Saturday, May 15, 2021

Homeland Security agent arrested for accepting $122,000 in bribes from organized crime

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A former agent in the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security was arrested Tuesday on charges he took at least $122,000 in bribes from an organized crime figure in return for help evading authorities.

Felix Cisneros Jr., 46, used his access to highly restricted law-enforcement databases to provide inside information on investigations to the crime figure, who paid him off in 2015 and 2016, according to a federal indictment unsealed on Tuesday.

Cisneros also tried to get one of the crime figure’s relatives admitted into the U.S. from Armenia, and he removed information about a German citizen with a criminal record from a U.S. government database to assist his attempts to enter the country, prosecutors say.

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At the time, Cisneros was a Homeland Security Investigations agent who worked on narcotics, money laundering and human trafficking cases.

The crime figure was unnamed in the indictment. But court papers make clear it is Edgar Sargsyan, a Beverly Hills lawyer who has pleaded guilty to bribing a Homeland Security Investigations agent, among other crimes. A lawyer for Sargsyan has filed court papers naming Cisneros as the agent he bribed.

Cisneros, who lives in Murrieta, was first arrested in 2017. He was tried and convicted for, among other things, helping a Mexican criminal enter the U.S. and lying to a federal agent to cover it up. He was sentenced to a year in prison.

Cisneros pleaded not guilty to the new charges on Tuesday in a Los Angeles federal court hearing conducted remotely. U.S. Magistrate Maria A. Audero set his trial for April 27.

Cisneros’ lawyer, George Mgdesyan, said the former agent’s latest arrest came as a surprise. He questioned the timing of the charges, which allege criminal conduct in the years prior to his previous arrest.

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“I don’t know why it would be now, after my client was released from prison, after he thought he’d put it behind him,” Mgdesyan said.

Cisneros, an Army veteran who spent a decade as a border patrol agent before joining Homeland Security Investigations in 2007, was one of several law enforcement officials in the orbit of Sargsyan and another reputed organized crime figure, Lev Aslan Dermen.

Authorities contend that both Sargsyan and Dermen used Cisneros, an FBI agent and a Glendale police detective to monitor investigations into themselves and their associates.

Dermen, who controlled a small empire of fuel businesses and gas stations in Southern California, was convicted last year of conspiring to bilk the federal government of some $500 million in ill-gotten tax credits. Prosecutors say he called his network of law-enforcement contacts an “umbrella” and offered its protection to conspirators in exchange for millions in illicit proceeds.

Cisneros helped a Mexican national travel illegally between the U.S. and Mexico to negotiate an oil deal on Dermen’s behalf, according to testimony at Cisneros’ trial.

At that 2018 trial, prosecutors introduced as evidence checks Sargsyan had written to pay down Cisneros’ credit card bills.

“We found approximately 16 checks written from what appeared to be a personal account of Edgar Sargysan,” FBI agent Brian Adkins testified. The total, Adkins said, was about $25,000 over a one-year period.

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Cisneros acknowledged a friendship with Dermen and Sargsyan, telling investigators he’d often stop by Dermen’s office in Commerce for lunch and that he’d traveled with Sargsyan to Las Vegas by private plane for an all-expenses-paid stay at the Aria hotel in 2016, according to a transcript of the interview.

The new indictment says the unnamed crime figure treated Cisneros “to a private jet flight to Las Vegas, three nights at a luxury Las Vegas hotel, and ringside seats to a Manny Pacquiao boxing match.”

Cisneros also accepted monthly checks, most of them made directly payable to credit card companies to cover his personal bills, and some others made payable to his wife, according to the indictment.

One of the favors he performed in exchange for bribes was to place an alert in a law-enforcement database for the location of an illegal marijuana plant-growing operation so he could notify the crime figure of any relevant investigation, according to court records.

Cisneros was charged with bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery of a public official, and 26 counts of money laundering.

After Cisneros’ conviction in the 2018 case, his lawyer in the case, Mark Werksman, wrote a sentencing memo saying his client had won government awards for his undercover work posing as a money launderer in drug trafficking investigations. Cisneros earned a reputation as “having a strong work ethic with integrity, professionalism and honesty,” he wrote, and prior to being charged had never faced “any insinuations of wrongdoing.”

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