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Mishandling of Informant Hurt Cases, DEA Concedes

Crime: Because the system missed warnings of operative's misdeeds, many charges have been dismissed or weakened.

June 05, 2001|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dozens of drug enforcement cases nationwide have been dismissed, plea-bargained or threatened with reversal because of the U.S. Justice Department's abysmal handling of its undercover informant program, according to an internal report, court documents and interviews.

Officials in the Drug Enforcement Administration and federal prosecutors failed the public when they ignored repeated warnings about a rogue, unreliable undercover informant for more than 12 years, DEA investigators concluded in a report released under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

And because the DEA had no system for tracking its informants, other agents and prosecutors kept using its most prolific operative, unaware of his pattern of lying under oath and criminal misconduct, according to the 157-page report, which was based on a yearlong investigation.

In its report, the DEA acknowledged that drug agents and prosecutors failed to disclose problems involving key informant Andrew Chambers in many of the 280 cases he worked on, jeopardizing convictions dating back to 1984. The agency paid Chambers, whose behavior prompted the DEA's internal investigation, about $2 million in taxpayer money.

As a result of Chambers' actions, federal prosecutors in Florida, South Carolina, Missouri and Colorado have dismissed outright the criminal charges against at least 26 alleged drug dealers.

In Miami, prosecutors dismissed at least four cases against suspected cocaine and heroin traffickers because they felt "sandbagged" by the DEA, the report said.

In Los Angeles, a plea bargain allowed a five-time felon facing another prosecution to walk out of jail three months ago even though prosecutors wanted him in prison for life.

Angry Prosecutors Refuse to File Charges

The DEA, like the FBI in its handling of the Oklahoma City bombing case against Timothy J. McVeigh, failed to turn over internal records to the defense in criminal prosecutions, as required under federal law. Whereas the FBI did not provide thousands of pages of documents to defense lawyers, the DEA did not reveal the key informant's misconduct.

"With the DEA, it is a case of government run amok with nobody watching," said Terry Rearick, chief investigator for the Los Angeles federal public defender. "And when they got caught, they just cut deals and plea bargains with people to make them go away."

Some federal prosecutors, angry at not being told of the misconduct, refused to file charges against some suspects arrested by the DEA. They plea-bargained others instead of taking them before a jury.

And now defense lawyers may appeal scores of cases.

DEA Administrator Donnie R. Marshall declined to comment about the report or the agency's relationship with Chambers.

Michael Chapman, the agency's chief spokesman, said, "Problems have been identified, and we have taken corrective action."

The agency has begun setting up a central system to monitor informants, according to the Justice Department, which oversees the DEA and federal prosecutors.

The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles received Justice Department approval May 25 to install its own system to track informants, not just for the DEA, but for all federal law enforcement agencies, said interim U.S. Atty. John Gordon.

"We wanted to address a problem that occurred here to prevent it from reoccurring," he said. "If ours works well, it may be the template" for other prosecutors nationwide.

The drug agency launched its internal probe last year after news agencies, including The Times, published detailed reports about its relationship with Chambers.

The agency recently released an edited version of the previously confidential report to defense lawyers and the media in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

The report said investigators interviewed more than 100 agents, prosecutors, lawyers and judges to determine "how Chambers was able to testify falsely in judicial proceedings without the knowledge" of federal authorities.

Although the report was spurred by Chambers' actions, it found "systemic" problems with the DEA's paid informant program.

The probe revealed an agency with "no effective system in place" to manage its thousands of paid informants, even though their undercover work and testimony is crucial in putting drug dealers behind bars.

Report Cites Neglect, Ineptitude

Few informants are without legal problems of their own, and often agree to work for the government in exchange for leniency. Federal law requires the government to turn over negative information about informants--including criminal histories and records of false testimony--so defendants can challenge their accusers' credibility in court.

In its report, the agency cited management deficiencies, as well as neglect, ineptitude and even cover-ups among agents and federal prosecutors, in some cases out of reluctance to "blackball" successful informants like Chambers.

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