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FBI Agent Indicted in Suburban D.C. in Drunk Driving Death

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

Here’s a story that has no good ending.

An FBI agent as been has been indicted by a D.C. suburban county grand jury in connection with a fatal drunk driving crash that killed an 18-year-old on Feb. 7 in Brandywine, Md.,  the Washington Examiner reported.

Washington Examiner reporter Emily Babay reported that a Prince George’s County grand jury returned a nine-count indictment against agent Adrian Johnson, 37, who was dismissed after the incident.

The paper reported that the charges include motor vehicle manslaughter, homicide by motor vehicle, driving under the influence and reckless driving.

Authorities allege that Johnson was drunk and speeding in his personal vehicle, a 2002 Mitsubishi Montero,  when he drove into oncoming traffic and  crashed into 18-year-old Lawrence Garner Jr.’s Hyundai Sonata, according to the Examiner. A passenger in Garner’s car was critically injured, but survived.

Johnson had been with the agency for six years and was preparing for an assignment of protecting the FBI director or U.S. attorney general, the paper reported.

Did Washington Not Understand ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious?

atf file photo

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

After talking to some folks and watching the latest Congressional hearings on ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious, I’m beginning to think the Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley aren’t going to find what they’re looking for — that is:

Who at the Justice Department gave the Ok for the operation — at least knowingly? The two politicians have been hammering away at that, trying to find out the answer during Congressional inquiries.

The reason I say that is because the sense I’m getting — and granted I could be wrong — is that William Newell, head of the ATF Phoenix division during the operation, was briefing folks on Operation Fast and Furious directly or indirectly at the Justice Department and the White House.

Problem was, those folks didn’t really understand the full scope of the operation. And consequently, Newell figured he had the full blessing of Washington, when in fact, Washington didn’t understand fully what it was blessing.

For those of you who haven’t been following it closely, the operation encouraged gun dealers in Arizona to sell to straw purchasers or middlemen, all with the hopes of tracing the guns to the Mexican cartels. ATF lost track of some guns, and some surfaced at crimes scenes on both side of the border.

So in the end, the real question, perhaps to be answered, isn’t who blessed the operation in Washington, but rather why folks in Washington didn’t understand what Operation Fast and Furious was all about.

I’m just sayin.

Note to Joe Biden — Give Secret Service Back the $13,000

govt photo

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

What better way to show gratitude to the folks who protect your life than to charge them so they can protect your life?

Makes sense?  No!

I don’t want to make a big deal out of this. After all,  when you take into account the real costs of providing executive protection, this is small potatoes.

Nonetheless, I have a message to Vice President Joe Biden: Give the Secret Service back  the $13,000 it paid you. The Regular Joe, the Average Joe, the guy who rides the train and talks about Scranton, Pa., the Joe we thought we knew, would never take that money. He would get it.

In case you missed it, The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Secret Service, which protects Biden, is paying Biden $2,200 a month to rent a cottage next to his suburban Wilimington, Del., home.

Records show Biden has collected more than $13,000 since April on the cottage, and is eligible to collect up to $66,000 before the contract expires in 2013.

It’s not a lot of money. But heck, Joe, the deficit sucks and it sure would be nice if you’d make a symbolic gesture and give back the money.

Show us there’s still a little decency and common sense left in Washington.

Ouch! Make ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious Mess Go Away

William Newell

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

OUCH! Make it stop.

It’s becoming all too painful to see the Congressional probe into ATF’s highly-flawed operation dubbed Fast and Furious.

Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley have been leading the charge into the investigation of the operation that encouraged Arizona gun dealers to sell to straw purchasers, all with the hope of tracing them to the Mexican cartels.  The two Republicans have been releasing one embarrassing fact after another over the past months.

ATF has looked bad. So has the Justice Department.  On Tuesday, it was all the more painful to watch the Issa’s  Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hold a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Some ATF agents who testified, who were based in Mexico ,were apologetic and embarrassed about Fast and Furious. That was heartening and good to see.

