American Gangster, American Downfall

The day after Thanksgiving, a New York lawyer named Dominic Amorosa wrote a letter to NBC Universal-the film studio behind American Gangster -threatening a class action lawsuit on behalf of a group of Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents. The way in which DEA agents were portrayed in the film, the lawyer said, was "destroying the reputations of honest and courageous public servants."

It's a bizarre premise for a lawsuit; what Hollywood film involving federal agents doesn't portray at least one of those federal agents as corrupt?

But Amorosa's threatened lawsuit took on an even flimsier footing when the New York Post reported last week that the would-be plaintiff was a "retired federal agent" named Gregory Korniloff.

American Gangster is a racially charged, fictional film based on true facts. The film stars Denzel Washington as heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, and Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the good-guy cop who takes Lucas down. Former DEA agent Alex Rodriguez, who also covered heroin cases in the 70's, told this reporter the "movie was right on point." According to Amorosa, his client Gregory Korniloff was, in fact, in real life "the case agent for DEA on Lucas' federal case" and also "personally participated in the search of Lucas' house in January 1975."

That search is portrayed rather dramatically in the movie. Now, it's the centerpiece of Korniloff's defamation and libel claims. In the fictional version of that search, law enforcement officers slap around Lucas' wife, tamper with evidence, steal money, and shoot Lucas' dog. What happened in real life, in Frank Lucas' house back in 1975, only those who were there really know.

Dominic Amorosa's current charge is that the Korniloff character is portrayed in "the most awful and corrupt manner" in the fictional film. He says that his client's "honest and courageous" reputation has been intentionally made bad by the movie studio. Amorosa says the public deserves the truth and, on behalf of public servant Korniloff, demands that Universal studio re-cut the end of the film-or else.

The problem is-according to sworn affidavits as well as interviews with current and former federal agents-the real-life Gregory Korniloff does not have nearly the reputation his lawyer purports. Never mind circa 1970, as recently as this millennium Gregory Korniloff has been accused of threatening people with violence, tampering with evidence, and destroying government property to a degree that makes real life seem far stranger than fiction. Had Korniloff neglected to step into the limelight last week, perhaps none of this would have come to bear. But Korniloff put the cameras on himself. On the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving, Korniloff gave an exclusive, live telephone interview to FOX News (from inside his Department of Homeland Security office which, incidentally, is against federal policy). This self-promoting act triggered a landslide of news reports. Suddenly, the relatively unknown Gregory Korniloff was a household name as far away India, Vietnam and Russia.

For starters, Gregory Korniloff continues to work as a federal agent. He's currently the number two Special Agent at the Las Vegas field office of the U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service. Air Marshal Spokesman Gregory Alter confirmed this fact with this reporter but assured that "The whole circumstance is about [Korniloff] as a private citizen. There is no nexus to his current employment."

But what about the matter of the six, discrimination complaints that have been filed against the Federal Air Marshal Service with Korniloff as principal malefactor? One case, headed for federal court, involves former air marshal Marcus Bowen as plaintiff. Bowen is represented by Robert Seldon, a prominent Washington D.C. civil rights lawyer and former Assistant U.S. Attorney.

"In the Bowen case," Robert Seldon explained, federal agents "witnessed Korniloff destroying documents that were being sought in an investigation and litigation." Seldon represented two additional cases against Korniloff, both of which the U.S. Government settled out of court. "All three complaints against Korniloff were based on race discrimination, and so was a [fourth] case I referred to a colleague," Robert Seldon told this reporter.

Tampering with evidence is also a factor in a fifth case against Korniloff. According to a sworn affidavit shown to Pajamas Media, a witness in the Air Marshal Service's Las Vegas field office says he saw Korniloff's managerial staff "shredding documents like crazy" just prior to the arrival of oversight investigators. In that same affidavit, the federal agent describes having witnessed Korniloff falsifying government documents and threatening him and other agents with violence. In what sounds like it belongs in a Hollywood movie, this agent says under oath, "I heard ASAC Korniloff make the statement that someone ought to bitch-slap [undercover agent's name withheld]."

Three air marshals were interviewed for this article; all worked under Korniloff at the Las Vegas field office. Current air marshal P. Jeffrey Black said, "I've filed numerous whistleblower complaints against Korniloff for abuse of authority. The Department of Homeland Security refuses to take any correction action whatsoever to curb his inappropriate behavior." Two other air marshals spoke with Pajamas Media but requested anonymity citing fear of retaliation. "Korniloff has a reputation as being above the law," one current Air Marshal told this reporter. Another, now retired, said "Korniloff's a loose canon. I heard him threaten to punch another supervisor. How can a guy with so many corruption charges against him stay in a position of authority?" It's a question for Congress, indeed.

