By all accounts, Michael Masecchia seemed like an average English teacher at Grover Cleveland High School—a central Buffalo school whose most notable alumni include an NFL defensive end and a former U.N. official.
The father of two had worked in the Buffalo public school system for more than 30 years, in which he taught at least 25,000 students and coached hundreds more in football, softball, and soccer. In 2018, his salary was around $76,949, according to court records, almost 30 percent more than his peers.
But one former student recalled that the 54-year-old “kind of blended into the background at school—like he was involved in the school but not too much as to call too much attention to himself.” Terrence M. Connors, a lawyer for the teacher, said Masecchia had “a great rapport with his students” and was once an “exceptional college football player.”
So when Masecchia was arrested in August 2019 on federal drug charges—after authorities raided his two-story Williamsville home to find a large cache of guns, several homemade explosives, and drugs—the school community was stunned. Masecchia was accused of growing and selling marijuana for more than 20 years.
“When one is involved in drug trafficking and has a cache of weapons at their ready access including explosive devices—certainly if I’m a parent, I don’t want my kid to be taught by that person,” U.S. Attorney James Kennedy, Jr. said in an Aug. 29 press conference, before alluding the charges were “a part of a much larger and ongoing organized crime and public corruption investigation, so stay tuned.”
The upstate New York community now has an answer to the prosecutor’s ominous warning: Masecchia was allegedly a member or associate of the Mafia who bribed a DEA agent to protect his decades-long drug scheme.
“I’m still in shock over the whole thing. Mr. Masecchia is the last person I would expect,” the student told The Daily Beast. “This is straight out of a movie.”
In a twist worthy of The Sopranos, prosecutors allege former DEA Agent Joseph Bongiovanni blocked several investigations into Masecchia, provided him with information on drug investigations and cooperating sources—and even at times using and selling cocaine—after receiving at least $250,000 in bribes.
“Masecchia had been a target or subject of several DEA cases during… Bongiovanni’s venture as a DEA special agent,” the 37-page indictment, filed earlier this month by the U.S. Attorney’s Office Western District of New York, said. “[But] Masecchia was never arrested or charged in any DEA cases or investigations.”
While Bongiovanni, who retired from the DEA in February, was charged last November with accepting bribes to shield his friends with ties to organized crime, this month’s indictment is the first time prosecutors have publicly linked the two men. It’s also the first time investigators have accused Masecchia of being a friend and associate of “Italian Organized Crime” in upstate New York.
“Masecchia is an associate and possibly made member of the Buffalo LCN family,” a July 2013 email sent to Bongiovanni from a fellow member of law enforcement said. The officer was referring to La Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia organization that has been active across the U.S. Northeast since the 1920s.
Bongiovanni, 56, is now facing a slew of charges, including conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, accepting a bribe, and obstruction of justice. Masecchia was also charged with several crimes, including conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, and maintaining a drug-involved premises.
Both men, who have pleaded not guilty and are expected to face trial in November, could get decades in prison.
“Mike Masecchia is a long tenured, high school teacher and a well respected member of the Western New York community,” Connors, Masecchia’s lawyer, told The Daily Beast. “He is not now nor has he ever been, as the government alleges, a member of ‘Italian Organized Crime’ if, in fact, that designation even exists.”
The new indictment “doesn’t change much as far as we’re concerned,” James P. Harrington, who is representing Bongiovanni, told WHBW. “My client still professes his innocence and we look forward to defending him at trial.”
Families for both men did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
A rat in the ranks
In 2008, Bongiovanni and Masecchia started working together to defraud the DEA in a conspiracy that, according to the indictment, hinged on Bongiovanni’s access to information about criminal investigations.
It’s not clear how the pair met or first came into contact with one another. But, over a nearly decade-long collaboration, Masecchia paid Bongiovanni at least $250,000 in exchange for regular debriefs, prosecutors allege. During frequent meetings, the DEA agent would allegedly provide information he obtained through fellow law-enforcement colleges, or state and DEA deconfliction databases—which would alert him if other agents were looking into any of the people he had under his protection.
The duo also allegedly conspired to distribute marijuana and cocaine between 2008 and 2019, the indictment states.