But what wasn’t so fun to see was William Newell, the former head of the ATF Phoenix Division, who helped lede the Fast and Furious operation.  Newell may be a decent guy, but I’m told he lacked the experience needed to foresee that Operation Fast and Furious was going to be a disaster.

Newell came off like the consumate company man. He drove committee members up the wall when he consistently said ATF did not “walk guns”, when in fact ATF, under his leadership,  clearly did. As if that weren’t bad enough, he admitted that there were some flaws in the operation, but refused to come clean and say it simply stunk.

He just kept saying he should have conducted more “risk assessment” during the operation to better pinpoint problems. It sounded bad.

Interestingly, Newell has been holed up in Washington helping Congressional investigators and the Inspector General’s Office investigate the whole mess.  He’s been assigned to be the ATF attache in Mexico City. He has yet to go.

And if ATF and the White House have any smarts, they won’t send him to Mexico  as the attache.  The Mexican  government is still fuming over the operation that put more deadly guns into the hands of the out-of-control drug cartels. If they do, you can bet that Newell won’t be given a king’s welcome down there. In fact, who knows, the Mexican government could arrest him for his role in Fast and Furious.

In any event, let’s get the warts and all of this operation out in the open quickly. Let’s end this painful mess.

Make it go away.

Forget About Clemens and Bonds; Get The Big Fish in the Steroid Mess

Greg Stejskal was an FBI agent for nearly 32 years before retiring in 2006. He was the Senior Resident Agent of the Ann Arbor FBI office and spearheaded Operation Equine with former FBI agent Bill Randall — an operation that focused on steroids.

The author (right) Greg Stejsal and Michigan coach Bo Schembechler

By Greg Stejskal
ticklethewire.com

It’s generally accepted doctrine, at least when I was working drug cases, that you try to work up the food chain and go after the bigger fishes so to speak.

That being said, I have to question the wisdom of prosecuting anabolic steroid users — albeit famous ones — like baseball legends Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Take away the star power, and they’re simply users — not big fish, not major peddlers. Frankly, it’s not worth spending all the time and money on them.

But before I go on about that, a here’s a little background

In 1988, anabolic steroids (not all steroids are anabolic, synthetic testosterone, which promotes muscle growth and strength, for simplicity I refer to them as steroids) were made illegal under federal law. Dealing or possession of steroids with the intent to sell, became a felony. Mere use or possession was a misdemeanor. (The amount of steroids possessed was an indicator of whether there was an intent to sell.)

In 1989, when I headed up the FBI’s Ann Arbor office, Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler and his strength coach, Mike Gittleson, persuaded me that steroids were becoming a significant problem at all levels of football.

I proposed to FBIHQ that we initiate an undercover operation (UCO) targeting steroid distribution. FBIHQ was not enthusiastic about pursuing the illegal distribution of steroids, but reluctantly authorized a limited UCO to last only 6 months.

The operation, code-named Equine, started slow. We made buys from some street level dealers – gym rat dealer/users. Towards the end of our 6 month term, I got a call from FBIHQ. They apparently had received an inquiry from the White House regarding steroid investigations.

Equine was the only steroid case being worked in the U.S. at the time. Consequently FBIHQ wanted me to renew the case and upgrade it. What had been envisioned as a local case morphed into an international operation targeting dealers from all over the country, Mexico and Canada. The focus was always to identify and prosecute the biggest suppliers.

Those early gym rat dealers were confronted and offered favorable treatment if they would identify their suppliers and, in some cases, introduce the UC agent to the supplier. Some of the low or mid-level dealers were athletes or body builders, but none had much notoriety (with the possible exception of the then Mr. Ohio, a body builder).

We ended up convicting over 70 dealers in several jurisdictions. Many of these dealers supplied athletes some of whom were well known. One dealer had supplied some of the players on the Michigan State football team that had won the Big 10 and the Rose Bowl. Tony Mandarich, a notable member of that MSU team, whose photo graced the front of Sports Illustrated, admitted some years later to steroid use while at MSU.

Another dealer told us that that he had supplied Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, the so called bash brothers, while they played for the Oakland A’s. We arranged for that dealer to be debriefed by MLB, and he testified before a U.S. Senate sub-committee.

Ultimately the UCO was successful far beyond our expectations, not only with the many convictions of dealers (all of whom pleaded guilty rather than go to trial), but also with the seizure of massive amounts of steroids. (The Food and Drug Administration estimated that Equine resulted in the seizure of 8-10 million dosage units of real and counterfeit steroids.)

In addition to the UCO, we used a telephone wiretap to make a prosecutable case against one very large dealer. We had been unable to penetrate his organization using the UC agent. (On the wiretap we intercepted one conversation where the dealer threatened to “get rid” of the UCA.) That wiretap allowed us to identify the entire organization, its sources of supply and to intercept a huge shipment of steroids from Mexico.

We charged that dealer with a “Continuing Criminal Enterprise,” the drug equivalent of a RICO charge. Because of the potential for a long prison sentence, the CCE dealer identified his suppliers and provided information that led to the solving of a steroid related homicide.

Through out the about 3 year UCO, we were steadfast in working up the food chain, towards the upper echelons of the steroid trafficking organizations. It was tempting to want to prosecute some of the well-known players, who we learned were using steroids, but despite their celebrity, they were just users.

In the case of the dealer, who had supplied Canseco and McGwire, he identified suppliers in California, and he was willing to make controlled buys from them. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Northern California was not interested in prosecuting the dealer or his suppliers, so we arranged for the dealer to work with the California State Police.

They were able to successfully prosecute the suppliers with the cooperation of our dealer. Ironically it was the same US Attorney’s Office in California that later prosecuted the BALCO case and ardently prosecuted Barry Bonds for perjury related to his steroid use with minimal success and at great expense.

When our UCO ended, and we announced some of the federal indictments there was some local and national media coverage. We had hoped there would be more coverage. We wanted to send a message as deterrent to steroid traffickers and aspiring athletes. We tried to warn Major League Baseball in the summer of 1994 that they had a big steroid problem. For whatever reason, MLB ignored the warning.

We did have second thoughts about not prosecuting some of the players. As various steroid scandals became public, and Jose Canseco started outing himself and others, all of a sudden the media took an interest. Obviously, honing in on big names — even if they were really small fish in the scheme of things — created a buzz in the media.

Interestingly, Equine became more famous for having unsuccessfully warned MLB than for what we accomplished in prosecuting dealers. The reluctance of the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney’s Offices to prosecute steroid cases including athletes /players was gone.

Oddly — or maybe not — it only seemed there was an interest in prosecuting players who were famous. Prosecutorial discretion seemed to have made a 180 degree shift at least in the Northern District of California.

The results of those big player prosecutions have been less than stellar. After a long protracted legal fight, Barry Bonds was tried for perjury and obstruction of justice, felonies. His use of steroids was a misdemeanor. He was convicted of one count of obstruction of justice.

I’m certain more money has been spent trying to prosecute Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens then we spent during the entire operational and prosecutorial phases of Equine even correcting for inflation. Oh yes, Clemens, who was accused of lying to Congress about his use of steroids. The prosecution screwed up and presented evidence the judge had barred — and the judge, Reggie Walton, declared a mistrial.

It’s unclear whether he’ll grant a new trial.

Don’t misunderstand me. The players use of steroids as performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) was nothing less than cheating and did grave if not irreparable damage to their sports.

In baseball the effect was so great that the 1990’s will forever be remembered as the steroid era. Further their use of steroids encouraged steroid use by young aspiring athletes sometimes with tragic results.

And perjury before a Grand Jury or Congress can not be ignored. But were the players placed in front of forums in the hope that they would lie so as to create a prosecutable felony that would ultimately stir up a lot of publicity?

Shouldn’t prosecutorial discretion apply if that lie is extremely difficult (read expensive) to prove? Prosecutions should not be based solely on a cost benefit analysis, but it should be a factor. Being cynical, I wonder how much consideration was given to the celebrity of the defendants and the media interest in the prosecutions.

I now have a renewed understanding of the wisdom of working up the food chain in drug investigations, no matter who the users are.

ATF’s Melson May Have a Second Wind; Should FBI Have Used Violent Gun Smuggler as Informant?

Ken Melson/atf photo

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

With the storm surrounding ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious getting more intense by the day, I thought it was time to step back and make some observations.

One: Acting ATF Director Ken Melson, who seemed like a dead man walking earlier this monthafter word got out that he was going to be forced to resign —  may have a little life left in him.  There’s a good chance he’ll be sticking around at least a little while longer.

After all, how bad would it look for the Justice Department to give him the boot at a time he’s expressing concern that the Justice Department is trying to  hush him up and keep him from telling the truth about the faulty operation  that encouraged Arizona gun dealers to sell to straw purchasers — all with the hopes of tracing the guns to the Mexican cartels.

He won’t survive this in the long run, particularly after some report — perhaps the Office of Inspector General — recommends an across-the-board change at the top at ATF. But he may stir up more mud  and try to salvage his reputation.

In the mean time, his statements on the matter, which have been released by bomb-throwers, Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley, have made him look far better than the Justice Department. The Justice Department isn’t looking so good. And the Justice Department can’t paint Melson as some cowboy or  rogue ATF agent. He was one of them. He came from the Justice Department. Now Melson thinks Atty. Gen. Eric Holder’s Justice Department sucks — or at minimum, can’t be trusted.

And then there’s the FBI informant ATF said it knew nothing about. Look for that to become a bigger deal and possibly create a little public relations headache for the FBI.

If you haven’t been following that closely: ATF was looking at some guy, who had a reputation as a violent gun dealer for the Mexican Cartels — only to find out that the FBI was using this guy as an informant. So of course, ATF had to back off.

Shades of Whitey Bulger? Well, in some ways no. There’s certainly no indication of any crooked FBI agents involved.

On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, the FBI needs to  draw the line with some informants  (like Bulger) when it appears their crimes out weigh the benefits of getting the information.

In this case, you do the math.  A violent gun smuggler for the the very very violent Mexican cartels. He should  have been behind bars, then coughed up information to get a better deal at sentencing. You shouldn’t let guys like that run their game and live the good  life.  Sure there’s arguments to made that it’s worth dealing with the devil to bring down multiple devils. But sometimes it just ain’t worth it — when death is part of the equation.

Then there’s the issue of doing the right thing. The FBI was dealing with a major gun runner. It should have given ATF a heads up that it was working the guy. It didn’t. Now, with this mess, who knows. The informant may end up dead as a result of this all coming to the surface.

In any event,  this whole mess can’t be good for anybody and it certainly can’t help the already strained the relationship beween the FBI and ATF.

And unfortunately, this whole Fast and Furious mess is only going to get messier.

Stay tuned.

The Clemens Case; Beware of the Hunt for Big Game

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

When you go hunting for big game — particularly dangerous targets — you better be prepared. You also better be a good aim.

Screw up and it can cost you — particularly if it’s a lion or a tiger or some other creature that can devour you.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. went hunting for big game the other day by prosecuting major league baseball legend Roger Clemens, who was accused of lying to Congress about using performance enhancing drugs. The hunter in this case got devoured — not so much by the major game it was hunting — but by itself.

On Thursday, on the second day of testimony, it screwed up big time by mistakenly presenting congressional testimony that referenced the wife of former pitcher Andy Pettitte, a friend and former teammate of Clemens’s. Pettitte had told his wife that Clemens had taken the performance enhancing drugs. Clemens claimed he was mistaken.

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton had ruled earlier that the prosecution could not reference the wife. Walton said the wife repeating the hearsay would be unfair to Clemens at trial.

So a highly annoyed Walton declared a mistrial. A Sept. 2 hearing is set to determine whether the government will get a second shot.

Either way, it’s a major major embarrassment for  the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Justice Department.  The two prosecutors on the case — Steven Durham and Daniel Butler — are both very able, seasoned and well respected attorneys. The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not screw up by assigning them to the case.  Nonetheless, the prosecutors screwed up.

The pain for them is unimaginable — almost  like dropping the ball with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning  during the seventh game of the world series, with bases loaded — and you’re up by 1 run. Painful. You want to hide in your room. You want to knock back a few shots of single malt Scotch or tequila. And that’s just for breakfast.

There’s nothing  to do now but try and salvage the case and figure out why the lapse in judgment. There’s no excuses here.

Alan M. Gershel, a professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan and former chief of the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 20 years, said the misstep “to say the least is certainly an embarrassment.”

Gerhsel said the judge could rule against a new trial. That being said, Gershel said it may help the prosecution, when seeking a new trial, that the misstep appeared to be inadvertent.

So we’ll see what the judge decides in the case that some critics, frankly, thought should never had gone to trial anyways.

On the upside, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the Ted Stevens case when prosecutors from the Justice Department won the case, but had the conviction thrown out because they withheld key evidence from the defense.  That case was a plain old mess and the prosecutors needed to pay for that.

Whatever, this is just another one of those embarrassments the Justice Department could do without.

P.S. Beware of the hunt for the big game.

Here’s a Book By Drug Policy Wonks Worth Reading

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

How many books have you read recently that actually changed your thinking on opinions you have held near and dear for decades?

Not many, I wager. In my case, damn few. Like most people I read for entertainment, education, reinforcement, seldom to challenge firmly held views.

As a three-decade drug prosecutor, I admit to some biases and assumptions, which place me among the anti-drug ranter ranks.

Not an “Okie from Muskogee” (Merle Haggard 1969) ranter, but one who is nevertheless skeptical of policy wonks, social “scientists,” and any “expert” who claims to have the answer to the cluster you-know-what which drug use, trafficking, and enforcement have been for the last 80 years in this country.

The book “Drugs and Drug Policy; What Everyone Needs to Know” by Mark A.R. Kleiman, Jonathan P. Caulkins and Angela Hawken (don’t let the deadly title scare you off) challenged some of my views and probably some of those of the readers of this paper. I haven’t converted to a legalization advocate or anything. Nor are the authors of this book.

But they do ask and try to answer some tough questions that permeate this confusingly complex subject. Or else they admit that the question is presently unanswerable.

The book avoids the vocabulary employed by experts in the field that is intended to demonstrate that their academic expertise puts them on a higher plain than the rest of us.

Even technical terms like capture rates and demand elasticity are deciphered in plain English sufficiently to make the point.

Kleiman, a professor of Public Policy at UCLA,   and his two partners, don’t claim to have all the answers or that progress will be easy. But they do ask the right questions, and their answers and discussions can benefit anyone connected to the subject—users and enforcers, policy makers and implementers, innocent bystanders and citizens.

Some of their suggestions do not pass the squirm factor, some seem impractical, others unlikely to ever claim a consensus. But a good number seem worth serious consideration and debate, including a few that concern law enforcement. Here are a couple:

1. Focus enforcement, especially the sanction of longer sentences, on traffickers who use violence and destruction, menace neighborhoods, and cause collateral damage to others. Conduct, not drug volume, should drive enforcement. Dealers not in these categories should be subject to routine attention and sanctions.

2. Eliminate long-delayed punishments for drug dealers like ineligibility for public housing, educational loans, and the like. These serve only retribution and make it more difficult for those who want to join the mainstream.

3. Reduce the number of dealers in prison from the present half million. Reducing sentences for non-violent, run-of-the-mill dealers would have no effect on drug supply and would free up more resources to target more culpable dealers. Plus reduce the pressure on governments to transfer education dollars to prisons.

Drugs and Drug Policy proposes over a dozen other suggestions in areas like treatment, health care, international supply control, harm reduction programs, alcohol and cigarette taxes, consumer marijuana cultivation, and a bunch more.

There will be the temptation for policymakers to applaud the ones they already agree with and reject the others. As if the status quo is so rosy we can’t afford some fresh thought on the subject.

Not all wonks are created equal. These three are worth reading with an open mind.