Court files reveal million-dollar informants

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The Drug Enforcement Administration doesn't voluntarily detail its payments to confidential sources, but court filings show that some informants have topped $1 million in federal payouts.

In an ongoing 17-year-old lawsuit against the government in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, a former confidential source known as "The Princess" reported that the DEA paid her $1,037,567 over nearly four years, and argued she should have gotten millions more.

According to court filings, she played the role of money launderer. After infiltrating Colombian drug circles, she gained intelligence on the flow of trafficker funds and helped the DEA seize money, resulting in forfeitures, including one in the amount of $8 million, according to her Virginia-based attorney, Michael Avery.

In a 2011 court filing, Mr. Avery wrote that the Princess was used "to amass large seizures of trafficker funds ... with no intention of using the services of Princess to prosecute traffickers and/or shut down trafficking organizations."

She was given nowhere near the promised share of seized money, he argued early in the lawsuit's life. A federal judge ruled that he couldn't prove that contention.

DEA agents promise confidential sources up to $250,000 or 25 percent of seized assets, "whichever is less," said Mr. Avery. But when some confidential sources try to collect, according to Mr. Avery, the DEA claims there was no contract, saying, "oops, that person doesn't have the authority" to make the promise.

The Princess's lawsuit now focuses on the circumstances of a 1995 trip she made to Columbia, during which she was kidnapped and held for 105 days. She maintains that she is owed damages because the DEA did not follow protocols that might have prevented the mishap.

Another million-dollar DEA informant, ostensibly fired in 2000, re-emerged in a court case in May, when Arizona defense attorney Cameron Morgan learned a potential witness against his client was one Andrew Chambers.

In a motion to dismiss the charges, the attorney wrote Mr. Chambers "committed perjury in at least 16 cases while working for [the DEA] between 1985 and 2000," and tried to avoid paying taxes on "millions of dollars of income from the DEA and other agencies."

Two weeks after Mr. Morgan filed his motion, a federal prosecutor dropped the charges against the defense attorney's client, citing unspecified "recently discovered information."

The blemishes on Mr. Chambers' background were not news to the DEA. Mr. Morgan based his accusations on evidence uncovered by California defense attorney Dean Steward, which spurred a St. Louis Post-Dispatch series and a 20/20 television investigation.

Mr. Morgan cited a resulting 157-page DEA review of Mr. Chambers' work, in which the agency disclosed that he was involved in 280 investigations, received at least $1.9 million and testified 25 times, usually lying about his background. In 2000, the DEA revealed it was deactivating Mr. Chambers.

Mr. Morgan said he never learned why the DEA reactivated Mr. Chambers, apparently in 2008.

"If the government is going to use serial perjurers to make its case, there's a real problem there, because you can't trust the government, you can't trust its witness," Mr. Morgan told the Post-Gazette.

Former DEA and FBI confidential source Baruch Vega sued the government in 2007, claiming that he was owed $28.5 million, or $250,000 for each of the 114 drug dealers whose assets were forfeited in cases he made possible.

Mr. Vega had a unique role, according to court filings by his attorney, Richard J. Diaz of Coral Gables, Fla. He approached Columbian drug dealers, told them they faced the danger of extradition to the U.S., and convinced them to retain Miami lawyers. A federal prosecutor in the Southern District of Florida then worked with the attorneys to set up interviews between the dealers and the DEA or FBI, in Panama, at which some became cooperators and got "sweetheart deals," according to Mr. Diaz's filings.

"In varying degrees, these targets forfeited cash, real estate, jewelry and art in an estimated total amount somewhere between $250 million and $500 million," Mr. Diaz wrote.

The Department of Justice countered that Mr. Vega's claims could not be proved, and that because the DEA and FBI stopped using him in 2000, he missed the six-year statute of limitations for suing them. A judge dismissed the case.

"What I do now is, I'll take an informant to an agency and say, 'We're going to do money [seizure] cases, only money cases,' " said Mr. Diaz, who continues to represent informants. That way they can get shares of the proceeds.

He said he harbors no illusions about his clients.

Informants "are not an invaluable asset. They are a valuable asset," said Mr. Diaz. "What I mean by that is, you have to govern them. They are inherently unreliable. They are always looking to get an advantage."

Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542. Twitter @richelord

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