TELLING FOR DOLLAR$

U.S. agencies work to hide every detail about thousands of informants

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Andre Allen Williams wanted 5 kilograms of cocaine, pronto, and another 20 kilos delivered to Pittsburgh as soon as he sold the first batch, according to court testimony. Two Texans and a Mexican drug broker said they knew a guy with an unlimited supply.

That supposed supplier, though, was a man known to the Drug Enforcement Administration as CS-78-012335. The letters stand for confidential source, and the first two digits indicate he started work as an informant in 1978.

CS-78-012335 -- whose name the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has decided not to publish -- is one of thousands of DEA informants who work for stipends and, often, shares of the drug money that the agency seizes. He testified at Williams' 2012 trial that he worked continuously for the DEA for 34 years, and was paid $31,000 for his role in busting Williams and his connections.

While in whistleblower cases the federal government openly enriches some for telling on others, confidential source programs are the murkier side of Uncle Sam's payment for information. Agencies take great pains to hide the identities of informants, and even to conceal the budgets from which they pay their sources.

The Post-Gazette sought a full accounting of government payments to CS-78-012335 through a Freedom of Information Act request, but the DEA denied it. The newspaper is appealing that denial.

Some former federal agents warn that too much reliance on well-paid, longtime informants can lead to charges against people only peripherally involved in criminality.

Marquetta Lavelle Mitchell, 41, of Penn Hills, for instance, was a minor participant in the activities of her boyfriend, Williams, though he brought her to a fateful rendezvous. Her later refusal to testify against him appears to have spurred a prosecutor to take the unusual step of putting CS-78-012335 on the witness stand.

As a result, she is serving a 10-year federal prison sentence and in February was indicted on a contempt charge, novel in federal court, that could keep her from her ailing mother and two daughters indefinitely.

Thousands of sources

The DEA in 2005 told the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General that it has around 4,000 active confidential sources at any one time.

About this series
This is the third part of an occasional series in which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explores the ways in which the federal government pays those who provide information relevant to criminal and civil law enforcement.
In February, we reported on increasing use of the False Claims Act, which in recent years has brought nearly $3 billion in annual recoveries to the federal government, of which nearly $400 million annually has been paid to whistleblowers.

In March and early April, we detailed problems with the IRS whistleblower program, which pays those who provide information that leads to tax collections.

"Informants are able to provide a level of detail and a window into drug trafficking organizations that no other investigative technique can equal," DEA Special Agent Joseph Moses, a spokesman for the agency, told the Post-Gazette. "They are, generally speaking, the best source of intelligence that we have to build complex cases against top-tier traffickers in major drug trafficking organizations."

"They couldn't infiltrate the Mexican cartels the way that they've done," without paid sources, said Dennis Fitzgerald, a former DEA agent who is an attorney and author of the book "Informants and Undercover Investigations: A Practical Guide to Law, Policy and Procedure." However, he added, paying informants is "basically an outsourcing of [undercover] work to civilian mercenaries."

In response to the Post-Gazette's requests under the Freedom of Information Act, the DEA argued disclosing how much it pays for information nationally, and at each of its district offices, would reveal law enforcement tactics, undercut prosecutions, prevent fair trials, invade personal privacy, reveal confidential sources and endanger lives. The Post-Gazette's appeal argues release of non-case-specific budgetary documents would do none of those things.

The Department of Justice's Asset Forfeiture Fund -- one of numerous pots of money from which confidential sources are paid -- reported to Congress that in Fiscal 2013 the DEA spent $26.2 million from seized assets on awards for information and the purchase of evidence.

Concealing the amount paid to confidential sources is misguided, said Mr. Fitzgerald.

"Just think of it," said Mr. Fitzgerald. "If the bad guys on the street knew what they could potentially make by becoming informants, wouldn't that enhance law enforcement?"

Concealing the identities of confidential sources, though, is understandable, he said. At least one international gang, California-based MS-13, "actually farms for information in the court records," looking for paid informant identities, he said. The gang's goal? "Kill them."

In regard to CS-78-012335, the prosecution in the end couldn't hide him and still make the case against Williams -- and his former girlfriend, Mitchell, may pay the price.

Starved for a companion

Mitchell was "always a bright and cheerful child," family friend Gail A. Mills, of Monroeville wrote to a federal judge in 2012. Ms. Mills later employed Mitchell at an elder care business. "My clients came to start calling her 'The Tall One' and always asked if she could stay with them."

