DEA informant sues U.S. to get paid for 30 years of snitching
Former Medellin Cartel member Carlos Toro started snitching in 1986. That’s when he became a confidential informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration and began providing information used to take down major players in the Colombian drug gang.
Now looking to get paid for his nearly three decades of risky work, the 66-year-old has sued the U.S. government.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court last week, Mr. Toro sued over a breach of contract and is asking for $5 million in compensation for the years he spent working as a confidential informant for the DEA.
It’s the latest step in a dangerous dance between the Colombian-born informant and the U.S. government. Earlier this year — having grown tired of demands from agents that he continue to supply federal authorities with information as a condition to remain in the U.S. — Mr. Toro went on a media blitz publicly detailing his career as a confidential informant in the hope it would pressure officials not to deport him.
“This man could not go back to Colombia. He’d be murdered if he went back there,” said Mr. Toro’s attorney, Michael Avery.
Given the kingpins Mr. Toro claims to have helped take down, it’s no wonder.
Mr. Toro’s lawsuit is a laundry list of major drug cases in the 1980s and 1990s. With his help, federal investigators arrested and convicted scores of money launderers and drug traffickers, including legendary figures like cocaine kingpin Carlos Lehder, a co-founder of the Medellin Cartel, and former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
Over the course of Mr. Toro’s work as an informant, Mr. Avery said his client was never paid a salary.
“All they were doing was reimbursing him for expenses,” Mr. Avery said.
The $5 million claim reflects a salary of a few hundred thousand dollars a year for each year he worked as an informant, helping to secure major convictions, Mr. Avery said.
“His direct participation resulted in: cocaine seizures; asset forfeitures; indictments; arrests and convictions; disruption of international trafficking networks and the interception of thousands of kilograms of cocaine destined for the United States,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
Though use of informants is commonplace in law enforcement, providing compensation and payments to informants remains a complicated and problematic practice, according to former DEA officials and other legal experts.
Informants are paid in cash in documented transactions that require approval from supervisors, said former DEA agent Stephen Peterson, who retired after 30 years with the agency in 2010. But disputes often arise over how much — or, rather, how little — an informant is paid.
“Nobody gets paid as much money as they thought they should get,” Mr. Peterson said. “But there is no way to dispute it. If they think they are getting the short end of the stick and they think they are getting cheated, they won’t come back.”
Rewards for information often come in two forms — cash payments, either salaries or a percentage of proceeds from a bust, or agents pass on details about an informant’s cooperation to prosecutors overseeing any criminal cases the informant is involved in.
The cooperation can be used in negotiations for a shorter jail sentence. But agents are forbidden from promising informants any rewards as a result of their help.
However, that doesn’t mean agents don’t routinely play up the potential benefits an informant could receive in order to keep them involved, said retired DEA agent Michael Levine, who now serves as a trial expert on the use of confidential informants.
“They can say anything, and it’s a dirty game,” Mr. Levine said. “It’s not about what they say, it’s about whether the guy they said it to can prove it.”
In Mr. Toro’s case, Mr. Avery believes he can prove what agreements Mr. Toro was offered in exchange for his cooperation in part because the former DEA agent who recruited his client is willing to back him up.
That retired agent, Michael McManus, said he supports Mr. Toro’s bid for both additional compensation and a visa that would let him stay in the U.S.
“This is a moral issue with me,” Mr. McManus said. “The idea [is] that he doesn’t get paid as much as I think he’s worth, and all he wants [is] to be able to live out his days in the United States. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Mr. McManus was Mr. Toro’s handler for several years but said he doesn’t presume to know how much Mr. Toro should have been paid for cases after they stopped working together.
“I do know that he’s put together some really good-quality investigations, and he’s put his life at risk,” Mr. McManus said. “The first drug deal he did for me was 526 kilos of cocaine in 1987. He definitely has the ability to put the drugs on the table and the bodies in jail.”
Through a spokesman, the DEA declined to comment on either the lawsuit filed by Mr. Toro or to discuss how the agency uses confidential informants in general.
The use of confidential informants is “a highly unregulated arena” in part due to the secretive nature of the work, said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and expert on informants in the criminal justice system.
An estimated 4,000 confidential informants were engaged in active work for the DEA in 2005, according to a Justice Department report issued that year. A more recent report, issued in July by the DOJ’s inspector general, does not detail the number of active informants but criticized the DEA for a lack of oversight of its confidential informant program. The report noted that at least 240 confidential informants were not properly monitored, including some who were involved in “unauthorized illegal activities” or were subjects of criminal investigations by other federal agencies.
The DEA’s use of confidential informants has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, though attempts to reform the program have seen mixed results.
The agency in 2000 fired its highest-paid snitch, who was believed to have raked in $4 million over his 16-year career, after his history of giving false testimony in federal drug cases came to light. However, the informant, Andrew Chambers, was later brought back on by the agency — a move that caused a stir in 2013 when it was first reported.
Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, Massachusetts Democrat, has unsuccessfully proposed legislation three times that would require the Justice Department to detail to Congress all serious crimes committed by informants working for its agencies. Legislation introduced this year is still pending.
As a result of the latest inspector general report, the DEA responded by stating that the agency plans to update its confidential informant policies and to strengthen oversight of long-term informants.
But there has been less of a push to reform policies on payments to informants, Ms. Natapoff said.
Though it may remain difficult for an informant to prove when additional compensation is owed, there has been some success in the recent past in taking the DEA to court.
In another case handled by Mr. Avery, a federal judge last year required the DEA to pay $1.1 million to an informant known by her code name of “the Princess.” The judgment was to compensate the Princess for medical expenses for multiple sclerosis, a condition she attributes to a traumatic kidnapping she endured while working as an informant.
The Princess initially sought more than $33 million in her lawsuit, however, a judge threw out claims for money she sought as a commission for asset seizures, concluding that “her supervising agent could pay her $25,000 quarterly, but could ‘only recommend rewards or commissions above that amount.’”
Mr. Avery said the fact Mr. McManus is willing to go to bat on Mr. Toro’s behalf is “encouraging” in his case, but that part of the challenge he will face is proving that agents who worked with his client had the authority to make any agreements for compensation that they did.
“That doesn’t mean the case is going to pan out and is provable,” Mr. Avery said. “There is a long road ahead of us.”
“This is a moral issue with me. The idea [is] that he doesn’t get paid as much as I think he’s worth, and all he wants [is] to be able to live out his days in the United States. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.” — Former DEA agent Michael McManus, who said he supports informant Carlos Toro’s
bid for both additional compensation and a visa that would let him stay in the U.S.
With the help of Carlos Toro, investigators arrested scores of money launderers and drug traffickers, including figures like cocaine kingpin Carlos Lehder (left), a co-founder of the Medellin Cartel, and former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (right).