An investigation of corruption in the U.S. Customs Service has resulted in the indictment of a veteran Customs investigator on charges that he conspired to smuggle more than 15,000 pounds of marijuana into the San Diego area.
Richard P. Sullivan, 34, pleaded not guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court to a 20-count felony indictment charging that he schemed with a Customs station chief in Key Largo, Fla., to provide drug traffickers with confidential law enforcement information.
A federal jury in New Orleans acquitted the Florida official, Charles F. Jordan, in February on drug charges involving another smuggling incident last summer. Two high-ranking Customs supervisors from Louisiana were convicted in the case, but a mistrial was declared and the men face a new trial in June.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Phillip L. B. Halpern said prosecutors are seeking an indictment of Jordan in the San Diego case. Jordan is named as a co-conspirator in Sullivan's indictment, which was issued secretly Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Customs internal investigators in South Florida--where Sullivan and Jordan worked together on a presidential anti-drug task force--are probing evidence that more Customs agents have engaged in the smuggling of marijuana and other illicit drugs, said Gary Peterson, special agent in charge of the agency's internal affairs office in Miami.
"We have indications that we have a couple of different loose-knit, loosely affiliated groups, with maybe a common member in one group and the other," Peterson said in a telephone interview Thursday. "To say it's a well-organized internal conspiracy would be going too far."
Officials said the cases in New Orleans and San Diego represented the most serious instances of alleged corruption in recent Customs Service history. But the problem with possibly "dirty" officers in an agency that plays a front-line role in the nation's defense against drug trafficking does not appear to be widespread, they said.
"This investigation is managing to root out all of the people involved," Halpern said.
The indictment in San Diego alleges that Sullivan plotted last summer with Jordan, former Customs Service pilot Samuel Edwards, and drug trafficker Randy Fink to fly 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of marijuana into San Diego on a DC-6 airplane. The plan was never carried out, Halpern said.
Sullivan is accused of abusing his post as a Customs special agent by passing along to his co-conspirators several aeronautical charts indicating safe smuggling routes into the United States.
He also is charged with laundering $160,000 in cash Jordan sent him by investing it in a residential lot in Bonita, an unincorporated area southeast of San Diego. In mid-February, federal prosecutors seized the lot, valued at $168,500, and a nearly completed $250,000 house Sullivan was building nearby, according to court records.
The indictment says Sullivan lied about his assets to two San Diego area banks where he sought construction loans, and failed to reveal assets on Customs financial disclosure forms. He also is charged with lying in January to a Customs agent investigating the case--telling him, among other statements, that the only thing Jordan had ever sent him was smoked fish.
Halpern on Thursday submitted to U.S. Magistrate Harry R. McCue a transcript of a secretly taped 1981 conversation between Sullivan and an undisclosed person in which Sullivan said he was "looking for something exciting, illegal and prosperous" to get involved in.
Customs agents arrested Sullivan, a tall man with dark blond hair and a bushy moustache, Wednesday at his in-laws' home in Los Molinos, Calif., near Red Bluff. McCue ordered him held until he could post a $100,000 bond and surrender his Customs Service badge and credentials, which Sullivan insists are missing.
Sullivan has served as a Customs agent since 1978, following five years as a Border Patrol officer. He was promoted to special agent in 1982. He has been posted in San Diego for about two years, and was assigned to smuggling investigations unrelated to narcotics, according to Kenneth Ingleby, special agent in charge of the Customs Service's enforcement office in San Diego.
There is no evidence to indicate Sullivan's investigative work was compromised by his alleged drug activities, Halpern said. He was suspended without pay effective Thursday.
Edwards and Fink, two of Sullivan's alleged co-conspirators, pleaded guilty to drug charges in the New Orleans smuggling case and are awaiting sentencing. They were the key witnesses against Jordan and the other Customs defendants, Frank Kinney, director of patrol for the southeast United States, and Keith Deerman, director of marine patrol. Jordan, Kinney and Deerman are currently on suspension without pay.
Jordan's attorney, Robert Glass of New Orleans, said the jury in the New Orleans case found Fink and Edwards' testimony unbelievable.
"It's outrageous the government would rely on two discredited defendants who are trying to lessen their own sentences," Glass said.