As reported by WFLA, longtime Florida wedding photographer Michael Zoumberos spent nearly a year in jail for civil contempt because he refused to cooperate with federal investigators concerning a major DEA scandal that included Zoumberos’ brother, former DEA agent George Zoumberos.
Before discussing what Michael Zoumberos experienced, it is essential to discuss what led to the professional photographer with 20 years of experience being involved with federal law enforcement in the first place.
Disgraced DEA Agent José Irizarry Leaves Wake of Destruction and Stories on his Path to Prison
In December 2021, Miami-based DEA special agent, José Irizarry, was sentenced to 12 years for operating a money laundering and fraud scheme. Irizarry, who was 46 at the time, pleaded guilty to all crimes in his 19-count indictment, including conspiracy to commit money laundering, honest services wire fraud, bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft.
Per Irizarry’s plea, his crimes began in 2010. Irizarry used his position as a special agent in the DEA to move about $9 million in funds used for undercover DEA money laundering schemes to enrich himself and co-conspirators. Irizarry also used his position to receive bribes and kickbacks worth at least $1 million.
Unsurprisingly, the United States Department of Justice wanted to bring additional people to justice. After all, Irizarry did not act alone.
Irizarry’s Former Partner, George Zoumberos, Implicated During Investigation
During the probe into José Irizarry, law enforcement looked at one of Irizarry’s former partners, George Zoumberos, the brother of photographer Michael Zoumberos.
“The probe is focused in part on George Zoumberos, one of Irizarry’s former partners who traveled overseas extensively for money laundering investigations. Irizarry told AP that Zoumberos enjoyed unfettered access to so-called commission funds and improperly tapped that money for personal purchases and unwarranted trips, using names of people that didn’t exist in DEA reports justifying the excesses,” wrote the Associated Press late last year.
Irizarry says numerous DEA colleagues joined him in his exploits, including on extravagant trips worldwide.
“The way Irizarry tells it, dozens of other federal agents, prosecutors, informants and in some cases cartel smugglers themselves were all in on the three-continent joyride known as ‘Team America’ that chose cities for money laundering pick-ups mostly for party purposes or to coincide with Real Madrid soccer or Rafael Nadal tennis matches. That included stops along the way in VIP rooms of Caribbean strip joints, Amsterdam’s red-light district and aboard a Colombian yacht that launched with plenty of booze and more than a dozen prostitutes,” explains AP.
Irizarry said that the United States’ war on drugs is unwinnable and that agents know they are “not making a difference.”
While his claims may have been part of a play to get a reduced jail sentence or just further smear the DEA’s image, U.S. Justice Department took Irizarry’s confessions and claims very seriously and has spent considerable effort trying to corroborate or disprove Irizarry’s many assertions.
George Zoumberos, who was arrested and briefly detained in connection with allegations of sexual assault in Madrid in 2018, lost his gun, badge, and security clearance in 2019 for invoking his Fifth Amendment rights to not self-incriminate.
Federal Investigators Subpoena Photographer Michael Zoumberos and he Pleads the Fifth
Authorities remained interested in George Zoumberos and subpoenaed his brother, photographer Michael Zoumberos.
Michael, who allegedly traveled at times with DEA agents, was offered immunity in exchange for cooperation with the investigation. However, he refused to testify, leading to his imprisonment in the Pinellas County Jail outside Tampa beginning in March 2022.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, but I’m not going to talk about my brother,” Michael Zoumberos told AP during a jailhouse interview last year. “I’m basically being held as a political prisoner of the FBI. They want to coerce me into cooperating.”
Zoumberos was held for “civil contempt,” as ruled by a Tampa-area federal judge.
Despite the DOJ offering him immunity, Zoumberos’ attorney advised that he plead the fifth because Zoumberos could inadvertently commit perjury while on the stand. The investigation concerned events that dated back about six years, so his attorney was concerned that Zoumberos could misremember or misspeak.
It is worth noting that the DOJ defines perjury as a declarant “willfully” making a false statement, that the declarant believed that what they were saying was untrue, and that the statement was related to a material fact. Misremembering a detail is not, in and of itself, perjury.
Civil Contempt as a Judicial Weapon
In any case, Michael Zoumberos kept his silence, and federal judges used their legal authority against him to pressure his cooperation. Federal judges can keep individuals in jail for up to 18 months on civil contempt charges to compel a person’s testimony.
“Zoumberos said the ordeal left him questioning the judicial system, even if the judge had the power to lock him up,” reports WFLA in a second article.
“They’re treating me like a criminal. I didn’t do anything wrong,” Zoumberos says. “I’m in a room without an attorney, without a judge. It’s scary.”
Federal investigators decided to release Michael Zoumberos in March, but Zoumberos only realized that he could leave when his jail-issued debit card did not work when he tried to make a phone call from inside prison. When Zoumberos asked a correctional officer why his card was not working, he was told it was because he was free. “Zoumberos’ nightmare ended as oddly as it started,” writes WFLA.
While happy to be released, he has found it hard to escape his experience. One fellow inmate was convinced Zoumberos was an undercover cop and threatened to “bash” his “skull in.” While held without bail, Zoumberos could not see his wife and business partner, Rebecca Zoumberos.
Michael Zoumberos is Free but Jail has Left a Mark
“I don’t know what’s reality and what’s not,” Zoumberos remarks. “I never could fathom that you could be put in jail for a year. In maximum security and a psych ward without having a criminal charge.”
Michael Zoumberos’ brother, George, was never charged and is no longer a DEA agent.
A quick look at the Zoumberos’ wedding photography website, Limelight Photography, shows that the couple and their staff have had a busy summer.
Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.