When half a dozen or more federal employees endorse a lame, dishonest idea, we have a problem.
Here's how it unfolded: U.S. Border Patrol agent Steve Garceau staked out a house in Orleans County near the Canadian border one night in January 2003 and caught a guy picking up 45 pounds of pot. He'd planned to deliver it to someone else at a restaurant in Stowe.
Garceau handed the chap over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, who cut the fellow, identified in court papers with the pseudonym John Smith, a deal: We'll let you free if you agree to tell us more about this and future marijuana sales.
This is Crimefighting 101 -- use the guy as a baitfish to nail a bigger trophy.
That's when feds got creative. To ensure John Smith could prove to his Canadian cronies that he'd escaped unscathed, the Border Patrol would spread word through the Vermont media that he'd gotten away undetected.
At least two Border Patrol agents beside Garceau knew of the outgoing fake news release. There might have been a fourth in Vermont. He doesn't recall, but somebody else remembers his involvement.
All this appears in court documents in U.S. District Court in Burlington, where Garceau faces charges for falsifying information in another drug case. The bogus news release is ancillary information to the case.
At least two Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents visited Burlington -- John Smith in tow -- to run it past an assistant U.S. attorney.
Seemed like a decent idea to everybody around the table.
The Border Patrol bunch, eager to dot all the i's and cross all the t's, asked their agency's public affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., and got a thumbs-up. Artificial news release? News that never happened disseminated to the masses via somebody else's printing press? Very innovative.
And so they wrote a fictional account on Jan. 27, 2003: They'd found the dope inside two duffel bags dumped on a roadside in Beebe Plain, they told newspapers, radio stations and television stations in a release. They even sent a photograph of a crime scene they'd manufactured -- two roadside bags atop the roadside snow.
To make sure the prank didn't get messy, they falsified the Border Patrol investigative paperwork, so that if some sucker, someday, ever filed a Freedom of Information request, he'd be none the wiser -- the investigative report mirrored the news release.
The Newport Daily Express published the photograph and the information on the front page of the Jan. 29, 2003, edition, said Anne Squire, the newspaper's managing editor. The Burlington Free Press didn't publish the information.
John Smith had a little newspaper story to clip, to hang on his refrigerator, to send a copy to grandma and to show his drug-dealing buds that although they'd lost $186,000 worth of pot, they still had their mule.
It's not illegal to lie to the media in Vermont. But it's bad form, especially for the federal government.
Law enforcement agencies and the media have performed their informational Kabuki for generations -- cops tell reporters what they want, when it's useful. The unwritten code is that when they do say something, it's true. We're manipulated into helping to solve crimes, palatably.
We in the media take lots of knocks, some of them accurate. We don't need the U.S. government's help printing incorrect information. We wear our mistakes in print, and at this daily newspaper, like at most worth their salt, we correct them.
"This is an undercover operation. They were trying to mislead bad guys and, yes, they did mislead the press," said David Kirby, the acting U.S. attorney for Vermont. He was not leading the office at the time of the bum news release, though he's prosecuted cases here for nearly two decades.
"This may be the only instance I know of in my tenure in Vermont" of intentionally faking a news release.
"Whether we would do it again, I cannot say," Kirby said.
Here's a passage from the local mission statement of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Burlington: "We seek to instill public confidence as to the fairness and integrity of both this office and the federal criminal justice system of which we are a part."
Here's a pertinent portion of the now-named Customs and Border Protection standard of conduct: "Employees will not make false, misleading, incomplete, or ambiguous statements, whether oral or written, in connection with any matter of official interest."
Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C., didn't consider this breach of faith serious enough to merit a response Monday.
We have a problem.
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