TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) Michael Zoumberos thought his jail stint would last a few weeks after he was slapped with civil contempt for not answering questions before a federal grand jury that was investigating DEA corruption.
The Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (DOJ OIG) case was focused in part on his brother George, one of the former partners of imprisoned Drug Enforcement Administration agent Jose Irizarry. Irizarry, who was based in Miami, pleaded guilty in 2020 to several charges, including money laundering.
“They wanted me to testify against my own brother,” Zoumberos said about his decision to invoke his 5th amendment right. “I did not know anything,”
His optimistic “few weeks” prediction ballooned to about a year in the Pinellas County Jail that holds federal prisoners for the U.S. Marshals Service.
He said one inmate thought he was an undercover officer.
“And he said you’re a cop,” Zoumberos recalled. “I’m going to bash your skull in.”
Zoumberos was given immunity by the DOJ, but his attorney had advised him to plead the fifth to avoid perjury charges if he inadvertently misspoke during questions about an investigation that dated back about six years.
Federal judges have the power to use civil contempt and up to 18 months in jail to compel testimony.
“Civil contempt is not a criminal charge. I’m just not complying with the immunity,” Zoumberos said. “But my question is immunity for what? What are you granting me absolute immunity for? I didn’t do anything.”
He said he never found out what investigators suspected.
“They couldn’t ask me the questions because I would interrupt and say, I’m pleading the fifth,” Zoumberos said. “I don’t know what my brother does. If you want to know what he does why don’t you ask the people who work with him?”
Zoumberos said the the ordeal left him questioning the judicial system, even if the judge had the power to lock him up.
“They’re treating me like a criminal. I didn’t do anything wrong,” Zoumberos said. “I’m in a room without an attorney, without a judge. It’s scary.”
Records indicate his brother has not been indicted or charged with a crime. He is no longer a DEA agent.
A spokesperson with the Tampa office of the FBI said, “We will respectfully decline comment.” The DOJ OIG has yet to respond to a request for comment.
Zoumberos’ nightmare ended as oddly as it started. In March he discovered his jail issued debt card did not work when he tried to make a phone call. Then, it didn’t work at the jail kiosk.
He went asked a correctional officer to find out why.
“He said, ‘you’re out. You’re free. This doesn’t happen,’ ” Zoumberos said. “Just like that. No one told me. I would’ve never known.”
Zoumberos said he wonders if he will ever escape the mental scars.
“It just blows my mind that they’re doing this to regular American citizens,” he said. “I pay my taxes. I own a business. I’m third generation from Tampa. And it, it just hurts. It hurts.”
In some ways the punishment is not over.
Zoumberos said the time behind bars gave him Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and he is now flagged for extra security screenings at airports, despite having never been convicted of a crime.
“I have no idea when that will end,” he said.