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Holder Pressed on DEA Use of NSA Intelligence

A group of Democratic senators and congressmen want Attorney General Eric Holder to answer questions about a Reuters report earlier this month revealing that the National Security Agency (NSA) supplied the DEA with intelligence information aimed not at fighting foreign terrorism, but at making drug cases in the US.

Five Democratic senators and three Democratic congressmen -- all senior members of the House Judiciary Committee -- have sent a letter to Holder, obtained by Reuters, that submitted questions on the issue. Congressional aides told Reuters the matter will be discussed during a classified hearing next month.

The original Reuters report showed that a DEA intelligence unit passes on NSA-gathered intelligence to field agents and instructs them not to reveal the source of the intelligence -- even in court. Those tips involve drugs, organized crime, and money laundering -- not terrorism, which is the raison d'etre for the NSA surveillance program.

"These allegations raise serious concerns that gaps in the policy and law are allowing overreach by the federal government's intelligence gathering apparatus," said the letter written by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Three congressmen -- ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat John Conyers of Michigan, Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), and Bobby Scott (D-VA) -- sent a similar letter after the original Reuters report earlier this month.

"If this report is accurate, then it describes an unacceptable breakdown in the barrier between foreign intelligence surveillance and criminal process," the congressmen wrote.

It's not just Democrats. House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) told CBS's Face the Nation August 18 that the NSA's passing of intelligence to the DEA for non-terrorist criminal investigations is of concern.

"I think we need to have a very careful examination of this. I think that the trust of the American people in their government is what's at stake here," he said.

Washington, DC
United States

Senator Leahy Calls Judiciary Hearing on Federal Marijuana Policy [FEATURE]

US Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced Monday that he would hold a hearing next month on the Justice Department's response to marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington and legal medical marijuana in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The hearing is set for September 10.

Patrick Leahy (senate.gov)
Leahy has invited Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole to testify before the committee and help clarify the conflicts between state and federal law, as well as the federal response. Cole is the author of the 2011 Cole memo giving federal prosecutors the green light to go after medical marijuana providers in states where it is not tightly regulated.

"It is important, especially at a time of budget constraints, to determine whether it is the best use of federal resources to prosecute the personal or medicinal use of marijuana in states that have made such consumption legal," Leahy said in a statement Monday. "I believe that these state laws should be respected. At a minimum, there should be guidance about enforcement from the federal government."

After Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana last November, Leahy sent a letter to the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy asking that the Obama administration make public its position on the matter. Although Holder said in February that a Justice Department response would be coming "relatively soon," it still hasn't appeared.

State officials in Colorado and Washington said last week that they thought the Justice Department had given them "tacit approval" to move forward with their plans to implement marijuana regulation, taxation, and legalization. Leahy, who has said he supports the efforts in those two states, would like to get something more definitive from the Justice Department.

In the meantime, while the feds are silent on how they will deal with legalization, federal prosecutors and the DEA have kept up the pressure on medical marijuana producers and distributors. Since the Cole memo came out two years ago, hundreds of dispensaries have been raided and hundreds more subjected to federal "threat letters." While actual prosecutions have been more rare, the result has been a reduction in access to medical marijuana for patients in areas where dispensaries have been forced out of business.

Leahy isn't the only one in Congress who is interested in federal marijuana policy. At least seven bills have been filed, most with bipartisan sponsorship, addressing federal marijuana policy. They range from bills to legalize hemp and marijuana to bills that would prevent the use of the IRS to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Holder won kudos from many drug reformers earlier this month when he announced his support for further sentencing reforms, but medical marijuana and marijuana legalization advocates were disappointed that he did not address the tension and contradictions between state and federal marijuana policies. Now, it appears that Leahy is going to force the issue, and marijuana reform advocates couldn't be more pleased.

"This is an important development for all sorts of reasons -- not least because the Senate has been so remarkably passive on marijuana issues even as twenty states have legalized medical marijuana and two have legalized it more broadly. I am delighted that Senator Leahy now seems ready to provide much needed leadership on this issue," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"The ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado made history not so much because they legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana but because they mandated that state governments regulate and tax what had previously been illicit markets," Nadelmann continued. "Ending marijuana prohibition not just in the states but also nationally is going to require the sort of leadership that Senator Leahy is now providing. Now is the time for his colleagues to stand up as well in defense of responsible state regulation of marijuana."

