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FBI yanks agent from corruption sting case

An FBI agent in one of the bureau’s most celebrated corruption stings was tossed from the case after federal prosecutors learned that the agent and other investigators apparently tried to cover up misconduct by informers, including the sexual abuse of an unconscious prostitute in a Las Vegas hotel.

In official reports, FBI agents failed to disclose allegedly criminal acts and the destruction of evidence by informers, then withheld that information from federal prosecutors for more than a year, according to a military court document obtained by The Arizona Republic.

The incident occurred in the midst of Operation Lively Green, a four-year undercover sting that so far has led to the conviction of 69 military personnel, prison guards, law enforcement employees and other public servants who accepted bribes to help smuggle Mexican cocaine through Arizona.

U.S. authorities have touted Lively Green as one of the government’s most successful public corruption probes. Justice Department officials never publicly acknowledged that FBI agents and undercover civilian operatives, known as informers, may have behaved questionably as they investigated other government employees. There is no indication that any federal agents participated in sexual misconduct in the case.

The conduct is spelled out in a “disclosure of information” given by prosecutors to defense attorney Charles Gittins, representing a former military officer, Tech Sgt. Lantz Nave, who was convicted Saturday in a court-martial trial at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Nave was found guilty on six counts, including bribery, narcotics violations and criminal solicitation. He was sentenced to five years in prison, a dishonorable discharge and loss of pension.

The two-page disclosure is unsigned and does not identify any of those involved by name.

On Oct. 16, 2002, it says, a confidential informer and 11 suspects delivered 60 kilograms of cocaine from Tucson to Las Vegas.

After that successful delivery, the disclosure document says, the FBI paid for a presidential suite at the MGM Grand Hotel, where three informers spent the evening with suspects in the smuggling operation. Although informers had been admonished by their FBI handlers not to violate criminal laws, the document says, the three joined six suspects in hiring prostitutes “to perform various sex acts with each other and themselves. In addition, another woman who was heavily intoxicated had possibly passed out and the CI (confidential informer) and others engaged in sexual acts with her.”

The suite was not under FBI surveillance, but a day later, agents recorded conversations among those involved, with detailed comments about the orgy.

According to the disclosure, FBI reports submitted to an assistant U.S. attorney did not disclose the incident. An agent also failed to advise the prosecutor about lewd photographs showing informers with the woman.

When an assistant U.S. attorney later asked what happened in the hotel room, the agent allegedly revealed only that some subjects had hired hookers. Federal prosecutors did not learn what happened until 16 months later, in March 2004, during a meeting with one of the informers.

The FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates misconduct by agents, launched an inquiry. During that probe, the disclosure says, an informer admitted disposing of the photographs based on “what he interpreted as an instruction from the agent.”

That agent denied issuing such a directive, but acknowledged saying he “did not want to see them again.”‘ A colleague who overheard the exchange told investigators he felt that the informant had been directed to eliminate the photos.

As a result of the internal investigation, the agent was “removed from any other involvement” in Lively Green, according to the disclosure.

The prosecutor, Maj. Jill Thomas, could not be reached for comment.

Deb McCarley, a Phoenix FBI spokeswoman, declined to comment on specific elements of the Lively Green sting because it is ongoing. However, she described it as “a really good case,” adding, “The agents were not involved in any criminal activity.”

She and Bryan Sierra, a Department of Justice spokesman in Washington, D.C., emphasized that 69 public employees in positions of trust admitted taking money to help a supposed Mexican cocaine cartel bring drugs into the country. Even after defense lawyers were advised of misconduct allegations, they said, all defendants pleaded guilty.

As recently as last month, FBI Director Robert Mueller touted Lively Green as an example of the FBI’s successful fight against corruption.

Undercover agents and informers paid $650,000 in bribes to prison guards, active military personnel, National Guard troops and law enforcement employees.

In one instance in August 2002, uniformed soldiers drove Army National Guard vehicles to a clandestine airstrip near Benson, where they met what they believed to be a smuggler’s aircraft loaded with drugs. After loading 60 kilograms of cocaine into Humvees, they drove to a resort hotel in Phoenix, where an FBI agent posing as a trafficker paid them.

Gittins, the defense attorney for Nave, said, “I think the FBI suppressed the misconduct. Agents who were supposed to enforce the law compromised themselves. Even the redacted version of that report is shocking, and that no one was disciplined as a result is beyond the pale. A woman was sexually assaulted.”

The list of Operation Lively Green defendants covers 46 military personnel, including 18 National Guard soldiers, as well as eight prison guards. Each suspect was advised of prosecution by a specialized summons known as an “information,” rather than by indictment or criminal complaint. That allowed suspects to sign plea agreements on the same day charges were made public, without being jailed or posting bail.

The case was overseen by attorneys from the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., rather than the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona. All defendants were convicted on a single conspiracy count, which carries a maximum 5-year prison sentence – substantially less than what might be expected for major narcotics and bribery convictions. As a result, there were no public trials in U.S. District Court, and limited disclosures in courts-martial hearings where military personnel were tried.

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