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U.S. Agents Make Increasing Use of Informants : But 'Handlers' Face Complex Legal Hazards When Condoning Criminal Acts

June 15, 1986|RONALD J. OSTROW and ROBERT L. JACKSON | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Larry A. Long, an FBI agent in Lexington, Ky., was running a sting operation aimed at catching dealers of stolen truck parts when the roof caved in.

His informant, Delano (Red) Colvin, charged that Long, a 17-year FBI veteran, had helped him steal a truck and $48,000 worth of truck parts. Now Long is facing complicity-in-burglary charges instead of an FBI commendation for imaginative investigative work.

Long's case, scheduled for trial in August, vividly points up the hazards of relying on informants to combat crime--hazards that have surfaced dramatically in the government's case against Teamsters Union President Jackie Presser. Robert S. Friedrick, a veteran FBI agent assigned to handle Presser's work as an informant on organized crime, now is accused of making false statements to protect Presser from charges that he padded the payroll of his hometown local with ghost employees.

Top Investigative Tool

Despite such risks, government agents--not only FBI but Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service, Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service and others--are relying increasingly on informants. FBI Director William H. Webster rates them as the bureau's single most important investigative tool. Informants "help us reach beyond the street criminal to the upper echelons of criminal enterprises," Webster said recently. "And they help us obtain information that traditional investigative techniques--the interview, the physical surveillance and the crime scene inspection--simply will not produce."

Law enforcement authorities have been using informants at least since Judas Iscariot provided information to chief priests and elders on Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Nearly 2,000 years later, Joseph Valachi's informing, carried out in dramatic televised Senate hearings in 1963, lifted the curtain on the Mafia's far-flung operations--and won Valachi cushier accommodations than he otherwise would have enjoyed behind federal bars.

Over the last five years, the number of FBI informants has mushroomed. In 1980, the last year the FBI disclosed the total, it stood at 2,800, including 1,000 in organized crime. Today, knowledgeable sources estimate, that number has gone well beyond 6,000.

Played Critical Roles

In fiscal 1985, FBI informants provided information that led to 1,700 arrests--one-fifth of total FBI arrests made that year. That same year, FBI informants played critical roles in persuading judges to issue warrants for more than 280 wiretaps--most of the 333 new and extended wiretaps obtained by all federal investigators.

But if informants play an increasingly central role in solving complex crimes, they also have a way of seducing their law-enforcement "handlers" into engaging in criminal acts themselves or harming innocent third parties.

"You absolutely need them," a senior IRS official said of informants. "But almost all of them are headaches for you."

Historically, the relationship between law enforcement agents and informants who commit crimes has been an ill-defined one. Agents have found it tempting--sometimes irresistibly so--to let the end justify the means.

Put Controls on Informants

In the wake of disclosures of widespread civil liberties abuses by the FBI during the 1960s and 1970s, Atty. Gen. Edward H. Levi for the first time imposed Justice Department controls over FBI informants in January, 1977, in the final days of the Gerald R. Ford Administration. Nearly four years later, in December, 1980, Atty. Gen. Benjamin R. Civiletti issued more detailed and rigorous rules at the end of the Jimmy Carter Administration.

"The rules don't prevent violations, but they do provide for sanctions if agents screw up--and that's a significant change," said one official who has worked with the guidelines.

In today's most celebrated case, the central question is whether Presser, as a top Teamsters Union official, had FBI authority to do what would otherwise be criminal--to allegedly pay more than $700,000 in Teamster funds to associates who did no work.

After a three-year investigation, a federal strike force in Cleveland recommended that Presser be prosecuted, but Justice Department officials last July overruled them. An inquiry by the Senate Government Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations said the officials based their decision on statements by Friedrick and two of Presser's earlier FBI "handlers" that they had sanctioned the ghost worker payments.

Indictments Handed Down

Last month, however, a federal grand jury in Cleveland indicted Presser and two Teamster associates for siphoning off more than $700,000 of union funds in the ghost-worker scheme. Friedrick was indicted separately for lying last year to internal investigators about his role in Presser's purported authorization by the FBI to engage in the scheme.

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