Federal agents sometimes fall prey to the lurid lifestyles of their informants
December 1, 1998
It was May 22, 1992. FBI agent Christopher Favo was briefing his boss, Special Agent R. Lindley DeVecchio, who headed the task force trying to end Brooklyn’s Colombo crime family war.
Two men loyal to the Colombo faction led by Victor J. Orena had been gunned down on a Brooklyn Street the night before, Favo announced.
DeVecchio’s reaction was not what Favo expected. The man charged with stopping the violence cheered for the shootings.
"He slapped his hand on the desk and he said, ‘We’re going to win this thing,’ " Favo would recall two years later. "And he seemed excited about it.
"He seemed like he didn’t know we were the FBI. It was like a line had been blurred . . . over who we were and what this was. . . . He was compromised. He had lost track of who he was."
The Post-Gazette’s two-year investigation found that federal agents are often placed in positions where they can lose track and end up compromised.
Agents sometimes must make deals with the devil — criminal informants — to fight crime. The temptations to become partners with these criminals can be great. And the safeguards to prevent their defections are few.
No one mentioned Gregory Scarpa Sr. by name when Favo and DeVecchio talked that morning.
Scarpa, a gangster who’s lust for murder earned him the nickname "Killing Machine" in New York’s tabloids, had sided with the Carmine Persico faction against Orena in the bloody Colombo crime family fight.
But Scarpa was also a government informant — common in federal law enforcement. Agents use them to get inside information about criminal conduct. Sometimes these informants are paid money. Sometimes their reward is leniency if they happen to be facing a prison term.
For three decades, Scarpa had been an informant for the FBI. His relationship with DeVecchio, which lasted at least a decade, went beyond any accepted FBI practice, fellow agents have testified.
DeVecchio not only ignored Scarpa’s day-to-day criminal activities, he was accused of assisting in the Mafia killer’s success.
Accusations against DeVecchio, made in sworn statements by other FBI agents, cooperating FBI witnesses, government documents and court testimony, include:
Giving Scarpa the names of other FBI snitches, so Scarpa could put them in harm’s way while shielding his own illegal operations.
Telling Scarpa where the FBI was placing wiretaps so he could avoid them.
Informing Scarpa of pending indictments against his associates — in one instance, allowing Scarpa to help his son disappear before the younger Scarpa could be arrested.
Handing over the addresses of Scarpa’s enemies in the Colombo crime family war so that he could track them down and kill them.
Fabricating evidence against Orena and other Scarpa adversaries so they would be sent to prison.
DeVecchio has admitted accepting gifts from Scarpa. But he steadfastly has denied any other wrongdoing. In several recent court cases, he took the Fifth Amendment rather than discuss his relationship with Scarpa.
Yet the files and first-hand reports of other agents detailing his actions have resulted in more than a dozen New York mobsters being acquitted after juries learned the FBI had conspired with criminals to commit crimes.
Orena wasn’t so lucky. He was sentenced to life in prison before the Scarpa-DeVecchio relationship was uncovered. His attorneys’ efforts in getting him a new trial have so far failed.
And what of the Justice Department’s probe into the actions of its rogue agent? The agency’s investigation exonerated DeVecchio.
The Post-Gazette’s two-year investigation into misconduct by federal law enforcement officials found the kid glove treatment of DeVecchio is not unusual.
The Justice Department did not respond to questions the newspaper posed about concerns raised in this story.