New Heads of DEA, DOJ's OPR Have Skeletons in House of Death Closet

Leonhart, Ashton Now in Key Posts; Cover-Up Continues

Two long-time Justice employees were recently appointed to high-ranking posts in the department despite their past roles in helping to enable a cover-up of a U.S. government informant’s participation in multiple murders in what has become known as the House of Death case.

As the final days of 2010 ticked down, the U.S. Senate confirmed Michele Leonhart as Administrator of the DEA, and Robin Ashton was appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder as head of the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).

Leonhart, a left-over from the Bush administration, was named Deputy Administrator of DEA in 2003 and Acting Administrator in November 2007. In that latter post, Leonhart has authorized DEA raids on dozens of medical marijuana operations in cities where those businesses are legal under state law and despite DOJ policy adopted in 2009 discouraging such raids.

Ashton, described in a DOJ press release as a “veteran career prosecutor,” was the deputy director for the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys from 2001-2005, “where she worked closely with the 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and provided oversight of the litigation divisions and operational components.” Most recently, Ashton served as the Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney for Management in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colombia.

As head of DOJ’s OPR, Ashton will oversee an office responsible for investigating DOJ attorneys accused of misconduct and will report directly to Holder.

Both Leonhart and Ashton have been the subject of past coverage by Narco News in relation to the House of Death mass murder case and the subsequent, still-ongoing government cover-up. The House of Death is so named for the home in Juarez, Mexico, that was used as a tomb for a dozen victims of a vicious narco-trafficking cell affiliated with the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes drug organization.

Those victims, at least a dozen of them, were tortured and murdered in 2003 and early 2004 with the assistance and, in some cases, the direct participation, of the informant — whose activities were sanctioned by high-level officials at the Department of Homeland Security and DOJ and were carried out under the supervision of the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, then under the direction of Johnny Sutton.

In Ashton’s case, she was present at a November 2005 meeting in which members of a national whistleblowers organization were attempting to bring the House of Death case to the attention members of Congress.

Narco News reported in May 2006:

To make matters worse, according to Sandalio Gonzalez, the former high-level DEA official who exposed the DOJ cover-up in the House of Death, one of the staff members present at the briefing in November was a DOJ attorney, Robin Ashton, who has been detailed to serve on Sen. Leahy’s staff. [Emphasis added.]

It is a long-standing practice for various Executive Branch agencies, such as DOJ, to assign employees to temporary assignments with Congressional offices.…

All three NSWBC [National Security Whistleblowers Coalition] members present at the November [2005] briefing —[Sibel] Edmonds, [former DEA commander Sandalio] Gonzalez and Professor Bill Weaver, senior advisor to the organization — claim that Ashton was dismissive and not concerned with the allegations and evidence brought to the table at the meeting concerning the murders and subsequent cover-up by DOJ and DHS. The reason, they contend, is that Ashton’s loyalties are with DOJ by virtue of the fact that her career is tied to that agency.

Weaver claims it was clear from the start of the Nov. 21 briefing that Ashton did not see the House of Death mass murder as a big deal, even after being made aware that ICE agents and a U.S. prosecutor were aware that their informant was participating in the homicides.

“I don’t remember the precise words she used,” Weaver says, “but her comments were essentially: ‘I do not understand the concern. People are killed all the time by drug dealers. We (the U.S. government) did not really do anything (wrong). We just sat back. If we rush in every time targets broke the law, we would never be able to make cases against the big fish."

In reply to Ashton’s dismissive comments, Gonzalez says he pointed out to her that “people may get killed all the time, but the difference in this case is that the government let their informant participate in the murders.”

… Ashton is far more than a low-level DOJ attorney. Until August of 2005, just prior to being detailed to Leahy’s staff, she served as deputy director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA).…

The NSWBC representatives at the briefing claim that Ashton’s presence represented a major conflict of interest because two of the major players in the alleged ongoing cover-up of the DOJ’s complicity in the House of Death murders are Assistant U.S. Attorney Juanita Fielden in El Paso and U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton in San Antonio.

Sutton, at the time of the briefing, served as the vice chairman of the Attorney General's Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys and in late March of this year was appointed chairman of the committee.

… The NSWBC members contend they were put in the position of making their case to a connected DOJ attorney whose future career is in the hands of the very agency accused of participating in the cover-up.

And so now, Ashton has risen even further up the DOJ totem pole and will oversee the very office that is charged with investigating alleged misconduct of U.S. prosecutors even though she appears to have played — according to Gonzalez, Edmonds and Weaver — a significant role in perpetuating the House of Death cover-up, which was orchestrated, in large measure, by then-U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton.

That leads to Leonhart’s role in advancing the cover-up. In the fall of 2005, Narco News reported on a series of documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request that exposed the initial stages of the House of Death cover-up.

From that September 2005 Narco News story:

The next day, March 5, 2004, [within a month of the bodies being dug up at the House of Death in Juarez] DEA Administrator Tandy sent off an e-mail to ….

Others within DOJ who received a copy of Tandy’s e-mail included: Michele Leonhart, Deputy Administrator of DEA .…

… The unredacted text of the e-mail follows; the El Paso SAC is [Sandalio] Gonzalez:

Subject: Re: Possible press involving the DEA Juarez /ICE informant issue

DEA HQ officials were not aware of our el paso SAC’s inexcusable letter until last evening – although a copy of the letter first landed in the foreign operations section sometime the day before. The SAC did not tell anyone at HQ that he was contemplating such a letter, and did not discuss it or share it with HQ until we received the copy as noted above, well after it was sent.

I apologized to Johnny Sutton last night and he and I agreed on a no comment to the press. [Emphasis added.]

Mike Furgason, Chief of Operations, notified the El Paso SAC last night that he is not to speak to the press other than a no comment, that he is to desist writing anything regarding the Juarez matter and related case and defer to the joint management and threat assessment teams out of HQ – and he is to relay these directions to the rest of his El Paso Division.

The SAC, who reports to Michele [Leonhart], will be brought in next week for performance discussions to further address this officially. [Emphasis added.]

That SAC, DEA Special Agent in Charge Sandalio Gonzalez, was being pilloried by these high-level DOJ officials (DEA is part of DOJ) because of an internal memo he penned in February 2004 that made its way to then-U.S. Attorney Sutton. In that letter, Gonzalez expressed his outrage over the role the U.S. government informant played in the murders and also pointed out that the failure of U.S. government officials to intervene nearly led to the murder of a DEA agent and his family.

However, rather than investigate Gonzalez’ charges of government misconduct, Leonhart and other DEA officials, chose instead to retaliate against the messenger in an effort to shut him up.

Leonhart’s role in that retaliation is outlined in a complaint Gonzalez filed with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel — another supposed government watchdog agency that failed to act in the House of Death case.

From Gonzalez’ September 2004 OSC complaint, obtained through FOIA:

Several days later, I spoke with the Deputy Administrator of the DEA [Michele Leonhart] who told me that the Administrator [Karen Tandy] was very upset with me as a result of the [February 2004] letter, and that she had seriously considered calling me back to Washington to discipline me for sending the letter.

… [Leonhart] went on to say that in her view, as well as in the opinion of the Administrator and the Chief of Operations, I had exercised “poor judgment” in sending the letter to the ICE SAC [the Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent in charge in El Paso] and the U.S. Attorney’s Office (in San Antonio). I respectfully disagreed with her, and we then went on to discuss other matters....

On May 4, 2004, … the DEA attorney threatened me with a negative performance rating if I did not retire by June 30 of this year (2004)....

NOTE: the Deputy Administrator [Leonhart], who is my first line supervisor and the rating official in my performance appraisal, must approve all matters such as these.

Since I did not retire on June 30, DEA carried out the threat in its May 4, 2004, letter when the issue in question was misrepresented in the [August 2004] appraisal under the job element of liaison/collaboration. [Leonhart] wrote that my “extreme poor judgment” in writing the letter had caused DEA’s relationship with ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in [San Antonio] to worsen. [Leonhart] also lowered my overall rating from the previous year despite the fact that the list of accomplishments in this year’s rating was far greater than last year’s....

I believe that I’m being punished for speaking the truth about a serious matter of public concern that is not publicly known. When I made this known to the United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas [by sending a copy of the letter to his office in San Antonio], rather than take corrective action, he attacked my professionalism. (And, indirectly criticized my integrity, ironically for refusing to participate in a cover-up, which may even constitute the criminal offense of obstruction of justice, misprision of a felony, or, to a lesser extent, a federal agency’s negligence resulting in multiple homicides.)

DEA officials that are fully familiar and upset with the issue of the murders, as well as the obstruction of the investigation of the threat against the life of a DEA agent and his family, and admitted this to me, are now following the political and personal agenda of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas [Johnny Sutton] by retaliating against me with a negative performance appraisal.

And as evidence of the veracity of Gonzalez’ claims in that OSC complaint, it is worth noting that he emerged victorious in 2007 in a civil lawsuit he brought against the DOJ.

The U.S. Attorney General (at the time, Alberto Gonzales) agreed to pay $385,000 of the U.S. taxpayers’ money to settle the discrimination lawsuit Gonzalez filed against the government in federal court in Miami. That lawsuit stemmed, in part, from the ignoble treatment Gonzalez received from DEA and Justice after he brought to light the U.S. government’s complicity in the House of Death mass murder case in Juarez.

Sadly, though, to this day, the House of Death cover-up continues, with no one at DOJ yet having been called to account before Congress or in the U.S. Justice System for their actions, or lack of actions, in the mass-murder case — and the lone known investigative report on the matter, known as the JAT, remains buried deep in DEA's cellar. The lone individual connected with DOJ to pay a price in the case was Gonzalez, who retired early from DEA after agency officials killed his career.

And now, with individuals like Ashton and Leonhart promoted to top posts at DOJ, it seems even less likely that anything will be done in the pursuit of justice in the House of Death case.

Their appointments, in fact, likely will prove convenient in assuring the continuation of the House of Death cover-up, even as the informant at the center of the case, now in hiding in the U.S., prepares to file a lawsuit alleging that U.S. government officials violated his constitutional rights as part of their efforts to deport him back to Mexico — where he would certainly be permanently silenced at the hands of the narco-traffickers he betrayed.

With so much drug-war violence and death now marking Mexico and, in particular, Juarez, which ended 2010 with some 3,100 homicides, the plight of the House of Death murder victims might seem to some in our government, and the public at large, a now inconsequential matter by comparison.

But as we venture into 2011, it is important to note that the escalation of violence in Juarez since 2008 has been fueled, in no small measure, by a similar attitude of indifference toward human life and social justice.

Stay tuned…..

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