Watchdog agencies asleep at the House of Death

The first major sign that DEA supervisor Sandalio Gonzalez had hit a nerve with his letter of protest over the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s handling of the House of Death murders materialized in May 2004.

The blowback came at him through a legal case he has pending against DEA. In 2002, Gonzalez filed a discrimination lawsuit against the agency in federal court in Miami. The case, which is still pending, stems from a stash of cocaine that came up missing after a 1998 raid of a house in suburban Miami.

Prior surveillance of the house indicated there should have been about 32 kilograms of cocaine on the premises, but the total amount accounted for after the search fell 10 kilos short of that mark.

Gonzalez suspected foul play. He says the same Miami-Dade Police team involved in the raid was responsible for “compromising three prior drug cases.” Gonzalez was clued into the potential corruption after receiving a memo from one of his agents outlining “apparent official misconduct ... and violations of federal law,” according to a discrimination lawsuit Gonzalez filed in federal court in Miami.

“It was alleged that police officers may have taken the cocaine,” Gonzalez asserts in the lawsuit.

In the wake of pushing for an investigation into the missing coke, Gonzalez found himself the target of a series of actions by his superiors that he claims were designed to intimidate, embarrass and ultimately silence him. Gonzalez subsequently filed Equal Employment Opportunity claims against his superiors for their actions and ultimately took his case into federal court.

In addition to suffering retaliation and discrimination designed to “harass and humiliate (him) and slander his character and damage his reputation,” Gonzalez asserts in his lawsuit that in January 2001 he was transferred involuntarily to the less prestigious post of special agent in charge of the El Paso, Texas Field Division.

Some three years later in El Paso, Gonzalez again found himself blowing the whistle on corruption, this time on the alleged cover-up of government agents’ complicity in multiple murders in Ciudad Juárez.

In May 2004, three months after sending his House of Death protest letter to El Paso ICE Special Agent in Charge John Gaudioso, Gonzalez claims he was threatened by the DEA’s legal counsel in the course of settlement negotiations in his federal lawsuit. Essentially, Gonzalez was told that if he did not voluntarily retire from the agency by June 2004, he would receive a negative job performance rating.

Gonzalez deemed the threat as a reprisal for writing the letter to Gaudioso. In reaction, Gonzalez fired off a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Inspector General, Glenn A. Fine, asking that his office investigate the retaliation he was experiencing due to his whistleblowing activities.

Following is the text of Gonzalez’ June 30, 2004, letter and the response he received from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

(The information was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made by Narco News. Redacted material has been reconstructed and is contained in parentheses.)

Letter to the OIG

Dear Mr. Fine:

Attached as self-explanatory is a copy of my official correspondence with Mr. John Gaudioso, Special Agent in Charge, Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in (El Paso) Texas. A copy of the letter to Mr. Gaudioso was also transmitted to the Office of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas (in San Antonio). At the time I objected to the handling of the (Vicente Carrillo Fuentes’ Juárez drug organization) investigation.

The principal reason for transmitting this to you is the sense of frustration and outrage I feel at the mishandling of a criminal investigation which resulted in the unnecessary loss of human lives in the Republic of Mexico, and endangered the lives of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Agents and their families stationed in (Ciudad Juárez) Mexico.

Upon reading the attached letter you will note my actions were well within the bounds of my ethical obligations as well as my personal and professional perception of right and wrong. I cannot accept any reason why a confidential source of U.S. law enforcement was allowed to participate in a crime spree that yielded thirteen unwarranted dead individuals (as of June 30, 2004) as a result of our doing and supervision.

I have found past behavior on the part of DEA officials to be grossly unlawful and inappropriate, and as a result I have brought action against DEA for such conduct. In a letter proposing settlement on a pending suit and whistleblower action I have filed (in federal court in Miami) against DEA, the agency suggest that I failed to exercise good judgment for objecting to, and reporting the aforementioned homicides in (Juárez) Mexico. This is a position taken by DEA as a result of pressure and undue influence from the United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas (Johnny Sutton).

Aside from the aforementioned political influence, I most disturbingly find DEA’s specific position suggesting poor judgment on my part to be callous, unethical, vindictive, and unlawful. It is my contention that since the DEA is now criticizing my reporting of the criminal events in question, and is threatening me with an unwarranted and underserved performance rating, by so doing the DEA is endorsing silence with respect to the activities of the other two agencies. This is unacceptable and I am requesting that it be addressed with an investigation at your level.

Had I found any of my subordinates to have approved and/or participated in any of the foregoing alleged illegal acts, I would have personally sought prosecution of the responsible individual(s) for, while under the color of law, allowing the wrongful killings of human beings in Mexico in furtherance of gathering drug related information and possibly a criminal prosecution in the United States.

I trust you will take appropriate action in this matter.

Respectfully,

Sandalio Gonzalez
Special Agent in Charge

On Aug. 12, 2004, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General responded to Gonzalez’ letter as follows:

Dear Mr. Gonzalez:

We received your letter of June 30, 2004, in which you requested an investigation of the conduct of certain Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials in connection with your pending whistleblower litigation against the DEA. Thank you for referring this matter to us. However, because the matters you raise related to your pending whistleblower litigation, we have decided not to initiate another investigation into the matter. Please feel free to contact us with additional information or concerns.

Sincerely,

Carol F. Ochoa
Director
Office of Oversight & Review

Despite the Inspector General’s refusal to take action on his case, Gonzalez was not done fighting. He had no intention of being forced out of the DEA for telling the truth.

In late August 2004, the agency followed through with its threat to slam his work record by giving him a negative job review. A few weeks later, on Sept. 9, 2004, Gonzalez filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC).

Gonzalez asked the watchdog agency to investigate his case, claiming that he was being retaliated against for disclosing “murder, gross mismanagement of a criminal case and (obstruction of) an investigation of a threat against the lives of a federal agent and his family.”

Following is an excerpt from Gonzalez’ OSC complaint as well as the agency’s response -- both of which were included with the FOIA records obtained by Narco News. (Again, redacted material has been reconstructed and included in parentheses.)

The OSC complaint

… This issue began on February 24, 2004, when I sent a letter to the Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in (El Paso, Texas) in essence holding him responsible for the actions of ICE personnel and one of their informants regarding the discovery of several bodies buried in the backyard of a residence located in the city of (Ciudad Juárez) Republic of Mexico, and the obstruction of an investigation about a threat against the life of a DEA agent and his family. Since a federal prosecutor was in the mix, I also sent the letter to the prosecutor’s supervisor in the Office of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas, (San Antonio)....

A few days later I received a telephone call from (name blacked out), the Chief of Operations of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who informed me that the United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas (Johnny Sutton) had been given a copy of the aforementioned letter and that (Sutton) was very upset with it, and had alleged that my letter had created discovery material in the federal case against (Heriberto Santillan-Tabares). (The Chief of Operations at DEA) also said that (Sutton) had gone directly to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to complain about me, and that DOJ officials had contacted (the) DEA Administrator to inform her about (Sutton’s) complaint....

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 letter, and that she had seriously considered calling me back to Washington to discipline me for sending the letter. (Leonhart) went on to tell me that she had convinced the Administrator not to call me to Headquarters because it would disrupt the Special Agent Promotion Program where I was serving as an assessor at the time; however, (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 (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, [regarding a whistleblower complaint and a Title VII lawsuit I previously filed against the DEA] 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. In addition to all of the above, there is also a First Amendment violation here.

The Whistleblower Protection Act protects employees who (reasonably) disclose ... “a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.” I reported allegations of serious misconduct on the part of federal [ICE] agents and an informant acting under the direction of the agents, arguably with the knowledge of a federal prosecutor....

In direct retaliation for the protected disclosures attributed to me, the agency lowered my performance appraisal and included negative information within the appraisal, specifically attacking the disclosures, an admission of its direct violation of the whistleblower statute. These notations irreparably tarnish my career and post government-service employment opportunities. My performance evaluation was lowered and contained negative information precisely [and only] because of my protected disclosure. A more transparent violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act is difficult to imagine.

The Office of Special Counsel replied to Gonzalez complaint on Nov. 19, 2004. Following are excerpts from that response:

Dear Mr. Gonzalez:

This letter is in response to your complaint to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) against the Department of Justice (DOJ). You allege that the lowering of your performance rating from outstanding to excellent constitutes reprisal for whistleblowing.

The Office of Special Counsel is authorized to investigate allegations of activities prohibited by civil service law, rule, or regulation, and prohibited personnel practices. We have carefully considered the information you provided. .... However, for the reasons explained below, we have made a preliminary determination to close the investigation into this matter.

You state that on February 24, 2004, you sent a copy of the letter you wrote to Special Agent in Charge John Gaudioso to the United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas. In this letter, you reported your frustration and outrage at the mishandling of the (Juárez drug organization) investigation that resulted in the unnecessary loss of human life in the Republic of Mexico, and endangered the lives of Special Agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and their immediate families assigned to the DEA office in Mexico.

... In order for a disclosure to be protected, the employee must have a “reasonable belief” that the information being disclosed evidences one of the improprieties mentioned in the statute -- a violation of law, rule, or regulation, gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety....

We lack information that demonstrates how your report evidences one of the improprieties defined in the statue....

However, even if your report was determined to constitute a protected disclosure, we still would be unable to establish a connection between it and the personnel action....

Thus, while you may believe that agency officials took a reprisal action for your report, we cannot infer that this action was taken for reasons other than those given in your appraisal concerning your extremely poor judgment, and that your actions made already tense relationships worse....

Finally, with regard to your allegation that you engaged in protected speech which was in turn the motivating, substantial and exclusive factor for the agency official’s retaliation, we analyzed this matter as a possible violation.

... Speech involves a matter of public concern if it addresses items of political, social, or other concern to the community. However, federal employees enjoy a more limited right to free speech than other citizens when the federal government is acting as an employer.

... We believe that your comments did not amount to public speech protected by the First Amendment. Rather, as stated above, simply expressed your observations of, and dissatisfaction with, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement management officials and their handling of a federal case.

Further, even if we assumed that the letter touched upon a matter of public concern, it appears management’s right to restrict an employee’s on-duty speech that has the potential to disrupt the work environment would outweigh your rights in this situation.

... As indicated above, we have made a preliminary determination to close our inquiry into your complaint based on the reasons we cited for each allegation you made....

Sincerely,

Colette A. Key
Complaints Examiner
Complaints Examining Unit

So, some nine months after his House of Death protest letter was sent to ICE supervisor Gaudioso and U.S. Attorney Sutton, Gonzalez found himself running out of options in dealing with the resulting reprisal. Two major government watchdog agencies had chosen to hide behind legal loopholes to look away from the alleged cover-up.

In addition, Gonzalez’ federal discrimination lawsuit in Miami was still pending, with no end in sight. And, Gonzalez claims, there was no end in sight to the retaliation he was facing from the DEA.

As a result, Gonzalez decided to turn in his gun and badge for good.

“On January 8, 2005, (Gonzalez) had no choice but to retire after 26 years of service with the Agency when it became obvious that his career was all but over due to the numerous acts of retaliatory conduct on the part of (the DEA), essentially making it the same as a constructive discharge,” Gonzalez asserts in pleadings in his federal lawsuit in Miami.

But Gonzalez was not through with this battle to clear his name and to expose the cover-up in the House of Death murders. In February 2005, he took his case to another watchdog agency, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, the source of the FOIA records for this investigative expose.

His case is still pending before the board.

The soul toll

To date, the known murder toll in the House of Death horror story stands at 15:

• A dozen people tortured, murdered and buried in the backyard of a house in Ciudad Juárez – including at least one U.S. citizen, 29-year-old Luis Padilla, who left behind a wife and three small kids.

• Two more people murdered by a House of Death operative (a corrupt state police commandant); they were killed in broad daylight the day after a DEA agent and his family were pulled over in a bogus traffic stop in Ciudad Juárez and threatened by corrupt Mexican cops on the payroll of the Juárez drug organization.

• A 27-year-old father of a two-week old baby who was shot dead in El Paso after thugs mistook him for the informant, Jesus Contreras, who is at the center of the House of Death murders.

All of these people had families who are forever scarred by these homicides, yet it seems the murders are little more than statistics to the bureaucracies charged with perpetuating the war on drugs. How can that be?

How can the cold-blooded slayings of 15 people -- the bulk of the killings carried out by an informant under the watch of federal agents and prosecutors -- be deemed an acceptable price for making a drug case?

In recent weeks, the nation has been injected through the TV feeding tube with daily doses of the Terri Schiavo case. The coverage, not unlike a jackal pack waiting on its prey to die, is marked by well-heeled talking heads expressing their moral outrage over the decision to pull the plug on the tragically brain-dead woman. Given the national media attention focused on the Schiavo case in Florida, one has to wonder where the outrage is over the House of Death murders along the Texas border.

The national media have been mute when it comes to coverage of that story.

Maybe the silence is by design, because paying attention to the House of Death might expose a deeper truth about the war on drugs that could lead people to question not only our government, our justice system, but also the very reasons for fighting the so-called war in the first place.

Maybe the cover-up is an easier path for most – the government, the media, the “moral majority” -- to follow, much easier than confronting the grim reality that once we know the truth, we too become complicit in its consequences.

Maybe the informant, the narco-traffickers, and the federal agents and prosecutors at the center of the House of Death are not that much different than those in the media, the Congress, the White House or others in positions of power who are seeking, at all costs, to advance their careers. They choose to look the other way, even in the face of human horror, when it is the expedient career course to take.

Seems to me this is a case of a snake swallowing its own tail.

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