Government misconduct denied in Vagos case

Prosecutors asked a federal judge Friday to reject a magistrate’s recommended dismissal of drug trafficking charges against a former officer of the Vagos motorcycle gang because of outrageous government conduct.

In lengthy court papers, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Andrew Duncan and Cristina Silva said no government misconduct occurred, and they criticized the magistrate’s lack of understanding of how criminal investigations work and how to interpret case law when considering such serious allegations.

In a rare decision last month, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cam Ferenbach blamed the outrageous government conduct on the lead undercover agent, Agostino Brancato, a deputized agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Ferenbach concluded that Agostino manufactured the cocaine case against Jeremy Halgat, though Halgat had no criminal record and repeatedly told the agent in secretly recorded conversations that he did not want to traffic in drugs.

Ferenbach also said Brancato “falsified” a report of one of the alleged drug transactions and that supervisors of his ATF-led task force “did not dissuade him” from doing it.

In their court papers, federal prosecutors said Brancato did not manufacture the case against Halgat, then a leader of the Vagos motorcycle gang, and the assertion that he falsified a report of his dealings with Halgat was not supported by the record of evidence in the case.

“Brancato completed his reports according to procedure, and the magistrate judge’s accusations are without foundation and deeply unfortunate,” the prosecutors wrote.

They added, “The magistrate judge’s factual finding that Halgat renounced criminal behavior is demonstrably erroneous. Throughout the course of this investigation, the defendant was continuously engaged in criminal activity.”

Halgat “took on a significant role in designing” the drug transactions, Duncan and Silva argued.

“The government agent merely played a role of someone seeking narcotics within an organization known for its access to narcotics,” they said.

Even as an insider, the prosecutors explained, Brancato would have had a tough time “coercing a leader in a large criminal organization into making four separate drug transactions against his will.”

Brancato was the lead undercover agent in “Operation Pure Luck,” a three-year joint investigation led by the ATF into drug and illegal weapons dealing by members of motorcycle gangs, primarily the Vagos club. Las Vegas police, North Las Vegas police and the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department were part of the task force.

The investigation was launched in April 2010 with the secret help of a Vagos gang member; and two years later Brancato, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy deputized by the ATF, became a full-fledged member of the Vagos club while working undercover.

More than two dozen motorcycle gang members were charged with drug and weapons trafficking in a series of federal and state indictments last year in the high-profile investigation.

Halgat, 36, a former Vagos sergeant at arms who goes by the nickname “Maniak,” is charged in two cases. He faces a separate drug conspiracy indictment stemming from a March 2013 sting at a Searchlight airstrip set up by undercover agents posing as Mexican drug cartel members flying cocaine to Las Vegas.

Halgat’s co-defendant in the case before Ferenbach has pleaded guilty and is waiting to be sentenced.

The magistrate’s stinging recommendation against the government was a response to court papers filed by Halgat’s defense lawyer, Melanie Hill.

“The government is not allowed to manufacture crimes solely to prosecute a citizen,” Hill said last month. She filed a similar dismissal motion in Halgat’s other case, before a different magistrate and judge, and is waiting for a decision.

In their court papers Duncan and Silva responded, “The government neither engineered nor directed the crime from start to finish, and the investigative techniques used during the investigation were both proper and common.”

The prosecutors said they want U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon to reject Fernbach’s dismissal recommendation or hold a full-blown evidentiary hearing before making a decision.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135. Find him on Twitter: @JGermanRJ.

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