Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

July 27–August 3, 2000

cover story

The Dominican Connection, part 3

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Just say no mas: Convicted drug dealer Bernardo Paez came to Philly to urge PRD members to sell drugs for Pena Gomez, according to BNI.

In 1995 a local narcotics squad warned the CIA that a Dominican political party was raising campaign funds in Philadelphia through sales of heroin and coke. Now the investigators’ careers are in ruins. What happened?

by Howard Altman and Jim Barry

First of a Two-Part Series

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On Jan. 13, 1996, McLaughlin’s suspicions about the PDR’s involvement in other jurisdictions were confirmed by a call from DEA agent Matt Hackett, who told McLaughlin that DEA investigators in Worcester, MA, had been tracking the connection between the PDR and drug dealing in New England.

Among the information McLaughlin received from DEA agents in Massachusetts was a copy of an April 19, 1995 confidential telex, from George Festa, special agent in charge of the DEA office in Boston to DEA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and the American Embassy in Santo Domingo.

The subject of Festa’s telex was a man named Bernardo Paez, a Dominican national who had "numerous drug distribution convictions in New York and at one time during the late 1980s was considered to be one of the upper echelon Dominican distributors of cocaine and heroin in the city of Worcester."

Paez, however, was no ordinary drug dealer.

In his telex, Festa wrote that, according to Worcester police, "Paez is the head of the Dominican Revolutionary Party.… Worcester police further advised us that this Worcester headquarters for the DRP is the hub for all Dominican business owners and large scale narcotic distributors in New England. Meetings are held once a week."

Party members, according to Festa, discussed "pricing controls on narcotics to be distributed.… The DRP has been in existence in Worcester for approximately two years."

Upon receiving the information about Paez, McLaughlin asked Steward to find out Paez’s immigration status. Steward found that there was an active warrant for Paez’s deportation.

As McLaughlin’s probe into the PRD expanded, the CIA was showing increasing interest.

On Jan. 17, 1996, CIA agent Victoria Naylor called BNI intelligence analyst Wilson Prichett, according to a handwritten, confidential memo from Prichett to BNI supervisor John Sunderhauf.

"She is arranging for an Intelligence officer from their Caribbean Desk to come up — probably next week — and give us a briefing on the Dominican Revolutionary Party. Before this, they want to run a quick preliminary security check on those who will attend the briefing. They need name — DOB and where — and SSN.

"Who do you want to attend? I will collect the data and fax it to them."

On the same day, Sunderhauf received a memo from Larry Leightley, CIA chief of station in Santo Domingo.

The two-paged memo, marked "confidential" and typed in all caps, thanked Sunderhauf for providing details of the BNI investigation and offered some information the CIA had on the PRD and Dominican drug traffickers.

"DEA Santo Domingo information confirms that the Dominicans in the Philadelphia area are part of the New York- Boston network," Leightley wrote, adding that "there is no information suggesting that Dominicans in Philadelphia deal directly with drug transportation groups in the Dominican Republic. The Philadelphia groups have all their contacts directly with Dominicans in New York and Boston and receive the drugs from and send the sale proceeds to the New York area."

Leightley’s memo then shifted to the PRD and its presidential candidate, Jose Francisco Pena Gomez.

"It is important to note that Pena Gomez and the PRD in 1995 are considered mainstream in the political spectrum," Leightley wrote. "Pena currently leads in the polls and has a better than even chance of being elected the next President of the Dominican Republic in May 1996 elections. He and his PRD ideology pose no specific problems for U.S. foreign policy and, in fact, Pena was widely seen as the ‘U.S. Embassy’s candidate’ in the 1994 elections given the embassy’s strong role in pressuring for free and fair elections and Pena’s role as opposition challenger."

Leightley went on to say that on Dec. 11, 1995, Undersecretary of State Alex Watson had a lengthy meeting with Pena Gomez, whom Leightley stated "is a well-respected political leader in the Caribbean."

Leightley wrote that Pena Gomez’s political opponents had been spreading rumors about his involvement in narco-trafficking, but that neither the CIA nor the Embassy could confirm those rumors.

"We are very interested in receiving any information that would provide evidence that the PRD and/or Pena Gomez is knowingly receiving drug proceeds from the U.S.," Leightley wrote.

 

Five days after Leightley’s letter to Sunderhauf, McLaughlin sent "P-Man" to a meeting at the local PRD headquarters at 416 E. Allegheny.

According to McLaughlin’s supplemental report filed Jan. 29, 1996, Bernardo Paez — who was under investigation by DEA and local police in Worcester for running drug deals out of the Worcester PRD headquarters — was the keynote speaker, according to "P-Man," who wore a body wire while attending the meeting.

In his report, McLaughlin wrote the purpose of the 90-minute meeting "was to raise $2,500 from each member attending to give to Dominican Presidential candidate Jose Pena Gomez when he comes to Philadelphia on or around Feb. 1, 1996. Discussed further was the $300,000 assessed to the Philadelphia/Camden Chapter of the PRD which was needed by the end of February for the final meeting in New York, where Jose Pena Gomez will collect all monies for the campaign.

Paez, wrote McLaughlin, "told the meeting that Gomez himself sent a message to the members to be careful not to be caught with drugs on their person or in their care between now and the May election in the Dominican Republic since it may hurt the party and cause it to be investigated. He did not, however, urge them to stop selling drugs."