But Masecchia was only one of several Mafia-related figures to benefit from Bongiovanni’s position of power. Prosecutors allege Bongiovanni went to great lengths to protect himself and several people who were paying him for protection. He allegedly created his own DEA case file on his co-conspirators so he could funnel all DEA information towards himself and keep tabs on colleagues seeking to investigate his associates.
For example, after a fellow DEA agent conducted surveillance on a Buffalo warehouse in June 2013 that was controlled by someone Bongiovanni had been in cahoots with, Bongiovanni advised his colleague to discontinue the surveillance due to his own open investigation.
A month later, Bongiovanni emailed the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a special agent with the IRS with an update on his fake investigation. “We are working on a GPS warrant for trackers to locate these grow operation [sic] a CI [confidential informant] reported they are turning the grow over in 8 to 9 weeks. Joe.”
Bongiovanni then wrote in a September 2013 DEA report that agents were waiting for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to utilize GPS trackers for the investigation. He continued to lie in reports and made misleading statements to others in law enforcement to delay any legal action, prosecutors allege.
“After feigning legitimate investigation for a period of time so that information about his co-conspirators, and anyone seeking to cooperate against them, would be funneled towards him, the defendant Bongiovanni closed the DEA file,” the indictment states, noting that “even with the file closed, he would continue to receive deconfliction notices related to individuals under his protection.”
The 56-year-old also allegedly lied to his fellow DEA agents, made cover stories for his co-conspirators and even owned, sold, and used the drugs he helped protect. In one instance, Bongiovanni allegedly told an associate to pass himself off as a potential informant if he was ever questioned about their relationship.
‘Get her out’ of the club
The indictment details the lengths Bongiovanni allegedly went to from late 2009 onwards to protect an individual identified in court documents as “Co-conspirator 1,” who was paying Bongiovanni.
In one instance, Co-conspirator 1 violated the terms of his federal supervised release from prison. So Bongiovanni called the U.S. Probation officer to “mitigate any sanctions that might have been imposed.” Days later, Bongiovanni allegedly lied in a DEA report that Co-conspirator 1 had acted as a “confidential source” and had provided information to the DEA in narcotics investigations.
In June 2016, Bongiovanni attempted to dissuade another special agent from subpoenaing phone records of contacts between him and Co-conspirator 1 by asking his colleague if he “hate[d] Italians.” Two months later, Co-conspirator 1 called Bongiovanni after “a stripper overdosed on drugs at a gentlemen’s club” he operated in Cheektowaga, New York. Bongiovanni, according to the indictment, told him to “get her out” of the club.
“It should be known that any contact I have had with [Co-conspirator 1] in the past was minimal in-person contact and primarily consisted of random telephonic communication based on the fact we were childhood friends,” Bongiovanni would later write in a November 2018 DEA memo. “I would sometimes randomly encounter [Co-conspirator 1] at a restaurant or golf outing and have not made plans to meet him socially in several years.”
On Bongiovanni’s last day on the job with the DEA in February 2019, he wiped all the data off his phone and removed the DEA case file against those who were paying him—before hiding it in the basement of his home.
Five months later, federal and county investigators raided Masecchia’s home on Main Street in Williamsville—a beige home with a basketball hoop at the end of the driveway, just blocks away from SUNY Erie Community College and the Country Club of Buffalo. Inside, authorities found an eye-popping haul, including marijuana, cocaine, steroids, hypodermic needles, THC edibles, seven homemade explosives, two rifles, five shotguns, various rounds of ammunition, four cellphones and $27,950 in cash that was hidden in “clothing and rubber banded in two bundles.”
According to Masecchia’s original criminal complaint, the homemade explosives were packed with flash powder and sealed with a hot glue gun. Prosecutors allege that Masecchia has distributed at least 1,000 kilograms of marijuana since 1999 and Erie County Sheriff’s records show that one of the shotguns found at his home was reported stolen in September 2015.
After his arrest, the Buffalo Public Schools said Masecchia had been “placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the legal process.” The school district did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
“All these dangerous items were possessed by an individual who has access to children on a daily basis,” Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney, said after Masecchia’s arrest, noting that the teacher lived across the street from another high school.