HIDTA task force on border mired in corruption charges

ICE agents who blew the whistle on fellow law enforcers’ fraud, waste and abuse faced swift retaliation from their agency

A law enforcement task force in New Mexico that is supposed to target drug-trafficking criminals is instead awash in charges that it is using its nearly $600,000 taxpayer-subsidized budget to fund its own corrupt practices.

The task force was previously the target of an investigation by the internal affairs unit of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that revealed a disturbing trail of bookkeeping irregularities and multiple mysterious bank accounts. In the wake of that investigation, nothing of consequence happened to the task force or its operations, and it continues to operate under the same leadership to this day.

Now, a former ICE agent who participated in the task force has stepped forward with revelations that, at a minimum, raise serious questions about the integrity of a major federal drug war initiative known as the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program.

The Deming, N.M.-based task force, composed of local and state law enforcers as well as federal ICE agents, serves primarily three counties (Luna, Grant and Hidalgo) in southern New Mexico. The task force, called the Border Operations Task Force, or BOTF-Deming, is part of New Mexico’s larger HI DTA program, which is overseen by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

The former federal agent who is now talking, Christopher DeSantis, served as an ICE agent in Deming from 2001 until mid-2007. He is currently embroiled in litigation with ICE over claims that the federal law enforcement agency discriminated against him and eventually fired him because he blew the whistle on the corruption in the BOTF-Deming.

DeSantis, in a series of interviews with Narco News, claims that the leadership of the BOTF-Deming engaged in a massive waste of taxpayers dollars in order to spend down budgeted funds to assure the same level of funding, or greater, in the following budget cycle. DeSantis alleges some task force members claimed overtime pay while bird hunting; attended "training" junkets in places like Tucson and Las Vegas that they viewed as paid vacations and where they spent a good deal of their time in bars and strip clubs; and spent thousands of dollars on useless equipment, such as two cellular-based tracking systems for use in a remote corner of the border where there was no cell service.

“They were even buying refills for disposable pens just to burn up the budget money,” DeSantis says. “They didn’t give a shit. They just wanted to use up the money because the fiscal year was ending.”

DeSantis also alleges that it was common practice for the task force leadership to double count drug seizures. In other words, he claims that if ICE made a drug seizure in the area independent of the task force, then the task force also would count that same seizure in its drug-bust numbers to help bolster its standing for future HIDTA funding.

More disturbing, however, are DeSantis claims about the task force’s use of a particular informant, designated SA-163.

As part of one BOTF-Deming operation, DeSantis says he was part of a team that bought heroin every week, “like clockwork,” for a year based on information provided by SA-163, whom DeSantis says was a “doper.” The task force would pay that informant for the information, often dipping into both the task force’s funds as well as ICE funds so they could dole out more money to SA-163 and not trigger ICE reporting requirements that kicked in when informant payments reached a certain dollar level.

“We would meet someone who was bringing the drugs across the border, and we made the purchases in a parking lot or hotel [on the U.S. side],” DeSantis recalled. “We were wired for sound and someone was in a van or in an adjoining hotel room [for backup and monitoring.] Most of the time, we were just buying the drugs, and every once in a while, we would arrest a [low-level] mule.”

However, DeSantis says the operation, which he did not control, never made an effort to work its way up the drug organization’s hierarchy to bust its leadership, which he stresses should be the goal of any major drug sting operation.

“We were just going through the motions,” he says. “We had a lot of buy-walks, where we would just get the dope, but no one was arrested. The CI [informant] would just let his handler [a New Mexico cop with the task force] know there was another batch of heroin for sale, and ask if we wanted it.

“After doing this forever [the heroin purchases], it dawned on me that this CI [informant SA-163], that it was his heroin,” DeSantis continues. “He was getting paid by law enforcement and getting street value for his drugs with no risk (and the task force was getting to count the heroin purchase as drug seizures, which helped them justify the HIDTA funding and bolster careers.)

DeSantis says he and another ICE agent on the task force did report their concerns to a federal prosecutor in New Mexico. (That other ICE agent was later removed from the task force and reassigned to a different ICE post, according to DeSantis.)

