Although Gerace is mentioned in court papers filed by the prosecution, neither Todaro nor Gerace face any charges. In interviews with The Buffalo News, both men denied involvement with organized crime.
Prosecutors filed transcripts of several friendly texts between Bongiovanni and Gerace, talking about their longtime friendship and discussing places to meet for drinks. Another document shows that Bongiovanni told Homeland Security agents that he considers Pharaoh’s a “seedy place” and doesn’t like going there.
Another government document alleges Bongiovanni drove his car into Canada at 10:11 p.m. on Nov. 29, 2012, with a 64-year-old passenger who was described as “a Buffalo Crime Family associate/confidant” who is “closely associated” with the “Buffalo Crime Boss.” The passenger’s name is blacked out in the report.
Defense lawyers said Bongiovanni’s father ran a clam stand 50 years ago at LaNova, the Todaro family’s West Side pizza restaurant, when Bongiovanni was a youngster. But that doesn’t make Bongiovanni a mobster, Harrington and Pyle argued.
They said federal prosecutors have “imagined the existence” of a powerful Buffalo mob family, and said prosecutors have not produced “one shred of evidence” to prove that Bongiovanni was taking bribes or tied up with mobsters.
In 2021, the Buffalo organized crime family “does not seem to exist,” Harrington and Pyle suggested in court papers, “yet, the lore of the Italian is so pervasive in our society that the government can benefit from alleging a connection without having to prove it.”
They said the government has been unable to seize or identify “a single penny” of the alleged $250,000 in bribe money, adding that Bongiovanni lives “a modest” lifestyle.
He and his family live in a split-level home they purchased for $220,000 in 2014, Erie County property records show.
"Beyond occasional trips which were well within the means of his salary and retirement pension, he indulges in no luxuries," Bongiovanni's defense attorneys wrote. "A classic car in his garage, which he bought with a loan several years ago and has slowly restored a few parts at a time, is his only uniquely prized possession."
Justice Department attorneys denied that they are targeting anyone because of their Italian-American heritage.
U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy said his office "prosecutes individuals based exclusively on their criminal conduct, not their personal characteristics."
Prosecutors said they found the names and telephone numbers of numerous criminals, including organized crime figures, in Bongiovanni’s cellphone during the raid on his Tonawanda home.
Since Bongiovanni’s 2019 arrest, federal authorities have been investigating at least three other DEA agents and a former Buffalo Police detective who had worked with Bongiovanni, sources familiar with the investigation told The News. But so far, no other current or former law enforcement officers have been charged.
Bongiovanni, who spent most of his career helping to put drug dealers in prison, faces felony charges of conspiracy to distribute drugs and defraud the United States government, obstruction of justice, receiving bribes and making false statements to federal investigators.
If convicted, he could be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.