HIDTA border task force mired in drug-war scandal

Over the past 17 years since its creation, probably no other initiative has done more in seeking to coordinate the resources of federal, state and local law enforcement in the so-called War on Drugs than the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program.

HIDTA, which operates offices across the United States, is a federally funded program with an annual budget of some $225 million that is administered by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Its mission is to enlist the power of law enforcement “teamwork” to fight drug trafficking in key areas of the United States.

But this idyllic model of law enforcement camaraderie focused on disrupting the bad boys of the narco-trafficking world appears to have more than a few bad apples of its own — stemming from the same vice that fuels the illegal drug trade: the quest for the easy buck.
In fact, a federal whistleblower is alleging that some $300,000 in federal funds under the control of a HIDTA task force in Deming, N.M., has mysteriously disappeared.

Government documents obtained by Narco News reveal that this Deming-based task force is supposed to be overseen by federal agents but instead has been taken over by a group of state and local law enforcers who seem to play by their own rules. Those same documents reveal that this Deming-based HIDTA task force is linked to a disturbing trail of bookkeeping irregularities, multiple mysterious bank accounts and even claims of law enforcement corruption.

In March of this year, the problems with the HIDTA program in New Mexico appear to have come to a head as evidenced by the following press statement issued by the office of U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.:

The ONDCP has suspended funding for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program in New Mexico for repeatedly failing to comply with multiple federal guidelines over the past three years. These reportedly non-criminal infractions are related to not using HIDTA funding for core HIDTA purposes.

If we take the senator at his word, it would seem the New Mexico HIDTA funding was suspended due to some minor bureaucratic technical glitches. But what the senator seems to gloss over in his political speak is that some of the allegations involving the New Mexico HIDTA program are, in fact, extremely serious and do involve potential “criminal” violations related to waste, fraud, abuse and corruption.

Those allegations center on one particular initiative of the New Mexico HIDTA program that operates along the Mexican border in the southwestern corner of New Mexico: the Border Operations Task Force (BOTF) based in Deming. The BOTF-Deming is composed of some 25 individuals — including federal agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as well as state and local law enforcement officers from three participating New Mexico counties: Luna, Grant and Hidalgo.

Narco News recently obtained several hundred pages of documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that diagnose in some detail the symptoms of the BOTF-Deming dysfunction. The documents were obtained from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which is a quasi-judicial agency charged with adjudicating cases involving alleged retaliation against federal employee whistleblowers.

Among the documents released through the FOIA request is a February 2007 final report based on a review by the ONDCP of the entire New Mexico HIDTA program. In addition, the FOIA documents include a March 2007 report by ICE’s internal affairs unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which last year conducted an investigation of the allegations of waste, fraud and abuse leveled at the BOTF-Deming.

(The ONDCP report can be found at this link; the ICE OPR report can be found at this link.)

Funding Freeze

On Feb. 8 of this year, less than two weeks before Sen. Domenici issued his press release about the HIDTA funds being frozen in New Mexico, the ONDCP sent a letter to the chairman of the Executive Committee of the New Mexico HIDTA program — a copy of which also was sent to the FBI.

The letter outlines the reason for the funding freeze:

From the letter:

Attached is the final report of the on-site program review of the Southwest Border High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (SWB HIDTA)-New Mexico Region. It was conducted during the period January 22-26, 2007. … These findings detail a troubling pattern of mismanagement and are of concern because of the serious nature of the drug threat facing New Mexico.

… As a result of the serious nature of these findings, ONDCP has no choice but to withhold FY07 grant funding to the New Mexico Region until these issues have been addressed. …

The ONDCP final report was attached to that letter. It cites the problems with the Deming-based BOTF as one of the major issues of concern with New Mexico’s HIDTA program.

From the ONDCP report:

The following issues identified in the most recent OSR [on-site review] are factors supporting the OSR’s assertion of the NMREC’s [New Mexico Regional Executive Committee’s] loss of focus:

… The NMREC’s not ensuring that all initiatives adhere to HIDTA fiscal reporting requirements. Also the fact that the NMREC has not completely followed-up regarding the fiscal situation in the BOTF–Deming Initiative to ensure that it has been totally resolved.

