A former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was once considered a star in the Miami office faces up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty this week to siphoning millions from undercover money-laundering operations targeting traffickers.
Jose Irizarry, 46, accused of laundering $9 million in drug proceeds, pleaded guilty in Tampa federal court to conspiracy, corruption, bank fraud and identity theft charges. His wife, Nathalia Gomez-Irizarry, 36, pleaded guilty to the sole conspiracy charge and is facing a far less harsh sentence, possibly probation.
Irizarry, who worked in the DEA's Miami and Cartagena, Colombia, offices from 2009 to 2017 before his resignation the following year, was arrested along with his wife at their home near San Juan in February.
"He wanted to accept responsibility for his actions and to get on with his life," Irizarry's defense attorney, Humberto Dominguez, said Wednesday.
Justice Department officials described Irizarry's crimes as a "shocking breach of the public's trust" because he abused his position as a DEA agent and personally benefited.
His job in South Florida and Colombia was to launder DEA money by moving it through drug-trafficking organizations to follow its path through banks and currency exchange systems in an effort to gather intelligence on illegal drug operations, according to sources familiar with Irizarry's case.
In turn, Irizarry pocketed kickbacks from narco-traffckers totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars - not millions, the sources said. The money was used to buy real estate and luxury goods, including a Range Rover for himself and Tiffany diamond ring for his wife.
The monetary factor in Irizarry's case - including the actual amount of drug proceeds he received - is likely to affect his punishment at sentencing, which has not been set. On Monday, Magistrate Judge Thomas G. Wilson accepted the guilty pleas of Irizarry and his wife. Their plea agreements remain under seal. Ultimately, a Tampa federal judge must accept their pleas again before sentencing.
The Miami DEA office has declined to comment on Irizarry's case, which is being prosecuted in Tampa by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta. His case has enveloped the local DEA and its undercover money-laundering operations in controversy, generating not only the criminal investigation but internal probes by the Justice Department.
Before his fall, Irizarry had been a model agent, winning praise from his supervisors. In Miami, where he worked from 2009 to early 2015, Irizarry was entrusted with running the undercover money-laundering operation while using front companies, shell bank accounts and couriers.
According to an indictment, Irizarry and his wife conspired with others to use the "cover" of a cocaine trafficking investigation "to secretly divert drug proceeds from government control to their own personal control without government authorization" over most of the past decade.
"Central to the scheme was Irizarry omitting, falsely reporting, and mischaracterizing key information to other DEA agents and supervisors regarding the movement of drug proceeds being investigated," according to the indictment.
While he was committing the alleged crimes as a DEA agent, Irizarry was in personal bankruptcy proceedings and failed to disclose any of his illicit income to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Justice Department officials said.
The feds, led by the FBI, made their case against Irizarry through one of his former informants, who was sentenced to nearly four years in prison. Gustavo Yabrudi fingered his longtime handler in the money-laundering conspiracy involving the very Colombian cartel criminals he was supposed to be fighting.
In a news release, Justice Department officials said Irizarry, his wife, Gomez-Irizarry, and other co-conspirators used the drug proceeds to buy jewelry, luxury vehicles, a home and cash gifts for friends and family. Federal prosecutors are seeking to forfeit his Range Rover, properties in Puerto Rico and one Tiffany diamond ring, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars from dozens of illicit transactions, according to the indictment.