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Quid pro quo: the FBI’s role in public corruption probes

SALT LAKE CITY — “Quid pro quo, Clarice” may be one of the most misquoted lines from one of the most famous movies ever to feature the FBI, 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. What Hannibal Lecter actually told the fictional Agent Clarice Starling was, “Quid pro quo. I tell you things, you tell me things.”

The Latin phrase, quid pro quo, features prominently in FBI investigations into potential cases of public corruption. Translated literally, it means “this for that,” and FBI Salt Lake City Division Supervisory Special Agent Michelle Pickens says in order for a public corruption case to rise to the level of prosecution, investigators look for evidence that a public official, whether a government employee or an elected leader, offered “this” in exchange for “that.”

“We do have corruption in Utah. I would not describe it as systemic,” Pickens says. “But I don’t think there is any state or city that’s immune from corruption.”

In the latest episode of FBI Confidential, Pickens tells co-host Becky Bruce the “this for that” often boils down to giving something in exchange for some kind of gain, whether personal or monetary.

“The bureau considers it its number one criminal program,” Pickens adds.

Most of the time, Pickens says the FBI gets involved when someone else, often a law enforcement agency or prosecutor on the local or state level, alerts them to a potential problem.

The bureau investigates corruption within prisons, at the borders, with cases of alleged foreign influence and yes, elections.

The corruption doesn’t necessarily have to involve a position of high power.

In one case investigated by the FBI’s Salt Lake City Division, Pickens says a man named Angel Segura was using his position as an employee at an airport contractor to smuggle drugs into and out of Salt Lake City. Pickens says this was investigated as a case of border corruption, as airports serve as ports of entry into the United States.

“He was able to bypass significant security features at the airport to transport drug loads on behalf of us. We acted as the cartel, the distributor, and we acted as the recipient on the tail end. So we provided him with what he thought was crystal meth. It actually was not, it was fake drugs,” Pickens says. “We had him run four different loads through the airport and we subsequently arrested him and a co-conspirator.”

Pickens says it was especially concerning after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as security measures at airports are meant to prevent the abuse of access that Segura had.

“This has significantly changed since we worked the case,” Pickens says. “[There was a] significant change and increase in security as a result of that [case].”

In another case, a civilian working at Hill Air Force Base in Utah was taking kickbacks and bribes for diverting contracts to a specific company.

“We ended up identifying him. We did a number of covert meetings with him and surveillance, and we ended up confronting him,” Pickens recalled.

In that case, it was Jose Mendez’s own record-keeping that helped convict him – he was tracking his payments on a spreadsheet on his computer.

“He recorded the price of the government contract, his portion of the bribe or the kickback, and where he got it, where he received the bribes,” Pickens says. “We’ve found that bad guys want to keep track of their money, just like good guys want to keep track of their money.”

In Mendez’s case, Pickens says a co-worker alerted authorities to some perceived suspicious behavior, which ultimately led to the FBI’s involvement. In the case of Segura, Pickens says suspects in Utah County drug cases disclosed to police their connection to an airport smuggler.

In any case, if you suspect someone is engaging in public corruption, you can contact the FBI.

Applications are now open for the next round of the FBI Citizens’ Academy in Salt Lake City. Applications are due by July 31, 2018. You can apply here, or nominate someone to attend here. Any questions should be directed to