It was the end of a case that INS District Director Thomas Schiltgen termed ”a significant blow to the public trust“ : Former Special Agent Jesse Jerry Gardona was sentenced Monday to 18 months in federal prison for conspiring to accept bribes and for smuggling illegal immigrants.

The sentence was less than is sometimes meted out to others convicted of the same offense, despite the fact that Gardona committed his crimes under color of authority. Officials said the sentence was tempered by Gardona’s cooperation with authorities, and his otherwise clean criminal record.

A 12-year veteran of the agency, Gardona was convicted of collaborating with Jose Jesus Quintanilla-Guzman in removing undocumented immigrants from custody and ransoming them to family members scattered across the United States. Quintanilla was recently sentenced in a separate case to 20 years in federal prison for trafficking in cocaine.

According to court papers, Quintanilla loaned Gardona more than $20,000 to help the INS agent launch side businesses operating pay phones and soda vending machines. When he could not make payments, Gardona instead released undocumented immigrants to Quintanilla, who then contacted family members and sought payments of roughly $1,500 per immigrant. Quintanilla reportedly paid Gardona $300 a head.

Witnesses told government investigators that Gardona was a regular visitor to an auto-body shop Quintanilla operated in East Los Angeles. The body shop served as a staging area for cocaine shipments to Denver, Las Vegas and Seattle, according to the government.

In court Monday, Gardona said he was ”very remorseful.“ The Desert Storm veteran said he‘d lost 20 years of his life — all of his career in law enforcement — by pleading guilty to a felony count of smuggling illegal immigrants.

But while Agent Gardona expressed remorse, officials with the INS and the U.S. Attorney’s Office rejected any suggestion that the case reflected broader problems at the federal Department of Justice, which operates both agencies.

Gardona is the third INS officer from the Southern California district to be accused of significant misconduct in the past year. Other cases include INS Asylum Officer Thomas Powell, accused in a civil suit of demanding sexual favors and money in return for approving applications, and Ralph Leyva, another asylum officer convicted in December 1999 of accepting bribes in return for doctoring immigration applications.

In an interview Monday, INS Director Schiltgen acknowledged that ”Our officers work with a great deal of independence,“ but said that in the case of Gardona, ”We look at this as an isolated situation with him.“ Schiltgen said he was not inclined to review or revise his standard practices. ”We continue to have a great deal of trust in our officers.“

Asked if there was any other fallout from Gardona‘s conviction, Schiltgen said the Inspector General’s Office of the federal Department of Justice was reviewing the case — particularly whether Gardona had accomplices at the agency. In addition, Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney‘s Office in Los Angeles, said, ”We’re continuing to review what, if any, impact his corrupt activities might have had on any other cases.“ Mrozek said Gardona played a role in ”a fairly small number“ of cases.

Attorney Daniel Aragon represented a defendant convicted last year in one of Gardona‘s cases, in which two men were charged with smuggling immigrants the INS agent later ransomed. The conviction was overturned last October when a federal judge learned of Gardona’s misconduct, but Aragon said he remains disturbed by the way the U.S. Attorney‘s Office handled the case. ”It just shows they’ll stoop to the lowest levels to get a conviction,“ Aragon said. ”It hurts the credibility of the entire system.“

Aragon said that when the trial went forward a year ago, the prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elliot Krieger, should have told the judge that Gardona was under investigation. In an interview, Krieger responded that he had been careful to ”exclude Gardona from any active role,“ and said he could not inform the defense of the charges at the time because they had not yet been proven.

In comments made at trial, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson said, ”I don‘t believe that you, Mr. Krieger, did anything in the slightest degree improperly.“ But Pregerson also said that, had the government disclosed to him what it knew of Gardona, there may never have been a trial at all. Pregerson further found that Gardona had actively intimidated witnesses on the stand, and threw out the convictions stemming from that case.

Aragon termed the incident ”a deliberate attempt to mislead the court,“ and said Krieger was directed to proceed by superiors. Mrozek responded that the lawyers he represents avoided any misconduct. ”There are innumerable cases that relate to the government’s obligations to disclose . . . We follow those rules very carefully.“

LA Weekly