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January 19, 2006 - Nashville Scene (TN)

Wiretap Whistleblower Or DEA Dupe?

Local Assistant U.S. Attorney's Explosive Justice Department Allegations Make National Waves

By John Spargens

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The seven-page document reads like the screenplay for Scarface, had it been written by a Justice Department attorney instead of Oliver Stone. U.S. Drug Enforcement agents in Bogota, Colombia, help local drug lords traffic narcotics.

When a confidential informant tips off DEA agents in Florida about the illegal actions of their Bogota counterparts, a Florida agent alerts DEA higher-ups and is put on administrative leave. Meanwhile, DEA agents in Bogota summon an informant to a meeting; as he leaves, he is murdered.

It's not Scarface. It's a December 2004 memo written by Thomas M. Kent, a lawyer then working in the Justice Department's Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section (NDDS) who is now an assistant U.S. attorney in the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the middle district of Tennessee. It was first reported this week by The Narco News Bulletin, an online newsletter that publishes Latin American and U.S. news about the war on drugs.

Kent, whom present and former colleagues praise as smart and honest, sent the whistleblower memo to NDDS Chief Jodi Avergun and deputy chief Michael Walther with the subject line, "Operation Snowplow -- Dissemination of information on corruption within the DEA and the mishandling of related investigations by OPR to the Public Integrity Section."

The memo, which is stamped "Confidential," contains explosive allegations. Corrupt DEA agents stationed in Bogota allow U.S.-friendly informants to be locked up, kidnapped and killed because they're disrupting the narco-trade that lines the agents' pockets.

These same rogue federal law enforcers leak damaging details about informants to people who want them dead. A Bogota informant makes jailhouse contact -- in one case, videotaped -- with a member of an armed Colombian insurgent group who wants to obtain illegal communication equipment.

Eventually, the informant tells Miami DEA agents that there is weapons-grade nuclear material for sale in Spain. Time and time again, Bogota-based DEA agents shut down the investigation against colleagues' wishes.

Eventually, they claim that the informant is a pedophile, although a Bogota agent "could not provide any evidence to support it," Kent wrote.

Just as important as Kent's allegations of corruption in Colombia, though, is his contention that the Justice Department covered it up. "The first allegation was brought to OPR," he wrote, referring to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility. "By all accounts OPR did nothing about it. When confronted with the allegations, the investigators at OPR treated the reporting agents as if they had a disease and did not want anything to do with them or the evidence they amassed." Kent wrote that one agent was fired and another was retaliated against after blowing the whistle on corruption; he also claimed that OPR failed to transmit damning documents to the Inspector General's office. Furthermore, he wrote, an informant with incriminating information against Bogota DEA agents passed a polygraph test, but the examiner was "instructed by OPR not to report on the test. He was instructed that the test never took place."

Sounds pretty Orwellian. But is it true?

In response to media requests, a branch of the Justice Department is looking into it. "DEA takes very seriously any allegations of misconduct, abuse of position or criminal action," says agency spokesman Garrison K. Courtney, in a statement provided to the Scene. "The allegations that are reported in the Narco News Bulletin are extremely serious. DEA's Office of Professional Responsibility is reviewing the allegations that have been made." Courtney says the Justice Department's Inspector General is in charge of any investigation that may or may not be conducted in response to the memo's disclosure.

One insider says that an investigation was done by the Inspector General's office in 2002, and Kent's charges all proved false. "It's absolute B.S.," says a Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's been completely investigated, and it's totally baseless."

"Tom is a smart young lawyer, and he was, I believe, taken in by a couple of disgruntled DEA agents who had an axe to grind at the agency, and were part of a rivalry between DEA Florida and DEA Bogota." According to this official, confidential informants are the lifeblood of DEA investigations, and Kent stepped right into a turf war without knowing it. His four-alarm memo was well intended, then, but false, the source says.

Kent, who now works on wiretapping for Nashville-related federal drug investigations, didn't return calls for this story.

His current boss, U.S. Attorney Jim Vines, says he's an outstanding attorney and a great asset to the department. "He does a great job, he's a very experienced prosecutor, very knowledge about T3s," says Vines, referring to the complex federal statutory scheme for wiretaps-the kind for which you still need court approval. "It's a very tricky area, and you can get in trouble when you don't do it correctly.... To have him assigned here has been a godsend to us."

Before he moved to the Justice Department, Kent worked for the New York attorney general in a special narcotics office in Manhattan. He eventually moved to the federal Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section, where he wrote the memo, before taking the job in the local U.S. Attorney's office.

Vines tells the Scene that he didn't know about Kent's memo until recently, although one source says the Nashville U.S. Attorney's Office knew about it before Kent was hired approximately one year ago. Regardless, his supervisors and colleagues say he has their full confidence-and more importantly, he's very good at what he does.

But he's either one of the biggest whistleblowers in DEA history or a super-sized sucker who put his career on the line for a few washed-up law enforcement jerks.

According to the Justice Department source, the investigation prompted by Kent's 2004 memo didn't lead to any disciplinary measures against agents in Bogota or Miami, nor did it hurt Kent's career.

"[T]he cracks in the lid DEA and OPR has [sic] attempted to place on this problem are getting bigger.

It is only a matter of time before this thing explodes," Kent wrote 13 months ago. "If we are unable to arrange for a sit down between the reporting agents and those attorneys within the Department of Justice who are tasked with ensuring that corrupted agents and officials are held accountable, then I firmly believe that we will watch from the sidelines as the allegations play out in a courtroom, on the news, and/or on Capital [sic] Hill."

Did Kent get taken advantage of by disgruntled DEA agents, or was he silenced by his Justice Department superiors?

Only a handful of people can answer that question, and so far, Kent's not talking.

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