By Paul M. Ingram
TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - A former U.S. federal immigration agent was sentenced to 30 months in prison on Friday for accessing police databases and passing on sensitive information to family members with ties to Mexican drug cartels.
Jovana Deas was accused of illegally obtaining and disseminating classified government documents while working as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) special agent in Nogales, Ariz., a city on the border with Mexico. She also was charged with obstruction and lying to investigators.
In February, she pled guilty to seven felonies and 14 misdemeanors in the case.
"I ask my family to forgive me. I'm sorry for what I did. It was a horrible mistake. I feel like I betrayed my country and my agency," a sobbing Deas told a federal court in Tucson before U.S. District Judge Cindy K. Jorgenson handed down her sentence.
"I'm asking for your mercy your honor, so I can go back to my family."
Prosecutors said Deas, who resigned from ICE last year, passed information pulled from restricted crime and immigration databases to her former brother-in-law, Miguel Angel Mendoza Estrada, a Mexican cartel associate with ties to drug traffickers in Brazil.
Some of the information - concerning the prior criminal history and immigration status of a convicted Mexican national - was later discovered on Mendoza Estrada's laptop by Brazilian police, according to court documents.
U.S. Attorney James Lacey unsuccessfully pushed for a 10-year prison term, arguing that Deas' crimes made her a "mini-Aldrich Ames" - a reference to the CIA agent who was convicted for spying for the Soviet Union and Russia in 1994.
Deas' career with the federal government began in 2003 when she became a U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspector assigned to the Nogales port of entry. In 2008, she became an ICE special agent in the city.
Also named in the indictment was Deas' sister, Dana Maria Samaniego, a former Mexican law enforcement official with alleged ties to drug trafficking organizations who remains a fugitive.
Corruption cases involving federal officers and agents have increased in recent years as the U.S. government has ramped up recruitment in a drive to secure the southwest border with Mexico.
Between October 2004 and May of this year, 138 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and Border Patrol agents were arrested or indicted for corruption, including drug and illegal immigrant smuggling, money laundering and conspiracy, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Investigations by ICE's Office of Professional Responsibility last year resulted in the arrest of 16 ICE and U.S. Customs and Border protection employees. It was not clear how many of those cases have resulted in a conviction.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Paul Simao)