Tuesday, September 02, 2008

NPR focuses on pitfalls of informant use

I've been critical of law enforcement relying too heavily on confidential informants when they contribute to police corruption and falsely accuse innocent people, but an NPR story today shows snitches can also cause loads of trouble when they make false allegations against their police handlers.

National Public Radio is running a three part series on the use of snitches by law enforcement, particularly in the FBI. The first installment focused on the Whitey Bulger case out of Boston that's been a frequent topic of discussion on this blog.

Today's story focuses on informants who falsely accused their handlers of crimes, honing in on the story of a New York FBI agent, Lin DeVecchio, who racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills fighting false claims by a much relied-upon mob informant:

Jim Kossler was the coordinating supervisor for organized crime for the FBI in New York — DeVecchio's boss. He says that what happened to DeVecchio has become a cautionary tale for agents in the field.

"I mean this story is so unbelievable," says Kossler. "The fallout of it as it relates to how the bureau does its business in the future — it is going to have a great impact."

Kossler says agents can't help but think about what they put at risk — personally — when they tap a criminal to get them inside information. DeVecchio paid a heavy price. Among other things, he lost his reputation, and he even lost his business.

"He had a pretty good investigative business," says Kossler. "And he lost that whenever he got indicted. He couldn't work. When you get indicted like that, it is a harrowing experience. He handled it very well. I don't know if I could handle it."

Part of the problem lies with the fact that police must build up their informants' credibility with the courts in order to convict the bad guys, so if they accuse an innocent person or a police officer, there's a presumption they're telling the truth. As Agent DeVecchio lamented in the story, ""My question is, where do I go to get my reputation back?"

Tomorrow NPR will focus on a bill in Congress that would hold law enforcement accountable for the crimes of their informants. I'm pretty sure that legislation stems from revelations at a committee hearing last year covered on Grits where the FBI refused to reassure Congress that they do not tolerate "serious violent felonies" by their informants and would not promise to notify local authorities when snitches committed serious crimes. I'm interested to learn there's federal legislation on the topic and look forward to learning more details.

Good stuff from NPR on a topic that's only recently begun to get the serious media attention it deserves.

UPDATE: Here's the NPR story about the (not-yet filed) federal legislation.
The bill — as envisioned by Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA) — would subject FBI agents to criminal prosecution if they don't alert local law enforcement when one of their informants has committed a crime. ...

The attorney general is expected to release revised guidelines for FBI investigative procedures in the next couple of weeks. Delahunt says he'd like to see those provisions before he moves ahead with his bill. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) has been working with Delahunt on the bill.
The story reminds us that dismay in Congress over misusing informants goes back at least to the publication of this 2005 report (pdf) by the USDOJ Inspector General, which found discrepancies in 87% of informant files reviewed. (See coverage from Slate and the Federal Crimes Blog.) Then in 2007, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on the subject. (See Grits' coverage of the hearing last July.) Delahunt's concerns particularly derive from the Whitey Bulger case in Boston; see this 5-minute excerpt from his questions to the FBI on the topic at a Congressional hearing last July:


Don Dickson said...

I represented a good man whose distinguished career at DPS was ruined by one of these turds.

It is tremendously hard to defend an officer who gets slimed this way. Next to getting executed in cold blood it's the biggest risk they face.

Anonymous said...

...and what about the other victims? The folks falsely accused by "informants? Tough all over it seems, when you construct a house of cards like this one and then try and defend it.