Marquetta Lavelle Mitchell

She was "raised in a humble, meager, Christian household filled with love, honor and respect," her brother, Rick Mitchell, wrote in a letter to the judge.

She got a GED diploma and a home health care certificate, and from 1999 through her incarceration she worked for Personal Touch Home Health Services, according to court filings. She broke up with the father of her two daughters in 2004. As of Mitchell's August 2012 sentencing, one daughter was in college, the other in grade school.

Mitchell took care of her father before his 2007 death from Lou Gehrig's disease, and then her mother during an ongoing struggle with heart problems, the brother wrote. "It was that need and drive to take care of her family which took her to that point, the point of making a foolhardy decision," he wrote.

Court records show no arrests before Williams, 43, came into her life.

"Ms. Mitchell found Mr. Williams to be kind to her, her children and her mother," wrote her initial defense attorney, Chris Capozzi, prior to her sentencing. "These were qualities in a male companion that she had not had in some time and for which she was starved."

That companionship was coming from a man who was a crack dealer by the time he was 21.

In 1993, Williams was indicted in federal court in West Virginia, and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, stipulating in a plea agreement to being responsible for 1.6 kilograms.

Released from prison in 2008, he was back in the business by 2011, according to the DEA.

That's when Williams got in contact with Texans Mario Soto and Emilio Carmona-Cepeda, according to DEA records, court filings and testimony. One of the Texans reached out to a drug broker in Matamoros, Mexico. The broker in turn called CS-78-012335.

A veteran deal maker

Soto began negotiating directly with CS-78-012335. At Williams' trial, a DEA agent testified that CS-78-012335 "was actually brokering the entire deal."

Before he became a law enforcement informant, CS-78-012335 was a drug dealer. He was arrested in Harlingen, Texas, in 1975 for possession and delivery of marijuana, and sentenced to three years of probation.

At the Williams trial, CS-78-012335 testified that he has been a confidential source for 34 years, "without interruption," and works on cases "continuously."

"There's no limit" to the duration of a confidential source's service, said Mr. Moses. "There's actually an internal review process, that once someone goes over a certain amount of time, we review their cooperation and ask, is this appropriate?"

A prominent former DEA undercover agent said 34 years is too long.

"To me, it is a disgrace," said Michael Levine, a former 25-year DEA undercover agent who is now a court expert on drug stings and has written two books describing his cases, including "The Big White Lie: The Deep Cover Operation That Exposed the CIA Sabotage of the Drug War."

"If you leave an informant out on his own, and you wait for him to make a case, which is what they're doing, 90 percent of the time, he's going to be entrapping people," said Mr. Levine. "Why should he go after dangerous criminals who will kill his family, his parakeet, his dog, when he can go after people who aren't really dangerous?"

Questioned by assistant U.S. attorney Ross Lenhardt, CS-78-012335 said he works for the DEA "Because I like to take the drugs off the streets for once, and then I get paid."

For reeling in Williams, Soto, Carmona-Cepeda and Mitchell, he got $2,000 initially, then another $29,000, he testified. The latter figure corresponds to one-fifth of the cash seized at their arrest. He was not asked about his lifetime income as a DEA contractor, but said that for one prior case, he was paid $52,000.

To make payments in excess of $25,000 on any case, DEA agents have to get "authorization of the senior field manager and the express approval of a designated senior headquarters official," according to the Department of Justice guidelines on confidential informants.

In order to pay a confidential source more than $100,000 in a single year, agents of Department of Justice agencies including the DEA and FBI must get approval from senior headquarters officials. Any time agents want to make payments that would take a confidential source's total, lifetime receipts beyond $200,000, they need a separate approval from Washington.

"DEA goes to great lengths to make sure that the payment that a cooperating source receives is commensurate to their role in the investigation," said Mr. Moses.

Asked for contracts, records of payments, approvals and other documents related to CS-78-012335, the DEA declined to provide any documents, claiming their release would violate personal privacy, reveal the identity of a confidential source and endanger an individual's life and safety. The Post-Gazette has responded in its pending appeal that minimal redaction of the material would show how public money has been spent without revealing anyone's identity.

The bust

In March 2011, Williams and Mitchell drove to Tennessee, where they were stopped by a member of a state task force that specializes in drug interdiction, questioned at roadside and let go, according to the officer's testimony. Just minutes later, Carmona-Cepeda was stopped by the same task force, which found $220,000 in his car, according to the officer. The officer seized the money as suspected drug proceeds, gave Carmona-Cepeda a receipt and let him go.

Mitchell later confirmed to agents she suspected drug trafficking was the purpose of the trip, and that she was suspicious when Williams told her on two or three occasions to wire a few thousand dollars to Brownsville, Texas, according to DEA reports.

The confidential source agreed to sell Williams cocaine at $27,500 per kilo, including $1,000-per-kilo shares for Soto and the Mexican broker, according to court records. He said he would send an emissary to Pittsburgh to count the money before delivering the drugs.

The emissary was an undercover DEA agent.

On April 15, 2011, Williams drove to the planned meeting at a North Fayette hotel in a Chevrolet Blazer, trailed by a Dodge Ram driven by another man, with Mitchell in that passenger seat. (Charges later were filed but then dropped against the man driving the Ram.)

Williams exited the Blazer and took from the Ram a shoulder bag containing $146,005, a DEA agent reported. Soto carried the money into the hotel. The DEA and local police then arrested the two Texans, Williams, Mitchell and the driver of the Ram.

Both Texans pleaded guilty to attempt to distribute cocaine and got 10 years in prison.

Mitchell pleaded guilty to both conspiracy and attempt to distribute cocaine. Mr. Capozzi argued that as a first-time offender with a minor role, she should get a waiver of the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.

The prosecutor, Mr. Lenhardt, countered she was not eligible for the waiver because she did not fully cooperate with law enforcement. U.S. District Judge Alan N. Bloch agreed, and sentenced her in his Pittsburgh courtroom to 10 years.

Contempt

When Williams went to trial, Mr. Lenhardt subpoenaed Mitchell.

Judge Bloch ordered her to testify against her boyfriend, granting her immunity from prosecution for anything she might say and thereby rendering moot her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Mitchell refused to testify against Williams, even though Mr. Capozzi warned her she could be charged with contempt and get added prison time. "I read the paperwork," she said. "I don't understand how that is possible."

"You understand that you could get a period of unlimited incarceration if you were to be indicted, which could be consecutive, meaning on top of the 10 years you are doing?" Mr. Lenhardt warned her.

"I understand," Mitchell said, though she wouldn't accept that her Fifth Amendment rights were moot. "I didn't know I'll never have rights again, to exercise my own rights ever again," she said, before federal marshals took her back to jail.

"Not just as a defense lawyer, as a human being, I felt empathy for the woman," said Mark Sindler, trial counsel for Williams. "She found herself in a situation that became unbearable. She obviously had her allegiances, and she thought she was doing the right thing."

Just after Mitchell refused to testify against Williams, the prosecution called CS-78-012335, which meant naming him in open court. He described his communications with Soto leading up to the North Fayette rendezvous.

"Putting [the confidential source] on the stand was the last thing they wanted to do," said Mr. Fitzgerald, who was furnished with a court brief summarizing the case. "Juries don't like to hear that a [witness was] paid."

The jury, though, found Williams guilty of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, though not guilty of attempt to distribute the drug. Judge Bloch pronounced a sentence of 20 years, which Williams is appealing.

In February, 16 months after she refused to testify against her boyfriend, Mitchell was indicted again, on a single count of criminal contempt of court.

If Mitchell is sentenced for contempt alone, she will be a rarity in federal law enforcement. In all 154 federal cases in the past five years in which a defendant has been sentenced for contempt, that charge was subordinate to a weightier crime, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission data.

U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton's office explained in a press release that Mitchell "disobeyed and resisted the lawful process, order and command of a Court of the United States, that is, she refused to testify" at Williams' trial.

Mr. Lenhardt filed paperwork noting that "the maximum sentence is life imprisonment."

At a March initial appearance, Mitchell pleaded not guilty, and her new court-appointed attorney, Michael Healey, got an extension of time to file pretrial motions.

Her brother, Rick Mitchell, a medical device specialist, said the family has tried "to pick the pieces up and move forward to keep some semblance of a normal life. But my nieces' lives are not normal, by any means."

"She already has the minimum of 10 years," he said of his sister. "You want to add more time. ... I don't think that the punishment fits the crime in this case, at all."

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. Twitter @richelord


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