DEA Bad Girl Michele Leonhart

8/5/03

The new nominee for Deputy Administrator of the DEA is a gung-ho drug warrior with questionable ties to a discredited super-snitch.

The Bush administration wants to head up the Drug Enforcement Agency with two women for the first time in the history of the agency.

The Senate has already confirmed Karen Tandy as DEA administrator by unanimous consent in a late-night session last Thursday. As Jason Vest reported in A New Hard-Liner at the DEA, Tandy has a history of “prosecutorial overzealousness” and “ignorance of key drug policy studies.”

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Now President Bush has announced his intention to nominate Michele M. Leonhart, Special Agent in Charge of DEA’s Los Angeles Division, for the position of Deputy Administrator.

Leonhart has already established herself as another hard-liner who will not be popular in the drug reform community.

In June of 2001, she blasted ecstasy use at raves with her statement that “some of the dances in the desert are no longer just dances, they’re like violent crack houses set to music.”

She has also been a visible part of the DEA’s attacks on California’s medical marijuana laws. On January 9, 1998, when U.S. Attorney Michael Yamaguchi announced in a press conference that the government would take action against California medical marijuana clubs (arguably the start of the DEA’s current war against the sick), Leonhart was standing at his side.

A Young Girl’s Dreams of Becoming a Drug Agent

In some ways, Michele Leonhart’s rise to her current position is a law enforcement Cinderella story. Richard Cole of the Associate Press talked to Leonhart in 1998 about her impetus for getting into crime fighting. Apparently when she was in fourth grade in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, her bicycle was stolen. She refused to give up on it, and found it several weeks later.

“I started thinking I was a bit of an investigator trying to locate my blue Huffy,” she said three decades later.

She became enamored of the idea of fighting crime, and eventually decided on a career in law enforcement. After being turned down by academies in several cities for being too short (at 5’4″), she was accepted at Baltimore Police Academy where she was first in her class, and earned the nickname “Mighty Mike” while patrolling.

But she wasn’t satisfied.

“It would take me years to become a detective and get to the point where I could investigate cases, and these DEA agents were doing it every day,” she remembered thinking. So she signed up with the DEA and almost immediately entered the world of undercover work in Minneapolis, playing all kinds of roles, from diplomat’s daughter to troubled young woman.

She loved the action.

“One day I would go in as the head of my own organization — I’m in charge, I want to buy drugs,” she said. “The next day I could be some flunky, dumb girlfriend who would just sit there and make phone calls. It was fun.”

After five years of undercover work, she moved to St. Louis, where she became Group Supervisor for some very high profile cases, and earned a special DEA Administrator’s Award. Shortly after leaving the Midwest, she moved to the west coast for a meteoric rise to Special Agent in Charge of the Los Angeles Field Division, commanding DEA offices and enforcement operations in Los Angeles, Nevada, Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan. And now she prepares for her nomination to the 2nd highest drug enforcement position in the country. A Cinderella story, indeed.

The Super-Snitch

When DEA agents are not working undercover themselves, they rely on a special category of “employee” — snitches (also known as informants). These individuals often receive a cut of seized assets as payment for their services, so convictions can become profitable. When Michele Leonhart moved to St. Louis, she hooked up with the most prolific snitch of all time — Andrew Chambers.

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The details of Andrew Chambers’ career as a super-snitch are mostly hidden (partly to protect him, and partly to protect the DEA). Much of what we know about Chambers comes from an excellent investigative report by Michael D. Sorkin And Phyllis Brasch Librach for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on January 16, 2000 and several follow-up reports later that year.

Here are some of the facts:

  • Chambers’ career as a snitch spanned an amazing 16 years, from 1984 until 2000, and he was credited with 291 investigations, including 76 the DEA considers “significant.”
  • He traveled all over the world for the DEA, but his home was St. Louis, and his second home Los Angeles.
  • For his snitch work with the DEA, he was paid over $2.2 million. DEA regulations limit informants to a career total of $200,000, but those regulations can be waived. The DEA says its second-highest paid informant has received about $500,000.
  • Since he also worked for the FBI, U.S. Customs Service, U.S. postal inspectors, Internal Revenue Service, Secret Service and state and local police, his total take may have been much more.
  • He lied. He lied under oath on the stand. He lied on the stand repeatedly, beginning the year after his recruitment in 1984.

For years, some prosecutors and many defense attorneys had expressed concerns about Chambers’ perjury. In 1993 in California, a 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling agreed that Chambers lied on the stand. In 1995, the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis added its voice: “The record, however, clearly demonstrates that Chambers did in fact perjure himself . . .”

The DEA protected Chambers repeatedly, and avoided notifying prosecutors and defense attorneys about Chambers’ past. At one point, the Drug Enforcement Agency and Justice Department lawyers stonewalled for 17 months, fighting a public defender who was trying to examine the contents of DEA’s background check on Chambers.

Later, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Wolf stated that it was clear that the drug agents never put any damaging reports into Chambers’ file — even though DEA regulations require it.

Finally, the DEA conducted an internal review of Chambers’ career, and although there was some talk of reprimanding DEA supervisors, the report was never made completely public, and the DEA refused to agree to stop using Chambers. Janet Reno finally intervened in 2000 and Chambers was deactivated as an informant.

The Lady and the Snitch

During all this time, Chambers’ biggest fan was Michele Leonhart.

At one point, she was asked whether it was time to stop using Chambers given all the problems with his credibility. “That would be a sad day for DEA,” she said. “And a sad day for anybody in the law enforcement world… He’s one in a million. In my career, I’ll probably never come across another Andrew.”

Clearly there were close ties. Chambers started as a snitch in St. Louis in 1984. Leonhart transferred to St. Louis in 1986 and started working with him then (close to the time that reports say Chambers began lying under oath). In 1989, Chambers was involved in a case in Minneapolis (near Leonhart’s previous post). Chambers was moved around a lot by the DEA and spent time in both St. Louis and Los Angeles, but it seems clear that he mostly focused on St. Louis until around 1996, when he shifted his base to the Los Angeles area. This was about a year after Leonhart transferred to Los Angeles.

There’s no published information regarding the extent that Leonhart was involved in DEA cover-ups or stonewalling regarding Chambers, or the omission of damaging reports from Chambers’ file. However, given Leonhart’s position and connection to Chambers, it is unlikely that any of it was done without her knowledge.

The most startling statement in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation of Andrew Chambers was from Michele Leonhart:

“The only criticism (of Chambers) I’ve ever heard is what defense attorneys will characterize as perjury or a lie on the stand.”

She continued by saying that once prosecutors check him out, they’ll agree with his admirers in DEA that he’s “an outstanding testifier.”

That’s the key. To an agent like Leonhart, getting the bust and getting the conviction is all that matters. The testimony is good if it leads to a successful conclusion (from her perspective). Why nitpick about the truth?

The Senate Judiciary Committee must, at the very least, investigate Leonhart’s connection to Andrew Chambers. The fact that she apparently has no objection to the use of perjury in attaining a conviction should be an automatic disqualifier. Based on past experience, however, it is likely that Leonhart will be confirmed without discussion or recorded vote.

The DEA, possibly the most oppressive agency in the U.S., will now be led by the dynamic duo: Overzealous Prosecutor and her sidekick Rabid Agent. Nothing will interfere with their goals — not even truth or justice.

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