An exhaustive, self-critical investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has uncovered no evidence of CIA involvement in Southern California drug trafficking, but has turned up controversial new details about the conduct of local narcotics officers--including admissions that one group of sheriff's deputies stole roughly $50,000 during a 1986 raid.
The 3,500-page investigation represents the first comprehensive law enforcement review of allegations that the CIA and Nicaraguan Contra rebels fueled Los Angeles' booming cocaine trade in the 1980s--the premise of a controversial series in the San Jose Mercury News in August.
Specifically, the Sheriff's Department investigation centered on more than a dozen 1986 drug raids during which one suspect allegedly boasted of ties to the CIA. The search warrant itself cited confidential informants as saying drug profits were being funneled to the Contras.
In virtually every respect, however, the Sheriff's Department concluded there was no evidence to support those contentions.
During a press conference to unveil an 84-page summary of the far-ranging probe, Sheriff Sherman Block stressed that investigators found no indication that any government agency, including the CIA, was involved in the Los Angeles activities of Nicaraguan cocaine trafficker Danilo Blandon or one of his primary customers, South-Central crack dealer "Freeway" Ricky Ross.
"The inquiry has not uncovered any evidence that Ricky Ross was used as a pawn to distribute cocaine to specific neighborhoods," Block said, adding that the probe also showed that his department was not "in any way involved in a cover-up of any inappropriate activity by any other government agency."
In its investigation, the Sheriff's Department also demonstrated a willingness to criticize fellow law enforcement officers: Investigators concluded that one deputy falsified search warrant information and that deputies stole between $40,000 and $63,000 during the subsequent 1986 raids.
The investigation also found that a detective from the city of Bell allowed informants to peddle drugs under his supervision in the late 1980s. That detective accused a former prosecutor, who is now a judge, of approving the operation.
The report was prepared by a special Sheriff's Department team of seven full-time investigators who reviewed hundreds of documents and interviewed 58 people during a two-month period. In addition to the 84-page summary, The Times reviewed the entire 3,500-page investigative file.
"As far as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is concerned," Block said, "this case is closed."
That view is not universally held.
Despite its breadth and emphatic conclusions, the sheriff's report is unlikely to persuade those who passionately subscribe to the notion advanced by the Mercury News: that Contra supporter Blandon, with the help of Ross, ignited the nation's crack epidemic to fund Nicaraguan guerrillas backed by the CIA.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who has emerged as the most vocal advocate of this view, attended Block's news conference and later called his report flawed and incomplete.
"Let me say that without a doubt, I do believe that there is a connection between Danilo Blandon, his drug operation and the CIA, the DEA and others," said Waters, who recently was chosen to head the Congressional Black Caucus.
"The fact of the matter is that this report raises more questions about the [drug trafficking] operation," she said. Waters vowed to raise those issues during congressional hearings.
Danny Bakewell, president of the Brotherhood Crusade, accompanied Waters at the news conference. He said he appreciated the sheriff's efforts but predicted that the findings will only serve to generate more skepticism.
"We don't want there to be a cover-up," he said. "We want truth to prevail."
Although a congressional committee concluded in the mid-1980s that some Contra backers had, in fact, been smuggling drugs into the United States with the apparent knowledge of CIA agents, the Sheriff's Department report said it found no evidence of such activity in Los Angeles.
A series in The Times in October similarly concluded that neither the Contras nor the CIA introduced crack cocaine to South-Central.
Sheriff's investigators repeatedly discovered that evidence purporting to link the CIA to the local drug trade turned out to be false.
A missing document seized during the 1986 raids, for instance, has long been alleged to contain evidence of CIA involvement in drug trafficking. In fact, that document, which finally surfaced in the sheriff's investigation, turns out to be 10 handwritten pages containing no solid evidence whatsoever.
The author of the notes, Ronald J. Lister, told investigators he never had any ties to the CIA--a statement that CIA officials have attested to in court documents and public statements--and a diagram attached to the notes appears to sketch out a route for trafficking in arms and other equipment, not for drug dealing.