Corruption is a serious charge. It means, "dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power." That Korniloff is charging the studio behind American Gangster with libel because they make him look corrupt seems like a man in a glass house throwing stones. This reporter wondered what Korniloff's lawyer had to say about all that.

"I'm a very busy man," Amorosa said from his New York law office. "Everything you need to know is in the [cease and desist] letter." ( TMZ.com posts a copy on their website.) Then Amorosa agreed to answer one question. "What do you think about the multiple discrimination complaints against your client in his current capacity as a Federal Air Marshal Supervisor?" he was asked. "I have no idea what you're talking about," Amorosa shouted. Then he slammed down the phone.

In a separate telephone interview, the Federal Air Marshal Service acknowledged the discrimination complaints against Korniloff exist. Agency Spokesman Gregory Alter wrote in an email, " agency policy prohibits commenting on [these] allegations." Gregory Korniloff was contacted by this reporter for his side of the story; he declined to be interviewed.

The allegations leveled against Korniloff-all of which seriously challenge this idea that he's an honest and courageous public servant-neither begin nor end with his federal co-workers. In 2006, Korniloff was at the center of a national security scandal, one in which an official email surfaced where Korniloff suggested air marshals to fabricate intelligence reports.

Denver's KMGH-TV Channel-7 and ABC-13 in Las Vegas aired exposés on the subject, which was also written up in the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

The Review-Journal has obtained a memo written [in 2004] by Gregory Korniloff, an assistant special agent in charge at the Las Vegas office.

In the memo, distributed to supervisors in the office, Korniloff wrote, "As discussed during today's staff conference, please remind your squad members that each FAM is now expected to generate at least one SDR [Surveillance Detection Report] per month.

Back when the scandal broke, Headquarters called Korniloff's email "erroneous" and asked that it be rescinded. Koniloff's direct boss in Las Vegas discounted the severity of the charges saying whether or not air marshals were being asked to create bogus intelligence reports was an "interpretation issue." Rank-and-file air marshals stood by their allegations. Korniloff's email, a copy of which was obtained by Pajamas Media, is hard to misinterpret.

It seems Korniloff's truth-telling problems go back further than his tenure at the Federal Air Marshal Service. According to a November 1993 article in the Far Eastern Economic Review, disciplinary action was taken against Gregory Korniloff (he was still a DEA agent) over mysterious circumstances surrounding why exactly he was ordered by the U.S. Department of State to leave his DEA post in Rangoon, Burma:

"Gregory Korniloff...reportedly ignored the orders of then US Ambassador to Burma Burton Levin to cease regular meetings with his Burmese military counterparts. He was ordered to leave Rangoon in 1988."

And truth-telling problems arose again for Korniloff ten years later in 1998 when, as reported in U.S. News and World Report, the DEA agent was bounced from an assignment in Beijing-for not being truthful about the earlier untruthfulness in Rangoon. That was after the agency spent a year giving Korniloff Chinese lessons at taxpayer expense.

Last month, Korniloff finally arrived in Beijing, only to be sent packing by top diplomats at his own embassy. State had belatedly learned that Korniloff had been asked to leave the U.S. Embassy in Burma years earlier, after disagreements with the ambassador.

With all the attention Gregory Korniloff has been drawing to that wife-slapping, dog-shooting, evidence-tampering scene that plays so well in American Gangster-but that Korniloff alleges defames his good and honest character-one might argue that the career federal agent missed another, equally important scene.

Criminal mastermind Frank Lucas owes his underworld success in part to his ability to remain out of the public eye. Lucas tells his underlings that drawing attention to oneself should be avoided at all cost. But then one day, Lucas' beauty queen wife buys him a garish, floor-length fur coat. Lucas can't help himself, he falls victim to hubris. In an act of self-pride, he dons the fur coat and steps into the public domain. The press takes notice. Camera bulbs flash. Good-guy cop Richie Roberts figures it all out. It's the beginning of Frank Lucas' downfall.

Annie Jacobsen writes about aviation security and homeland security for a variety of newspapers, magazines and blogs. She is the author of the book, Terror in The Skies, Why 9/11 Could Happen Again.