U.S. Customs agents monitor and inspect vehicles entering the U.S. from Mexico at the San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego in December 2021.

U.S. Customs agents monitor and inspect vehicles entering the U.S. from Mexico at the San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego in December 2021. (Nelvin C. Cepeda, The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — A former U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer was found guilty Monday by a federal jury in San Diego of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for allowing smugglers to bring drugs and undocumented migrants through his inspection lane at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

The jury convicted Leonard Darnell George, 41, on one felony count each of receiving a bribe as a public official and conspiring to import methamphetamine and two counts of conspiring to bring undocumented migrants to the U.S. for financial gain. The jury acquitted George of a fifth count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.

The jurors deliberated for about four hours Monday afternoon following five days of testimony.

“With this verdict, the jury sent a clear message to anyone considering trading in their badge for cash,” U.S. Attorney Tara McGrath told The San Diego Union-Tribune in a statement. “Abandoning the integrity of the uniform for the conspiracy of drug trafficking is a path to a criminal conviction.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Kimura told the jury during opening statements last week that in the fall of 2021, George befriended two travelers passing through his inspection lane over their shared interest in Hong Kong Gentleman’s Club, a Tijuana strip club known for offering prostitution. The two men turned out to be members of a drug-trafficking organization and recruited George in part by throwing him a lavish party at the strip club, the prosecutor said.

The plan was simple: When George was on duty, he would let his smuggling contacts know which inspection lane he was working, Kimura said. The trafficking group would then send vehicles laden with drugs or carrying undocumented migrants through George’s lane.

The government alleges that George, who came to be known as “The Goalie” among traffickers, made between $300,000 and $400,000 while working for the group between about October 2021 and June 2022.

A plea deal agreed to by one of George’s co-defendants from the trafficking group states that the organization would send four or five vehicles loaded with drugs or undocumented migrants through George’s lane during every shift he worked. The co-defendant estimated in his plea agreement that about 300 undocumented migrants entered the U.S. through George’s lane.

Documents in the case do not specify the total amount of drugs that allegedly went through George’s lane, but one vehicle allegedly sent by the trafficking group contained 223 pounds of methamphetamine and 13 pounds of fentanyl, according to prosecutors.

During opening statements, Kimura showed the jurors text messages and audio recordings between members of the drug trafficking group discussing a corrupt, unnamed CBP officer being on payroll. He also showed the jury text messages, translated from Spanish, allegedly between George’s wife and a high-level member of the drug-trafficking group discussing whether George was supposed to be paid a flat fee for a vehicle full of undocumented migrants or for each person in the vehicle.

“I agreed with your husband per car,” read the return message from the alleged trafficking group leader.

Defense attorney Antonio Yoon argued that witnesses who had pleaded guilty to drug and conspiracy charges couldn’t be trusted and stood to benefit from lighter sentences by agreeing to testify for the prosecution. Yoon said George’s wife felt compelled to testify against her husband because of her potentially incriminating text messages.

Yoon did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment on the verdict.

George joined CBP in 2018 after previously working for CoreCivic, the private prison company that operates the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego.

“CBP does not tolerate misconduct within its ranks,” Elizabeth Cervantes, the special agent in charge of CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility for the San Diego Field Office, told the Union-Tribune in a statement. “The Office of Professional Responsibility’s efforts in this case and this latest court decision are a testament to CBP’s commitment to preserving the honor of its overwhelmingly professional workforce, and to its core values of vigilance, integrity, and service to country.”

George is scheduled to be sentenced in September.

©2024 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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