DEA in­for­mant sues U.S. to get paid for 30 years of snitch­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY AN­DREA NOBLE

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).

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