LOCAL NEWS

Utahn working with DEA sought to tip off suspect about wiretap, but not for obvious reasons

Jul 7, 2022, 12:56 PM

SALT LAKE CITY – A longtime interpreter who used to work on federal narcotics cases in Utah admitted he tried to warn a suspect last year about a wiretap, but not to protect any criminal network or for a kickback.

No one disputes it was a bad idea. But all parties agree that Jose Araujo simply wanted to lighten his crushing workload that involved weeding through an onslaught of text messages and calls.

Araujo, 36, was trying to “buy some relief,” U.S. District Judge David Barlow said in federal court in Salt Lake City Wednesday.

“I don’t believe you’d ever do it again,” Barlow told Araujo just before sentencing him to three years of probation, instead of time behind bars.

Araujo pleaded guilty in April to disclosing a wiretap, a felony, as part of a plea deal. In exchange, a charge of obstructing justice was dismissed.

The leak could’ve placed an officer and informant in danger, federal prosecutors wrote in court filings, but that didn’t happen, and the drug investigation still led to charges. They called Araujo “a well-respected and longtime contract employee” with no prior criminal or disciplinary history.

Last August, while a supervisor and translator at the company Metlang, which was providing interpreter services to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Araujo began monitoring the busiest phone line of his career, with 300-500 messages piling up overnight, in addition to constant live communication, his defense attorney Kathryn Nester wrote in court filings.

Her client had a role in big U.S. and international investigations, she said, and helped compile intelligence used to brief at least one U.S. president. He’s also worked with the FBI, IRS, National Security Agency and the Department of Defense, she said.

While on the new assignment, he got to work early, stayed late, refused breaks and still couldn’t get his work done, his attorney wrote. What’s more, he and his wife, who worked for the same company, were up at night caring for a new baby, Nester said.

Araujo shared his concerns with managing DEA agents and a supervisor, but he was told he wouldn’t get extra help because most of the calls were in English, according to Nester.

Utahn working with DEA tried to tip off suspect that phone was bugged, prosecutors say

So, he took matters into his own hands two days later, deciding “for once in his life, to take the easy way out,” the defense attorney wrote.

DEA spokesman Steve Kotecki declined to talk about the case, but he said it’s up to the company contracting with a federal agency to resolve issues with employees.

“In general, if a contracted employee feels that way, and their response is to break the law, I don’t think they have handled it in the correct manner,” Kotecki said. MetLang could not immediately be reached for comment.

Araujo downloaded a “burner app” and anonymously texted the suspect’s girlfriend, reasoning that his warning to her would quiet activity on the line, the court filings say.

But that didn’t happen, and the man whose calls Araujo was monitoring was arrested in another case a short time later.

The DEA got word of the leak, and as it was investigating, Araujo’s guilt and anxiety spurred him to confess to a supervisor.

“At that moment, his life fell apart,” Nester wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

He and his wife lost their jobs. The couple has since begun working at separate Home Depot stores, his wife wrote in a letter to the judge, saying he’s a good father to their three children and is revered by his new coworkers.

When they brought charges, they were concerned about him because of how emotional and remorseful he was, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Muyskens said.

He “made a terrible mistake on one day, after 10 years of work,” she said in court.

The judge praised Araujo’s career in public service and even suggested a lesser penalty was fitting. But Barlow stuck to the three-year sentence that lawyers on both sides had recommended after the attorneys said it would allow Araujo to continue therapy sessions for longer.

On Wednesday, Araujo described his love for his old job in a voice thick with emotion, saying he let down the agents and officers he used to work with and made life extremely difficult for his family.

“I made a mistake and I regret it every day of my life,” he said, wearing a dark blue suit and removing a surgical face mask to address the judge. He declined an interview after the hearing.

The government looked hard to uncover any evidence of other misconduct by Araujo, Muyskens said, but found none. She gave no details on the review and declined multiple interview requests.

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Utahn working with DEA sought to tip off suspect about wiretap, but not for obvious reasons