TAMPA — A former Drug Enforcement Administration agent was sentenced Tuesday to a year and a day in prison, having pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his demanding cash from an imprisoned drug trafficker's brother.
Samuel Murad, 62, once a respected federal agent, apologized in court for his role in a scheme that centered on efforts to secure an early release for Joe Pegg, whom Murad helped send to prison in the 1990s.
"I have no excuse for my behavior," Murad said. "I've hurt my family. I've hurt my friends."
"You've also hurt the DEA," U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew interjected. "You made law enforcement look bad."
The scheme that ensnared Murad — and another former DEA agent who has already been sentenced — began in 2009 when Pegg's lawyer hired Murad to assist in getting Pegg a reduced sentence, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
More than a decade earlier, Murad had led an investigation into Pegg, the leader of a massive marijuana import operation.
Federal rules prohibited Murad from doing anything on Pegg's behalf. He was advised as much in a written ethics opinion from a DEA attorney.
But the opinion noted that Murad was not restricted from providing "behind the scenes" advice to Pegg and his family.
Murad, who was retired, contacted DEA Agent Robert Quinn and asked him to handle, on the DEA side, the effort to reduce Pegg's sentence.
Pegg, who is still in prison, is accused in a separate case of paying his former cellmate to act as a confidential source for the DEA so that he could receive a reduced sentence. The agency later made arrests based on the information the cellmate provided.
Murad wanted to get paid, too, for his efforts to spring Pegg from prison early, according to federal authorities. In June 2012, he sent Pegg's brother, Buck Pegg, an email demanding $700,000.
"If we can't come (to) some kind of understanding," he wrote, "then you guys get to keep your money and (he) stays in jail because good luck getting him out without my testimony."
Buck Pegg and Murad later met in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Gainesville, prosecutors said. There, Buck Pegg gave Murad a shopping bag with $223,000. Murad also took the $800 Pegg had in his wallet.
When the FBI began investigating the matter, Murad told Quinn not to talk to them. Quinn later admitted he lied to FBI agents about his knowledge of the scheme. He was sentenced to probation earlier this year.
In court Tuesday, Jerome Froelich, a lawyer for Buck Pegg, argued that his client was a victim in the case and was entitled to restitution. He said that what Murad had done was extortion.
But prosecutors pointed out that they never charged Murad with extortion. He pleaded guilty only to tax evasion and witness tampering. Therefore, they argued, Buck Pegg was not entitled to restitution.
Judge Bucklew agreed, but also said that the matter "smells bad" and "doesn't feel right."
Murad's defense featured a cameo appearance by former U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill, who recalled a 2009 lunch meeting with the retired agent where the topic of Joe Pegg came up.
At the time, O'Neill was an assistant U.S. attorney.
Murad told O'Neill he was going to do some work for Pegg — meaning, help in Pegg's efforts to get a reduced sentence.
"I said, 'Sam, you can't do that,' " O'Neill recalled.
O'Neill said he advised Murad to read the applicable federal laws and seek permission from the DEA first. About a month later, Murad called O'Neill and told him the agency had given permission.
"It was pretty shocking," O'Neill said.
Defense attorney Greg Kehoe asked for a sentence of probation and community control. But Bucklew said Murad, a former law enforcement officer, was held to a higher standard.
"You knew better," she said.
Along with prison, Bucklew ordered Murad to pay a $10,000 fine and $65,341 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service.
Contact Dan Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.