DEA shake-up fol­lowed wave of crit­i­cism, scan­dal

Fourth act­ing chief in 5 years adding to ‘dys­func­tional place’

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Joshua Good­man and Jim Mustian

MI­AMI — It’s an agency with a crit­i­cal mis­sion of keep­ing Amer­i­can streets safe from nar­cotics. But in re­cent years, the U.S. Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion has needed pro­tec­tion from it­self, with sev­eral agents charged with cor­rup­tion and the agency en­gulfed by scan­dal.

This week came more up­heaval as At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr in­stalled the DEA’s fourth act­ing ad­min­is­tra­tor in five years. His choice: Tim Shea, the U.S. at­tor­ney in Wash­ing­ton who re­cently over­saw the con­tro­ver­sial ef­fort to dis­miss charges against ex-na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn.

Barr had been look­ing to pro­vide a soft land­ing spot for Shea, a close aide whose stint as act­ing U.S. at­tor­ney was set to end in June, bar­ring an un­likely ex­ten­sion by the dis­trict court in Wash­ing­ton. But in so do­ing, he found an easy tar­get in Ut­tam Dhillon, who drew mount­ing crit­i­cism in his less than two, tu­mul­tuous years as the nation’s top U.S. anti-nar­cotics of­fi­cial.

Many field agents com­plained that Dhillon, a for­mer Los Angeles fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor, was more of a bu­reau­crat than a leader, lacked ex­pe­ri­ence and, as an act­ing ad­min­is­tra­tor who was never con­firmed, the full au­thor­ity to im­ple­ment mean­ing­ful re­forms.

“If you’re not from the agency, it takes a while to fig­ure out how we work, where we work and what our is­sues are,” said Jack Ri­ley, a for­mer deputy ad­min­is­tra­tor of the DEA.

Dhillon in­her­ited some of the prob­lems from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion af­ter the agency’s last per­ma­nent ad­min­is­tra­tor, Michele Leon­hart, re­signed in 2015 amid ques­tions from Congress about her han­dling of agent mis­con­duct al­le­ga­tions in­volv­ing car­tel-or­ga­nized sex par­ties in Colom­bia.

“Af­ter that con­trol be­came much more cen­tral­ized and the cul­ture more risk ad­verse,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s for­mer chief of in­ter­na­tional op­er­a­tions. “But to do this work you need to trust your agents in the field.”

Since 2015, at least a dozen DEA agents across the coun­try have been charged fed­er­ally on counts rang­ing from wire fraud and bribery to sell­ing firearms to drug traf­fick­ers, ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press re­view of hun­dreds of court records. At least eight of those agents have been con­victed, while four are await­ing trial.

Dhillon “came in very, very un­pre­pared,” Ri­ley said, and leaves an agency that’s “been a lit­tle bit of a dys­func­tional place for a while.”

As part of the lat­est week’s shake-up, Dhillon was moved to what of­fi­cials would say only was a se­nior po­si­tion in the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

While pres­sure had been build­ing on

Dhillon for some time, the lat­est doubts emerged in the wake of a botched mil­i­tary raid May 3 of Venezuela by a rag­tag con­tin­gent of U.S.-trained vol­un­teer fight­ers seek­ing to ar­rest Ni­co­las Maduro, ac­cord­ing to four for­mer U.S. law en­force­ment of­fi­cials who are in con­tact with se­nior Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials. They spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

Maduro’s gov­ern­ment blamed two al­leged DEA in­for­mants for pro­vid­ing lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port to the mer­ce­nar­ies, al­though there’s no ev­i­dence the U.S. gov­ern­ment played any role in the un­der­tak­ing. Trump even joked that had the U.S. gov­ern­ment been in­volved it would have ended far worse for the so­cial­ist leader.

Still, in the raid’s af­ter­math, ques­tions have been raised in Congress and at the high­est lev­els of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion about what the DEA — and other U.S. law en­force­ment and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies — knew about Jor­dan Goudreau, the for­mer U.S. Green Beret who claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the armed in­cur­sion.

As part of those in­quiries, Dhillon re­ported back that the DEA knew noth­ing, one of the ex-of­fi­cials said.

How­ever, on May 6, the AP, cit­ing two for­mer U.S. law en­force­ment of­fi­cials, re­ported that an in­for­mant ap­proached the DEA in Colom­bia with an un­sub­stan­ti­ated tip about Goudreau’s al­leged in­volve­ment in weapons smug­gling. The anti­nar­cotics agency, not know­ing who Goudreau was at the time, didn’t open a for­mal probe but sus­pected that any weapons would have been des­tined for left­ist rebels or crim­i­nal gangs in Colom­bia — not Venezue­lan free­dom fight­ers.

Dhillon and the DEA re­ferred re­quests for com­ment to the Jus­tice Depart­ment, which said only that the Venezuela mat­ter played no role in Dhillon’s re­place­ment. “To pub­lish any­thing other­wise would be to pub­lish a false story,” said Kerri Ku­pec, a depart­ment spokes­woman.

For­mer DEA of­fi­cials em­braced Shea’s ap­point­ment as an op­por­tu­nity for change within the agency, but cau­tioned that some prob­lems can’t be fixed un­til a per­ma­nent ad­min­is­tra­tor is in place.

“He un­der­stands some of the is­sues we’re up against,“Ri­ley said, “and hav­ing been a fresh U.S. at­tor­ney, I’m really hope­ful.”

AN­DREW HARNIK/AP 2019

Many field agents com­plained that Ut­tam Dhillon, a for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor, was more of a bu­reau­crat than a leader. His re­place­ment is a close aide of the at­tor­ney gen­eral.

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