Pubdate: Mon, 28 Sep 2015
Source: USA Today (US)
Copyright: 2015 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Authors: Brad Heath and Meghan Hoyer


Misconduct Involved Drugs, Prostitute Parties

When internal affairs investigators do find wrongdoing, the most 
common outcome is either a letter of caution or a brief unpaid suspension.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has allowed its employees to 
stay on the job despite internal investigations that found they had 
distributed drugs, lied to the authorities or committed other serious 
misconduct, newly disclosed records show.

Lawmakers expressed dismay this year that the drug agency had not 
fired agents who investigators found attended "sex parties" with 
prostitutes paid with drug cartel money while they were on assignment 
in Colombia. The Justice Department opened an inquiry into whether 
the DEA is able to adequately detect and punish wrongdoing by its agents.

Records from the DEA's disciplinary files show that was hardly the 
only instance in which the DEA opted not to fire employees despite 
apparently serious misconduct.

Of the 50 employees the DEA's Board of Professional Conduct 
recommended be fired after misconduct investigations opened since 
2010, only 13 were actually terminated, the records show. And the 
drug agency was forced to take some of them back after a federal 
appeals board intervened.

In one case listed on an internal log, the review board recommended 
that an employee be fired for "distribution of drugs," but a human 
resources official in charge of meting out discipline imposed a 
14-day suspension instead. The log shows officials opted not to fire 
employees who falsified official records, had an "improper 
association with a criminal element" or misused government vehicles, 
sometimes after drinking.

"If we conducted an investigation, and an employee actually got 
terminated, I was surprised," said Carl Pike, a former DEA internal 
affairs investigator. "I was truly, truly surprised. Like, wow, the 
system actually got this guy."

The log, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, does not 
include details of misconduct or the agency's reasons for choosing 
one punishment over another. But it illustrates how uncommon it is 
for DEA employees to lose their jobs because of misconduct.

"There is a culture of protection internally that has to change. If 
there's a bad apple, they need to be fired, if not prosecuted, and 
that's just not happening," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the 
chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. 
"Federal law enforcement should be held to the highest standard."

At a minimum, Chaffetz said, the DEA and other agencies should be 
able to sideline troubled agents quickly by taking away their 
security clearances, a step the drug agency takes infrequently.

The DEA has long faced criticism for how it handles misconduct by its 
11,000 employees. This spring, the Justice Department said it had 
"serious concerns" about the discipline meted out to six agents who 
left a handcuffed college student in a holding cell for five days 
with no food or water. Two of the agents received brief suspensions; 
four others were given letters of reprimand. The student, Daniel 
Chong, won a $4.1 million settlement.

Years before that, the Justice Department's inspector general faulted 
the DEA for "penalties that appear to be too lenient."

Never has the criticism been more pointed than in March, when the 
inspector general revealed that DEA agents had attended "sex parties" 
while posted in Colombia. The agents received suspensions of two to 
10 days. Two weeks later, exasperated lawmakers pressed the DEA's 
administrator, Michele Leonhart, on why she hadn't fired them. 
Federal law doesn't allow it, she replied.

"If somebody murdered somebody, could you fire him?" asked Rep. Trey 
Gowdy, R-S.C.

"If someone murdered someone, there would be criminal charges, and 
that's how they would be fired," she said. Leonhart resigned a week 
later. Then-attorney general Eric Holder ordered the Justice 
Department's own internal ethics watchdog to conduct a "systematic 
review" of the DEA's disciplinary process in April. (That office also 
has faced criticism for being too soft on misconduct.) Spokesman 
Patrick Rodenbush said the review is ongoing.

The DEA's internal affairs log shows investigators review more than 
200 cases each year and often clear the agents involved. When they do 
find wrongdoing, the most common outcome is either a letter of 
caution or a brief unpaid suspension.

In fewer than 6% of those cases did DEA managers recommend firing. In 
some of those cases, the agency allowed employees to quit. More 
often, it settled on a lesser punishment.

DEA spokesman Joseph Moses said that often happens because it's not 
until after the Board of Professional Conduct makes its 
recommendations that employees get to fully present their side of the 
story. That can prompt human resources officials ultimately to opt 
for lighter punishment.

"DEA agents should be held to a high standard but not an 
unrealistically high standard," said Scott Ando, a former internal 
affairs investigator for the agency who heads Chicago's Independent 
Police Review Authority. "You can't expect every agent to get fired 
for every transgression, because they're people, and they sometimes 
make mistakes."

The process can be tedious. DEA records show the agency had not 
finished some of the misconduct cases it opened in 2011, including 
two serious enough that the agency's Board of Professional Conduct 
recommended the employee be fired.

Even when employees are fired, records show the punishment doesn't 
always stick because the agents were reinstated by the federal Merit 
Systems Protection Board, the independent body that reviews federal 
disciplinary matters.

In one case, the board blocked the DEA from firing an agent who left 
a voicemail for his girlfriend threatening "to give the couple's 
consensually made sex video" to her 8-year-old daughter as a birthday present.

"The general feeling throughout senior leadership at DEA was that 
it's a ridiculous system," said James Capra, the former head of 
operations for the drug agency. "We used to joke that this guy got 
fired, but he's just going to get his job back."

Those few who ultimately were fired engaged in what records portray 
as an array of serious misconduct. Three were ousted after the agency 
accused them of hiring prostitutes while working in Colombia in 2012, 
an episode unrelated to the agents who attended sex parties in the 
country. Two also were accused of lying to investigators. A decade 
earlier, state prosecutors took the unusual step of indicting one of 
those agents, Jude Tanella, on a manslaughter charge after he shot a 
drug suspect in the back as they struggled; a federal court said the 
shooting was justified.

Tanella's lawyer, Lawrence Berger, who represented another of the 
fired agents, said, "It's a shame that they've been treated in such a fashion."

Another agent, Jeffrey Prather, was fired after admitting he let 
civilians use "DEA-issued fully automatic weapons" as part of a 
security training business he had set up, according to merit board 
records. The board concluded that Prather, who it said established 
his own religion, had persuaded "vulnerable and struggling women" to 
have sex with him "by telling them they would be 'healed' " if they did.

Prather said the case against him "was a witch hunt." Another agent 
was fired after admitting he crashed his government vehicle after a 
night of drinking and gambling in the Bahamas, then lied to his 
supervisors about it. In his defense, the agent told the merit board 
he was still "under the effects of the alcohol" when he lied to his 
supervisors in Miami 30 hours later.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom