By Brad Heath and Meghan Hoyer, USA Today
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 also 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 following 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 also 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 just 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 imposing “penalties that appear to be too lenient.”
But 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 between two and 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. She could not be reached for comment.
Then-Attorney General Eric Holder ordered the Justice Department’s own internal ethics watchdog to conduct a “systematic review” of 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 a either a letter of caution — the lightest form of discipline the agency can impose — 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 now 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 also 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. It ruled another agent could not be fired after he accidentally fired his gun during a foot chase, then threw away the spent shell casing and told an investigator that the shooting never happened.
“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, for manslaughter after he shot a drug suspect in the back as they struggled following a high-speed chase. A federal court threw out the charges because it said a federal agent couldn’t be prosecuted in state court for a justified on-duty shooting.
Tanella’s lawyer, Lawrence Berger, who also 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 also 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.”
Still another agent was fired after admitting that he crashed his government vehicle after a night of drinking and gambling in the Bahamas then repeatedly 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.