Part Four: THE INFORMANTS|
by Andrew Schneider and Mary Pat Flaherty
They snitch at all levels, from the Hell’s Angel whose testimony across the country has made him a millionaire, to the Kirksville, Mo., informant who worked for the equivalent of a fast-food joint’s hourly wage.
They snitch for all reasons, from criminals who do it in return for lighter sentences to private citizens motivated by civic-mindedness.
But it’s only with the recent boom in forfeiture that paid informants began snitching for a hefty cut of the take.
With the spread of forfeiture actions has come a new, and some say, problematic, practice: guaranteeing police informants that if their tips result in a forfeiture, the informant will get a percentage of the proceeds.
And that makes crime pay. Big.
The Asset Forfeiture Fund of the U.S. Justice Department last year gave $24 Million to informants as their share of forfeited items. It has $22 million earmarked this year.
While plenty of those payments go to informants who match the stereotype of a shady, sinister opportunist, many are average people you could meet on any given day in an airport, bus terminal or train station.
In fact, if you travel often, you likely have met them – whether you know it or not.
Counter clerks notice how people buy tickets. Cash ? A one-way trip ?
Operators of X-ray machines watch for “suspicious” shadows and not only for outlines of weapons, which is what signs at checkpoints say they’re scanning. They look for money, “suspicious” amounts that can be called to the attention of law enforcement – and maybe net a reward for the operator.
Police affidavits and court testimony in several cities show clerks for large package handlers, including United Parcel Service and Continental Airlines” Quick Pak, open “suspicious” packages and alert police to what they find. To do the same thing, police would need a search warrant.
At 16 major airports, drug agents, counter and baggage personnel, and management reveal an underground economy running off seizures and forfeitures.
All but one of the airports’ drug interdiction teams reward private employees who pass along reports about suspicious activity. Typically, they get 10 percent of the value of whatever is found.
The Greater Pittsburgh International Airport team does not and questions the propriety of the practice.
Under federal and most states’ laws, forfeiture proceeds return to the law enforcement agency that builds the case. Those agencies also control the rewards of informants.
The arrangement means both police and the informants on whom they rely now have a financial incentive to seize a person’s goods – a mix that may be too intoxicating, says Lt. Norbert Kowalski.
He runs Greater Pitt’s joint 11-person Allegheny County Police Pennsylvania State Police interdiction team.
“Obviously, we want all the help we can get in stopping these drug traffickers. But having a publicized program that pays airport or airline employees to in effect, be whistle-blowers, may be pushing what’s proper law enforcement to the limit”, he says.
He worries that the system might encourage unnecessary random searches.
His team checked passengers arriving from 4,230 flights last year. Yet even with its avowed cautious approach, the team stopped 527 people but netted only 49 arrests.
At Denver’s Stapelton Airport – where most of the drug team’s cases start with informant tips – officers also made 49 arrests last year. But they stopped about 2,000 people for questioning, estimates Capt. Rudy Sandoval, commander of the city’s Vice and Drug Control Bureau.
As Kowalski sees it, the public vests authority in police with the expectation they will use it legally and judiciously. The public can’t get those same assurances with police disignees, like counter clerks, says Kowalski.
With money as an inducement, “you run the risk of distorting the system, and that can infringe on the rights of innocent travelers. If someone knows they can get a good bit of money by turning someone in, then they may imagine seeing or hearing things that aren’t there. What happens when you get to court?”
In Nashville, that’s not much of an issue. Juries rarely get to hear from informants.
Police who work the airport deliberately delay paying informants until a case has been resolved “because we don’t want these tipsters to have to testify. If we don’t pay them until the case is closed they don’t have to risk going to court,” says Capt. Judy Bawcum, commander of the vice division for Nashville Police Department.
That means their motivation can’t be questioned.
Bawcum says it may appear that airport informants are working solely for the money, but she believes there’s more to it. “I admit these (X-ray) guards are getting paid less than burger flippers at McDonald’s and the promise of 10 percent of $50,000 or whatever is attractive. But to refuse to help us is not a progressive way of thinking,” says Bawcum. “This is a public service.”
But not all companies share the view that their employees should be public servants. Package handling companies and Wackenhut, the X-ray checkpoint security firm, refuse to allow Nashville police to use their workers as informants.
“They’re so fearful a promise of a reward will prompt their people to concentrate on looking for drugs and money instead of looking for weapons,” says Bawcum.
Far from being uncomfortable with the notion of citizen-cops, Bawcum says her department relies on them. “We need airport employees working for us because we’ve only got a very small handful of officers at the airports”, she says.
