DEA improperly paid TSA workers as confidential informants, IG says

The Drug Enforcement Agency has been paying federal employees to serve as informants in instances where they were just doing their day jobs, the Justice Department’s watchdog reports.

Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, said the DEA improperly paid Amtrak and Transportation Security Administration workers for information that should have been shared with law enforcement as a matter of their day-to-day jobs.

The Office of the Inspector General began investigating the DEA after it found the agency paid an Amtrak informant $800,000 in reward money over a 20-year period, even though they should have gotten that information for free.

“I think here it was pretty clear that DEA should not have been paying federal employees,” Horowitz told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. 

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The OIG found that DEA managers and administrators stopped the agency’s practice of paying federal employees as informants once they learned about it. Its investigation prompted a full audit of how the DEA handles its informant policies and confidential sources.

Horowitz said the DEA’s use of TSA employees as informants raise Fourth Amendment concerns.

“Those individuals are doing screenings to protect the airlines and our flights and are not there to do screening on behalf of the DEA,” he said. “The problem here is that they were being given direction by the DEA on what to look for and to then call them. So, as opposed to doing their work and doing their jobs as they do day-to-day, our concern was [they were] potentially turning into agents of the DEA.”

TSA employees are encouraged to pass along information to law enforcement, but Horowitz said they shouldn’t receive extra compensation for doing a standard part of their jobs.

OIG investigated the matter as administrative misconduct and did not seek criminal charges in the case. The watchdog recently changed its policy to post findings of administrative misconduct when they involve high-level government officials.

“We thought in this instance that there was a strong interest in the public seeing what had occurred here,” Horowitz said. The OIG completed an interim report last year and is currently completing the audit.

Problems included DEA polices not keeping with the attorney general’s guidelines on the handling of informants, failing to review its procedures for handling long-term sources, and paying out disability benefits to informants as well as death benefits to their families.

“The issue here is what every law enforcement agency — and certainly the Justice Department — makes it clear to informants it signs up is that they are not in fact employees of the agency,” Horowitz said. “You are, in essence, an independent contractor. You’re certainly not an employee.”

The Justice OIG was surprised to find that DEA paid 17 confidential sources over $1 million in Federal Employees’ Compensation Act benefits. Horowitz said the DEA immediately suspended that program once his office alerted them of the administrative violation.

Concerns have been made previously about informant procedures in the Justice Department, most notably in the case of notorious Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, in which agents were found to have gotten too close to informant sources.

For nearly 20 years, the Justice Department’s attorneys general have laid out and revised informant guidelines on how the FBI and federal law enforcement agents should vet, pay and review the value of informant sources.

Horowitz said the DEA should have regular reviews of its long-term informants, which in its case means sources that have been paid for six year or longer.

“There’s a concern with having individuals on the DEA’s or any agency’s payroll and potentially receiving rewards if they are either providing unreliable or useless information,” he said.

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