Paez did, however, point out the benefits of drug sales.

"A discussion ensued on the difficulty party members [who] did not sell drugs would have in contributing the $2,500 required," McLaughlin wrote. "In the case of drug traffickers there would be no problem raising the funds."

Paez, according to the report, "stated that Gomez would carry back the funds collected by February 1st to the Dominican Republic with the remainder and larger portion of the funds to be collected at the ‘Grand Reunion’ to be held in New York at the end of February 1996.

"Paez reminded the congregation that the incentive for contributing was that if Gomez won in May 1996, he would facilitate the flow of drugs into the U.S. and reduce their cost."

 

News of Pena Gomez’s impending visit to Philadelphia, combined with headlines at the time that Colombian President Ernesto Samper had used drug money to help finance his campaign, weighed heavily on the mind of BNI Regional Director John Sunderhauf.

On Jan. 29, 1996, Sunderhauf fired off a memo, marked "Confidential" to Leightley, apprising the agency of "P-Man"’s surveillance and asking for guidance.

In essence, Sunderhauf told Leightley that a major PRD party member, with a history of drug arrests and reputed to be a large-scale dealer in Worcester by the DEA, was in town on behalf of Pena Gomez.

Sunderhauf also warned Leightley that party members would ship old cars back home to transport "militantes around the country for political activities. The plan called for concealing 5 or 6 guns under the engine covers of these cars for use in case trouble breaks out. [Paez] stressed the need for secrecy, since the current President would seize the cars on the dock if he found out."

"P-Man"’s report had Sunderhauf concerned about the impending visit of Pena Gomez in just three days.

"In the light of the 1 February visit of Gomez to Philadelphia we urgently need to hear from you whether any appropriate action on our part is requested in support of U.S. Foreign policy objectives," Sunderhauf wrote. "The current revelation that President Samper of Colombia had knowingly used drug money in his political campaign, suggests that appropriate action may be warranted."

 

Sometime in the last days of January 1996, BNI investigators began working on a bold plan of "appropriate action"; nabbing Pena Gomez upon his visit to the states and seizing the campaign funds as proceeds of illegal drug transactions.

Such a move would have wide ramifications. On Jan. 30, BNI’s intelligence analyst Wilson Prichett sent a handwritten note to Sunderhauf about what the BNI could expect if it grabbed money from someone seeking the highest office in a foreign land.

"Our contact in the Agency answered our two questions after consulting Washington by phone," Prichett wrote Sunderhauf.

The answer to the first question, "Does Pena Gomez have diplomatic immunity?," was as follows:

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Free to go: Pedro Corporan, a Washington Heights, NY businessman and PRD party leader suspected by the DEA of providing drugs to the infamous Jheri Curl gang. Corporan was never charged with any crimes in that investigation.

"They reported that he is not accredited to the State Dept. as an official of the Govt. and therefore does not have diplomatic immunity," Prichett wrote. "However, that being said, these ‘banana republics’ issue diplomatic passports freely to citizens and he would probably ‘wave it around and raise hell’ if he is carrying one."

Sunderhauf’s second question was, "If, ‘with probable cause’ he were stopped while in this country, what would be the political ramifications?"

Prichett responded by saying that the CIA "replied that [Pena Gomez] is a VIP — he only lost the last election through fraud and is probably going to be the next President of the D.R.! If he is stopped and the charge did not stick it would ‘probably adversely affect U.S.-D.R. relations.’ [The CIA said], if we are considering the possibility of stopping him, we had better clear it with the State Dept. first. We would have to do this through the local office of DEA."

 

On Jan. 31, 1996 — the day after Prichett’s memo to Sunderhauf about seizing Pena Gomez’s cash — Leightley sent a memo to Sunderhauf with a little more explanation of the current status of the candidate and his party in the Dominican Republic.

Leightley explained that Dominicans in the United States are playing a vital role in the May 1996 election.

"Pena continues to lead in most of the local election polls and his Dominican Revolutionary Party has an even chance of winning the presidency.… Pena, like his two principal opponents … frequently travels to the U.S. to meet supporters in New York and other cities on the Eastern Seaboard to solicit funds for his campaign. Dominicans in the U.S. are big contributors to the campaigns of their favorite party in the DOMREP."

The key information the CIA was seeking, wrote Leightley, "is whether or not Pena actually knows of or condones the fact his supporters in Philadelphia are narcotics traffickers. Pena is attacked in the local press frequently on this issue and he is very sensitive to the danger these allegations pose to his presidential hopes. He frequently challenges his local critics to produce evidence of their claims. They have been unable to do so thus far; we know, however, that the Dominican Drug Control Directorate has photographs of Pena in the company of known narcotics traffickers. Although we do not believe Pena would actually carry USD70,000 in cash back with him, there are individuals working for him who would not hesitate to carry the cash."

Leightley also noted that there was a concern violence might break out during the election and a prognostication (dead on, as it would turn out) that Pena Gomez would win the first round of the election, only to lose the final round.

"This information is intriguing and we remain very interested in any additional information your office develops from its contacts."

In an effort to develop more contacts, McLaughlin requested authorization for "P-Man" to wear a transmitting device at PRD headquarters on Allegheny Avenue the following day.

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