For her, the challenge comes in sustaining enthusiasm, especially when federal agencies like the DEA are “way too slow paying out.” Civic duty carries only so far. “It’s hard to keep them watching when they have to wait for those rewards. We can’t lose that incentive.”
Most drug teams hold tight the details of how their system works and how much individual informants earn, preferring to keep their public service private.
But in a Denver court case, attorney Alexander DeSalvo obtained photocopies of police affidavits about tipsters and copies of three checks payable to a Continental airline clerk, Melissa Furtner. The checks, from the U.S. Treasury and Denver County, total $5,834 for the period from September 1989 to August 1990.
Ms. Furtner, reached by phone at her home, was flustered by questions about the checks.
“What do you want to know about the rewards?” I can’t talk about any of it. It’s not something I’m supposed to talk about. I don’t feel comfortable with this at all.” She then hung up.
As hefty as the payments to private citizens can be, they are pin money compared to the paychecks drawn by professional informants.
Among the best paid of all: convicted drug dealers and self-confessed users.
Anthony Tait, a Hell’s Angel and admitted drug user who has been a cooperating witness for the FBI since 1985, earned nearly $1 million for information he provided between 1985 and 1988, according to a copy of Tait’s payment schedule and FBI contract obtained by the Pittsburgh Press.
Of his $1 million, $250,000 was his share of the value of assets forfeited as a result of his cooperation. His money came from four sources, FBI offices in Anchorage and San Francisco; the state of California and the federal forfeiture fund.
Likewise, in a November 1990 case in Pittsburgh, the government paid a former drug kingpin handsomely.
Testimony shows that Edward Vaughn of suburban San Francisco earned $40,000 in salary and expenses between August 1989 and October 1990 Working for DEA, drew and additional $500 a month from the U.S. Marshal Service and was promised a 25 percent cut of any forfeited goods.
Vaughn had run a multimillion dollar, international drug smuggling ring, been a federal fugitive, and twice served prison time before arranging an early parole and paid informant deal with the government, he said in court.
As an informant, he said, he preferred arranging deals for drug agents that are known as reverse stings: the law enforcement agents pose as sellers and the targets bring cash for the buy. Those deals take cash, but not dope, directly off the streets. In those stings, he said, the cash would be forfeited and Vaughn would get his pre-arranged quarter-share.
His testimony in Pittsburgh resulted in one man being found guilty of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. The jury acquitted the other defendant saying they believed Vaughn had entrapped him by pursuing him so aggressively to make a dope deal.
The practice of giving informants a share of forfeited proceeds goes on so discreetly that Richard Wintory, an Oklahoma prosecutor recently headed the National Drug Prosecution Center in Alexandria, Va. says, “I’m not aware of any agency that pays commissions on forfeited items to informants.”
Although the federal forfeiture program funnels millions of dollars to informants, it does not set policy at the top about how – or how much – to pay.
“Decisions about how to pursue investigations within the guidelines of appropriate and legal behavior are best left to people in the field,” Says George Terwilliger III, the deputy attorney general who heads the Justice Department’s forfeiture program.
That hands-off approach filters to local offices, such as Pittsburgh, where U.S. Attorney Thomas Corbett says the discussion of whether to give informants a cut of any take “is a philosophical argument. I won’t put myself in the middle of it.”
The absence of regulations spawns “privateers and junior G-men,” says Steven Sherick, a defense attorney in Tucson, Ariz., who recently recovered $9,000 for John P. Gray of Rutland, Vt., after a UPS employee found it in a package and called police.
Gray, says Sherick, is “an eccentric older guy who doesn’t use anything but cash.” In March 1990, Gray mailed a friend hand-money for a piece of Arizona retirement property Gray had scouted during an earlier trip West, say court records. The court ordered the money returned because the state couldn’t prove the cash was gained illegally.
Expanding payments to private citizens, particularly on a sliding scale rather than a fixed fee, raises unsavory possibilities, says Eric E. Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Major racketeers and criminal enterprises were the initial targets of forfeiture, but its use has steadily expanded until now it catches people who never have been accused of a crime but lose their property anyway.
“You can win a forfeiture case without charging someone,” says Sterling. “You can win even after they’ve been acquitted. And now, on top of that, you can have informants tailoring their tips to the quality of the thing that will be seized.
“What paid informant in their right mind is going to turn over a crack house – which may be destroying an inner city neighborhood – when he can turn over information about a nice, suburban spread that will pay off big when it comes tome to get his share?” asks Sterling.
The following is a side box on Part Four: