Washington, DC – A highly-decorated former Immigration and Naturalization Service supervisory special agent who was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison was granted a full pardon by President Donald Trump last week.
Former Immigration and Naturalization Service Supervisory Special Agent Joseph Occhipinti, 70, was awarded 81 commendations during his 22 years of service, to include being given three awards from Attorneys General, the White House said in a press release on Dec. 23.
Agent Occhipinti established the “Project Bodega” multiagency task force in 1990 in order to investigate a drug cartel that was suspected of using businesses in Washington Heights as a front for its money laundering and drug trafficking activities, the National Police Defense Foundation (NPDF) said in a press release.
Occhipinti and his supporters have long argued the now-former agent was framed by a Dominican cartel group that was also allegedly responsible for the 1988 murder of New York City Police Department Officer Michael Buczek, The New York Times reported in 1993.
“’The Federation,’ reputed by the NYPD to be a political front for the drug cartel, reportedly misled the Mayor of New York City to pressure federal prosecutors to charge Occhipinti with alleged civil rights violations,” the NPDF explained in the press release.
Prosecutors presented testimony from more than 30 Washington Heights merchants and residents during Occhipinti’s trial, all of whom claimed the special agent coerced or threatened them to sign statements that they either could not understand or that they knew contained false information, The New York Times reported.
Conversely, Occhipinti’s attorney argued that many of the prosecution’s witnesses were drug dealers or harboring illegal aliens.
Occhipinti ended up being convicted in 1991 of making false statements and conspiracy to violate civil rights under the color of law, according to the White House.
“Occhipinti’s landmark conviction marked the first time in this country’s history that any law enforcement officer was criminally prosecuted for conducting good faith searches and seizures where there were no acts of police brutality, racial bias or corruption,” NPDF President Michael Palladino said in the press release.
“Moreover, several independent investigations confirmed Occhipinti was the target of a well-orchestrated drug cartel conspiracy that led to his arrest, conviction, and imprisonment which had a chilling effect on law enforcement operations,” Palladino added.
Occhipinti was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison, but was released after seven months after then-President George H.W. Bush commuted his sentence, The New York Times reported.
“I was one of the most dedicated agents, who became handcuffed and shackled like a common criminal and had to endure the dangers and humiliation of prison,” the former special agent told the paper shortly after his release.
“My naive belief in the war against drugs has brought pain and suffering to my family,” Occhipinti said. “When they can put a federal agent in prison for an alleged technicality, an officer making a good-faith search and seizure, then we have to worry that the drug lords have taken control.”
In order to assist other law enforcement officers who have allegedly been falsely convicted, Occhipinti went on to establish the nonprofit NPDF in 1995, according to the foundation’s press release.
“Occhipinti was keenly aware of the impact and hardship of an unjust conviction for a law enforcement officer and the need to assist officers who find themselves accused of criminal conduct while carrying out their duties, usually in a combat situation,” the NPDF said.
The police organization now has more than 200,000 members and supporters around the world.
Occhipinti is also well-known for creating the “Safe Cop” program, which provides reward money for information leading to the arrest and conviction of people who have killed law enforcement officers in the line of duty, as well as the nationwide child fingerprinting initiative, “Operation Kids,” according to the NPDF.
“Joe’s efforts have been recognized nationally by elected officials and legislative bodies that earned him several international humanitarian awards, including one from Pope Francis,” the foundation noted.
Palladino praised President Trump for pardoning Occhipinti and for bringing the three-decade fight to a close.
“With one stroke of his pen, President Donald Trump vindicated Joe Occhipinti and at the same time validated the need for the National Police Defense Foundation and Joe’s passion for its establishment,” he said.
Occhipinti said he was surprised and thrilled to learn about President Trump’s decision to pardon him.
“Often times the criminal justice system makes a tragic error in convicting an innocent person. Fortunately, in my case I was lucky to see truth and justice finally prevailed,” he said. “My family and I deeply thank President Trump who recognized my injustice and saw fit to grant me the Pardon. He is certainly a ‘Law and Order’ President who has consistently supported the efforts of the law enforcement community.”