The prosecutor, DeSantis says, scheduled a polygraph test for the informant. However, the ICE supervisor overseeing the Deming office at the time claimed the informant could not be found, DeSantis says.

That same supervisor, DeSantis alleges, subsequently approved a $10,000 relocation payment for the very same informant, SA-163 — after telling the prosecutor that the informant could not be found in order to take the polygraph test.

“So that means either (the supervisor) lied to the prosecutor, which is obstruction of justice, or he stole the $10,000,” DeSantis says. “Either way, he should have been criminally indicted.”

DeSantis’ claims about this ICE supervisor are also echoed in legal case brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2007 by another agent at the ICE Deming office. That agent, who served as the Residence Agent in Charge of the ICE office in 2005, after the allegedly corrupt supervisor had retired, also claims she was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on the task force corruption – including alleging that some $300,000 in federal funds under the control of a HIDTA task force in Deming had mysteriously disappeared.

In her EEO filing, the agent, Caroline Richardson, claims the allegedly corrupt supervisor had problems with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Las Cruces because he “was hiding” an informant to avoid having him take a polygraph.

Covering Up The Paper Trail

Although the legal trail for both Richardson and DeSantis has been long, several years in the making now, and is complicated, in essence each is claiming that ICE ruined their careers because they sought to expose corruption within the federally funded HIDTA program in New Mexico.

Both Richardson and DeSantis filed administrative cases with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection board alleging, in part, that ICE supervisors retaliated against them for seeking to expose alleged corruption in the HIDTA-funded BOTF-Deming.

Richardson and DeSantis both served in the ICE Deming office (Richardson from 2003 to the fall of 2005 and DeSantis from 2001 to mid-2007 — when he was terminated). Each of them reported the corruption problems within the BOTF-Deming, which eventually prompted an ICE internal affairs investigation in 2006 and a subsequent report of findings issued in 2007. (Narco News obtained that report the same year through a Freedom of Information Act request and wrote about it at length in a news report that can be found at this link.)

Although the New Mexico HIDTA program funding was suspended for a short time in 2007, due in part to the problems of the BOTF-Deming, the funding was restored within a matter of months, in large part because of the intervention of a powerful U.S. Senator in New Mexico — Republican Pete Domenici, who has since been replaced in the Senate by Democrat Tom Udall.

According to the findings of the ICE internal affairs investigation of the BOTF-Deming’s operations “reviewers … experienced considerable resistance when trying to obtain documents” relating to the task force’s funds.

From the ICE report:

OPR [the Office of Professional Responsibility, ICE’s internal affairs unit] reviewers concurred with the ONDCP auditor’s opinion that records are disorganized and extremely difficult to review or audit. This fact was confirmed [regarding] … “discretionary funds” expenditures and to some extent [in the] payments made to informants. With respect to the overtime payments, many times the reimbursement requests were not submitted until well after the overtime assignment was performed and frequently the support documentation for the payments was incomplete.

Other findings of the ICE OPR investigation (released in March 2007):

• The Task Force made multiple payments to a source of information, evidence or service [an informant]. … The review [of informant] payments disclosed possible reciprocal payments to two confidential informants. … Report forms in four informant files disclosed insufficient documentation. …

• [The BOTF-Deming] HIDTA Executive Assistant erased financial records from the computer. …

• ICE is not in control or in possession of its own Deming BOTF HIDTA initiative financial records.…

In addition, shortly after Richardson was demoted and relocated to El Paso in September 2005 (after reporting her corruption concerns about the BOTF-Deming operations to the Department of Justice) an unknown thief paid a visit to the BOTF-Deming office.

From the ICE OPR report:

The break-in occurred shortly after Richardson had been reassigned to El Paso…. On Sunday, September 25, 2005, at 0208 hours, the Deming Police Department was dispatched to the physical location of the Office of the RAC Deming [the location of the BOTF-Deming] where they met the federal agent who had called to report a break-in following Sector’s telephonic advise that the building alarm had sounded.

DeSantis claims that there was never an investigation conducted by ICE, or any other federal agency, of the break-in. In a comment he provided to Narco News previously, DeSantis described the break-in as a big “hoax”:

The abuses [by the BOTF-Deming) were so egregious that the Agency [ICE) will never allow the truth to see the light of day.

Overtime was paid for hunting trips, travel funds spent for strip-club patronage, and money just outright missing along with the accompanying accounting ledgers. As to the “break-in” of the RAC Deming office, what a hoax; the building compound was surrounded by 15’ chain link fences topped with razor wire and multiple video cameras recorded 24/7 video surveillance.

The Deming Police Department was called regarding the break-in but no investigation was conducted. I was in the building that morning and no effort was made to take fingerprints or examine the video surveillance tapes. The locks to the building were not damaged and [the task-force administrative assistant] mysteriously left the door to her office, where the HIDTA bookkeeping records where stored, unlocked; something she never did.

Absolutely nothing of value was taken from anywhere in the office…; only the HIDTA bookkeeping records were “stolen.”

Shooting the Messengers

Katherine Bush, a public affairs spokesperson for the ONDCP, provided Narco News with the following information about the current status of the BOTF-Deming in response to an e-mail query:

The total FY 2010 budget for the New Mexico Region of the SWB [Southwest Border] HIDTA is $8,317,832.

The NM Border Operations Task Force (BOTF), located in Deming, is still one of the initiatives for the New Mexico Region and therefore received HIDTA funds. For FY 2010, BOTF received $589,022.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement is very much a part of the NM BOTF (Deming) and provides fulltime agents as part of that task force.

So, it appears, despite the serious claims of corruption, and what appears to be considerable evidence in that regard, the BOTF-Deming remains operational. According to law enforcement sources and press reports, the same two individuals who headed the BOTF-Deming (an ICE agent and a New Mexico law enforcer) at the time Richardson, DeSantis and others brought forward the corruption charges, remain in charge. Those individuals are Bart Skelton, who replaced Richardson as ICE RAC in Deming; and New Mexico Sixth Judicial District detective Larry Lutonsky — who is also now apparently a candidate for Luna County Sheriff.

DeSantis and Richardson’s MSPB cases, as well as an EEO complaint filed by Richardson, eventually became the basis for now-pending lawsuits filed in federal court in New Mexico alleging that ICE engaged in discriminatory practices against each of them. (Richardson is Puerto Rican; DeSantis suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is now drawing a disability pension from the government.)

The discrimination and retaliation employed by ICE against the two federal agents led to DeSantis being fired from his job and to the demotion of Richardson from a Resident Agent in Charge post in Deming to a group supervisor job with ICE in El Paso, Texas, according to the trail of litigation in their cases.

DeSantis’ federal lawsuit is slated to go to trial in August and Richardson’s case is scheduled for trial in November.

Narco News did attempt to contact a representative of the BOTF-Deming, but the available telephone numbers have been disconnected, including numbers that have worked in the past. The ONDCP’s Bush explains that the task force “could be operating in some local police department’s basement” now, adding that every HIDTA operation is different.

Narco News also contacted ICE El Paso, which oversees the Deming RAC office. A spokesperson for that office has so far failed to respond to questions.

However, attorney Mark Conrad, a former supervisory special agent with U.S. Customs, which was merged into ICE, has some pretty harsh words for the government’s handling of the BOTF-Deming matter. Conrad is now representing DeSantis in his discrimination lawsuit against ICE.

After the documentary and testimony came out in the 2008 MSPB [Merit Systems Protection Board] discovery and hearings, I was astonished to learn that ICE is back in the thick of things again [with respect to the BOTF-Deming]. I am sure that ICE will tell you that they audit the [HIDTA] funds to insure that they are used appropriately. That is like asking Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to audit themselves. It is a fraud on the American people.

I am also astonished that the U.S. Attorney's office in New Mexico has not launched a criminal investigation into the allegations of intentional double payments to informants from two different pots of government money, but I have to assume that is … to protect the AUSA's that knew what was going on, and to protect their "defense" in the civil case Mr. DeSantis has against ICE (which is part of Homeland Security).

The documents and testimony are there. Any first-year prosecutor could convict some of these people of flat out fraud. …

Stay tuned ….

 

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