The ICE OPR report, which includes a cover letter dated March 8, 2007, paints a picture of a dysfunctional BOTF-Deming HIDTA “team” in which the state and local law enforcers have ignored the fact that ICE is supposed to act as the lead agency for the task force. It appears, based on a reading of the ICE OPR report, that the state and local cops assigned to the HIDTA task force have essentially set up a rouge operation within ICE’s Deming office — where the BOTF is located.

From the ICE OPR report:

The first misperception is that ICE is the BOTF lead agency in name only and has resulted in the actual task force leadership being assumed by representatives from the Sixth Judicial District Attorney’s Office [covering Luna, Grant and Hidalgo counties in southwestern New Mexico], who have also assumed the position of “task force commander” while the RAC Deming is designated the Task Force Commander in name only.

… As of March 2006, ICE management’s actions to assert their leadership role and correct the task force jurisdictional misperception at the Deming BOTF have been inadequate. The task force still functioned as two separate enforcement units. When asked who was the Task Force Commander, TFO [task force officer Larry] Lutonsky [a local detective with the Sixth Judicial District Attorney’s Office] told the OPR review team that he was in charge of the state and local officers and that the acting [ICE] RAC [Resident Agent in Charge] was in charge of the federal officers [even though all of them work out of the same ICE building in Deming].

Whistleblower Retaliation

The dysfunction of the BOTF-Deming surfaced as result of an act of whistleblowing by the head of the ICE office in Deming — Caroline Richardson.

Richardson was appointed as RAC in New Mexico after the former RAC, Gayle Sawyer, retired in September 2004. While in charge of the ICE Deming office, Richardson began to discover a pattern of financial and management irregularities with the BOTF. Those problems had gone unaddressed for years under Sawyer’s watch, Richardson alleges in an October 2005 complaint she filed with the U.S. Office of Special Council (OSC), which is charged with investigating complaints of whistleblower retaliation.

In her OSC complaint, Richardson explains that she reported her concerns to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (DHS-OIG) in July 2005. However, after making an initial inquiry, DHS-OIG decided to turn the case over to ICE OPR. At that point, Richardson suspected the fix was in.

From her OSC complaint:

I expressed concern that it would be a conflict of interest for [ICE] OPR to investigate a case in which [ICE] management was involved. The legacy Customs Service and now ICE has historically used what used to be Internal Affairs, and is now called OPR, as a stepping stone to positions in upper management; therefore, most of management came directly from OPR. Likewise, those still in OPR are hoping to be picked up as ASACs [Assistant Special Agents in Charge] by the SACs [Special Agents in Charge] when they complete their tour in OPR.

… In El Paso, I know the two offices [ICE OPR and the investigative side of the agency] routinely socialize. This is why complaints of abuse of authority, harassment, gross mismanagement, and blatant disregard for agency policy and directives in order to reprise against employees who report wrongdoing just “disappear.”

In the wake of blowing the whistle on the BOTF-Deming, Richards was, in fact, demoted from RAC of the ICE Deming office to a lower-level group supervisor position and relocated to El Paso, Texas. (The El Paso ICE office oversees the ICE office in Deming, which is essentially a satellite office, as well as the BOTF-Deming.)

After demoting Richardson, her supervisors in El Paso attempted to paint her as an incompetent manager who had created friction between ICE and the state and local law enforcers assigned to the BOTF in Deming. Up until this point, Richardson had an unblemished record with ICE, according to her attorney, Ron Tonkin, who is a former federal prosecutor based in Houston.

The retaliation prompted Richardson to file a complaint with the OSC, which declined to take on her case. That is no surprise, since the OSC has been accused of being overtly hostile to whistleblowers under the leadership of Bush appointee Scott Bloch.

After the OSC slammed the door on her, Richardson filed a legal action with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

Her case is still pending before the MSPB, with a decision expected in the next several weeks.

The ICE OPR report uncovered by Narco News through its FOIA request describes Richardson’s allegations concerning the operations of the BOTF-Deming, in part, as follows:

[Richardson’s] allegations and [ICE OPR’s] findings concerned issues such as questionable spending, record keeping improprieties, imprudent management practices, noncompliance, insubordination, integrity [a police word for corruption] issues and internal control deficiencies.”

Richardson’s attorney, Tonkin, is much more direct in boiling down the ICE OPR report’s findings in a legal brief he filed on Richardson’s behalf with the MSPB:

This [the ICE OPR report’s description of Richardson’s allegations against the BOTF-Deming] is bureaucratese for fraud, financial abuse, and mismanagement. In fact, the [ICE OPR] Report of March 8, 2007 found what appeared to be outright fraud and criminal conduct.

House of Death Connection

The ICE lead office in El Paso accused of retaliating against Richardson also finds itself in the hot seat over another case replete with cover-up and retaliation allegations: the House of Death mass murder.

In that case, a U.S. government informant is accused of assisting, and even participating, in the torture and brutal murders of a dozen people between August 2003 and mid-January 2004 in Juarez, Mexico. The informant carried out this grizzly drug-war assignment while under the watch of ICE supervisors and a U.S. prosecutor in El Paso. In fact, that informant was arrested in late June 2003 (a little more than a month before the Juarez murder spree began) for running a load of marijuana across the border in New Mexico. Those charges were dropped at the request of an assistant U.S. attorney in El Paso so that the informant could continue working for ICE.

A “JAT” report generated by ICE and DEA that details ICE El Paso’s role in the House of Death murders as well as other documents related to a cover-up of the U.S. government’s complicity in the murders — a cover-up allegedly orchestrated, in part, by the U.S. Attorney in San Antonio, Johnny Sutton — were considered relevant evidence to Richardson’s case, according MSPB pleadings filed by her attorney.

As a result, Tonkin, as part of the discovery process in his client’s case, sought to force ICE to produce those documents, including the still-buried “JAT” report, because he believed they would shine a light on “integrity issues” within the ICE El Paso office.

From the MSPB pleadings filed by Tonkin:

Please produce the “Joint Assessment Team” (JAT) report, prepared by ICE and DEA, concerning the investigation of misconduct of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel in the El Paso office, including the making of material false statements or preparing of official documents with false information contained within them. This is meant to encompass all documents submitted to the JAT and/or prepared or created by/or for DEA or ICE or the U.S. Attorney’s offices in El Paso, San Antonio or Dallas, and/or the Attorney General for the United States that deal in any way with the credibility, honesty, trustworthiness or integrity of any ICE personnel in El Paso since 2003.

The MSPB judge in Richardson’s case, however, ruled against Tonkin’s request, despite the fact that the ICE OPR report supported Richardson’s claims about the BOTF-Deming operations.

Included in the FOIA records released to Narco News is a letter written by John P. Clark, deputy assistant secretary of ICE. The letter is addressed to Scott Burns, deputy director of the ONDCP.

From Clark’s letter:

The [ICE] OPR review confirmed many of Richardson’s allegations and identified internal control weaknesses in the management of the HIDTA initiative located in Deming BOTF.

...The OPR review determined that management at the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) El Paso [ICE office] did not provide adequate oversight at the Deming BOTF.

Add It Up

The list of improprieties uncovered by the ICE OPR review team during its examination of the BOTF-Deming operations is long and puzzling — since the review reveals that the financial records were so messed up that it would seem impossible to accurately account for all of the money flowing into and out of the various task force accounts.

Among the findings of the ICE OPR audit team, according to the FOIA records obtained by Narco News, were the following:

OPR reviewers … experienced considerable resistance when trying to obtain documents relating to the “discretionary funds.” OPR 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.

The list of allegations that were investigated and found to have merit by the ICE OPR investigators, according to their report, includes the following:

  • Local Deming HIDTA management and [fiduciary agent] Grant County failed to properly monitor the propriety of task force financial and administrative transactions. …

  • Administrative overtime policies have been ignored and the overtime cap has been exceeded at least once. …
  • TFO [task force officer’s] overtime documentation is inadequate and is usually executed less than punctually. …
  • Time and attendance supervisory oversight at the Deming HIDTA is negligible. … A TFO, whose salary is fully funded by HIDTA, has not reported to the Deming office in more than two months. Her fellow federal task force officers have no idea of her whereabouts. … There was a conspicuous absence of all but one of the other fully funded task force officers during morning and evening floor counts informally performed by OPR during the one-week site visit in March 2006. …
  • HIDTA Executive Assistant bypassed the [ICE] RAC [in charge of task force finances] and increased her salary. …
  • HIDTA funds were [inappropriately] used for an El Paso agent travel to training. [In addition, the OPR review team uncovered other examples of questionable travel-related expenses with a total price tag exceeding $15,000.] …
  • HIDTA funds were used to purchase prohibited items. … The questionable and prohibited purchases included clothing, food and beverage items, representational [promotional] items, standard issue departmental-type raid/tactical gear, gifts, weapons, ammunition, excessive travel expenses, finance charges, late payment fees, snacks, items for personal use [including alcoholic beverages] and vehicle fuel. …
  • The task force paid inappropriate overtime. [For example, a review of the overtime records of just four Deming BOTF state and local employees by ICE OPR uncovered questionable or prohibited overtime payments between July 1, 2004, and June 30, 2005, totaling more than $44,000.] … [For a list of questionable or prohibited travel and other expenses spotlighted in the OPR report, click on these links: Travel and Items/Services. For a list of questionable or prohibited overtime payments spotlighted in the OPR report, click on this link: Overtime.]

    Darker Shenanigans

    But the problems with the BOTF-Deming are not limited to overtime and expense reimbursement shenanigans alone, according to the ICE OPR report.

    Other findings of the ICE OPR audit team include the following:

    • 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 DOJ-OIG) 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] 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.

    According to the Deming Police Incident Report, … the police searched the facility and found the north side exterior door was standing open and a light on in the Executive Assistant’s office. The door to that office was ajar and it appeared that the room had been rummaged through because the drawers were open and files were on top of her desk. The Executive Assistant was called in that morning and reported that a set of keys was missing.

    On yet another front, the ICE OPR report confirmed that the City of Deming withdrew its participation from the BOTF-Deming due to “integrity [alleged corruption] concerns relating to former and current task force commanders. …”

    The ICE OPR report also reveals that the Deming city manager and chief of police provided the following list of additional concerns related to the BOTF-Deming:

    • The task force opened five bank accounts for its discretionary funds using the City of Deming tax identification (ID) number without the City’s knowledge or authorization. The accounts were re-designated with the Grand County tax ID when the City of Deming demanded that its number be no longer used.

  • Task force officers assign themselves to overtime jobs with no management oversight and used their official vehicles as their personal vehicles.
  • The Deming Chief of Police no longer shares information with the task force because the current “task force commander” compromised a source of narcotics-related information and also because the task force does not share information with his office.
  • The task force reports seizures, below the federal threshold, made at the port of entry to bolster task force narcotics seizure statistics.
  • … No one from the SAC [ICE] office in El Paso has tried to contact the Deming Police Department in over five years. The revelations in the ICE OPR report are compounded by the following allegation reported to the OSC by Richardson:

    I also discovered that over the last few years, about $300,000 had been moved out of the ICE [HIDTA] account and over to an account belonging to various state and local law enforcement agencies.

    According to Richardson’s OSC complaint, “This was done by the former [ICE] RAC [Gayle Sawyer] and various task force personnel assigned to the [BOTF-Deming] office.”

    And there’s more.

    Several New Mexico law enforcement officials linked to the BOTF-Deming have been the targets of past federal corruption investigations, Narco News sources claim. One of those investigations centered on a deputy who allegedly turned up in a wiretap making calls to a Mexican narco-trafficking organization.

    Some of the individuals who were in the scope of the federal investigations are still associated with the task force. However, to date, no charges have been brought against the targeted law enforcers as a result of the investigations, the sources add.

    Show Me The Money

    The ICE OPR report does not directly address the missing $300,000 reported by Richardson. Instead the report simply states that no evidence was found to support the allegation that HIDTA funds were “reprogrammed to disguise actual use.”

    The ICE OPR report does concede, though, that the BOTF-Deming “budget planning and execution has not been adequate.”

    But it is difficult to dismiss Richardson’s allegations concerning the $300,000, particularly when considering that the ICE OPR report also confirms that task force financial records were in disarray, missing or “erased” and that expenditures were not properly documented. Added to that is the fact that the BOTF-Deming office was burglarized shortly after Richardson reported the $300,000 in missing funds.

    In that context, poor “budget planning“ seems to be quite an understatement of the situation.

    To date, the BOTF-Deming appears to be largely unaffected by the findings presented in the ICE OPR report. Richardson remains in her position as a group supervisor in El Paso. The new head of the ICE office in Deming is Bart Skelton.

    Tonkin, in his pleadings before the MSPB, has this to say about Skelton:

    The evidence clearly established that Skelton had no proven managerial skills and was clearly inept to manage the [ICE] RAC office and the HIDTA task force operations.

    And even though the ICE OPR report clearly states that the BOTF-Deming is supposed to be overseen by ICE, according to a July 13 article in the Albuquerque Journal, New Mexico Sixth Judicial District detective Larry Lutonsky is still billing himself in the media as the BOTF-Deming “task force director.”

    When contacted by Narco News, Lutonsky declined to comment on the task force or the ICE OPR report.

    To date, law enforcement sources tell Narco News that no known criminal investigation has been launched into the activities of the BOTF-Deming as a result of the ICE OPR report findings. In fact, those sources claim the ICE OPR report is now buried away in some drawer at ICE headquarters gathering dust.

    It does seem that the government had no intention of making the ICE OPR report public. Included with the FOIA documents provided to Narco News was a letter from the MSPB indicating that the ICE OPR report was being withheld. Among the reasons provided for not releasing the report under FOIA was the fact that the MSPB judge in Richardson’s case “issued a protective order dated May 11, 2007, that prevents the release of this document unless he or the agency counsel [ICE] grants prior approval.”

    However, whether by accident or due to another act of whistleblowing, the ICE OPR report was, in fact, included in the FOIA records that were released to Narco News (as it should have been under FOIA guidelines).

    A former DEA agent contacted by Narco News was not at all surprised by the corruption allegations related to the BOTF-Deming. The agent claimed that his experience with the HIDTA initiative in another state made him very leery of getting involved with such task forces.

    “These HIDTA task forces all too often are simply sucking money off the federal teat,” the former DEA agent alleges. “All these guys seem to do [in his experience] is drive around all day and pick up money.”

    Well, it seems some U.S. senators have a similar job of picking up HIDTA money in Washington, D.C., to take back to their home states in order to curry voter favor.

    Despite the many questions still remaining unanswered about the BOTF-Deming, Sen. Domenici seems content to let the matter rest — even though in the past the senator seems to have had no problem calling the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico personally to encourage prosecutorial vigor.

    On July 11, Sen. Domenici issued a press release announcing that the ONDCP would restore funding to the New Mexico HIDTA program — which received about $8 million from the “federal teat” in fiscal 2006, according to the FOIA records.

    From the July 11 press release issued by Domenici’s office:

    U.S. Senator Pete Domenici today reported that the Office of National Drug Control Policy has agreed to free grant funding that had been suspended this spring for a federal anti-drug program involving 16 New Mexico counties.

    The ONDCP has informed Domenici of its decision to restore grant funding for New Mexico’s participation in the Southwest Border High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. The funding was suspended in March over ONDCP concerns that the New Mexico program repeatedly failed to comply with federal guidelines over three years on the use of HIDTA funding for core HIDTA purposes.

    “The resumption of HIDTA funding for work in New Mexico is important. I am glad the New Mexico program has made adjustments to ensure that these federal funds are put to use to curb the influx of illegal drugs in our state,” Domenici said.

    And so the War on Drugs continues to grind on, mired in unchecked corruption … with no end in sight.

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