"Two states have made marijuana legal for adult use and are establishing regulated systems of production and distribution. Twenty states plus our nation's capital have made it legal for medical use. By failing to recognize the decisions of voters and legislators in those states, current federal law is undermining their ability to implement and enforce those laws," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Marijuana prohibition's days are numbered, and everyone in Washington knows that," Riffle continued. "It's time for Congress to stop ignoring the issue and develop a policy that allows states to adopt the most efficient and effective marijuana laws possible. We need to put the 'reefer madness' policies of the 1930s behind us and adopt an evidence-based approach for the 21st Century."

"We're still waiting for the administration to announce its response to the marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington, a policy that the attorney general has been saying is coming 'relatively soon' since December," said Tom Angell, head of Marijuana Majority. "If the administration is serious about using law enforcement resources in a smarter way, it should be a no-brainer to strongly direct federal prosecutors to respect the majority of voters by allowing these groundbreaking state laws to be implemented without interference."

It ought to be an interesting, and perhaps, historic hearing. It's two weeks away.

Washington, DC
United States

DEA Must Pay $3 Million in 2010 Killing of LA Teen

A federal judge Tuesday awarded $3 million to the family of an 18-year-old Los Angeles honors student who was gunned down by undercover DEA agents in a parking garage in 2010. But the judge also ruled the officers were not negligent in their actions.

Zachary Champommier (justiceforazac.blogspot.com)
Zachary Champommier died when he drove into a Studio City shopping center parking lot to meet a friend. Also in the parking lot were a group of undercover officers, including DEA agents and LA County sheriff's deputies and LAPD officers who had been deputized by the DEA.

The cops were discussing a search warrant they had just served when they observed Champommier's friend walking in the parking garage. Suspecting the friend was breaking into cars, they detained him. When Champommier drove up, he saw his friend being accosted by people he didn't know and attempted to drive away from possible trouble.

Officers claimed that Champommier's vehicle struck a deputy as he attempted to leave the scene. Officers opened fire, killing the 18-year-old honor student and "band geek."

Both the DEA and the LA County Sheriff's Department said the shooting was justifiable because Champommier had tried to run down an officer.

"The nature of [Champommier's] aggressive actions, actually hitting the deputy -- that is not someone who is without some degree of fault," Sheriff Lee Baca said shortly after the shooting.

Champommier's mother, Carol, filed a wrongful death lawsuit, charging that federal and local drug enforcement officers were reckless in shooting at her son, who she claimed posed no reasonable threat.

US District Court Judge Michael Fitzgerald ruled that the DEA agents did have reason to believe they were in danger, but acted recklessly in shooting at Champommier's vehicle as it passed them because at that point they were no longer in danger.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

Dispensaries get regulation in Oregon, a dispensary will open in Delaware, and they're already popping up in Arizona. There's more medical marijuana news, too; let's get to it:

Arizona

Last Wednesday, the first medical marijuana dispensary in Yuma opened for business. The Jamestown Center on East 32nd Street will serve qualifying patients and is staffed with three pharmacists and a biochemist.

On Tuesday, a new dispensary opened in Tucson. The Downtown Dispensary could potentially be the city's busiest; it is the closest one to the University of Arizona.

California

Last Wednesday, state legislators gave up on a dispensary regulation bill in the face of strong opposition lobbying from law enforcement unions. Senate Bill 439 would have given the state attorney general's guidelines on dispensaries the force of law. Under the status quo, which will now continue indefinitely, the guidelines are not legally binding, allowing recalcitrant law enforcement and local prosecutors to ignore them.

On Tuesday, Fresno County supervisors sought to beef up the county's marijuana growing ordinance. They asked legal staff to explore ways to toughen up the ordinance after county residents complained about rampant pot farming. Residents talked of generators humming all night, dogs running loose and squatters. They said they are afraid to walk off their property or have guests over. Under the current ordinance, violations are punishable by a $100 fine. Some supervisors want to emulate nearby Kern County, where grow ordinance violations are treated as misdemeanors, with up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Other supervisors said the county should just enforce the existing ordinance.

Also on Tuesday, the Napa city council scrapped a proposed dispensary ordinance. The city had spent four years trying to craft it. The council also declined to move forward on a proposed ban. The only action the council could agree to was to send a letter to lawmakers bemoaning the confusion over medical marijuana laws. The city has an existing moratorium on dispensaries, but that is set to expire in October.

Colorado

On Wednesday, activists protested at the state Board of Health over allegations that the Department of Public Health and Environment has been illegally sharing confidential patient information through an online database. Laura Kriho of the Cannabis Therapy Institute and Kathleen Chippi of the Patient and Caregiver Rights Litigation Project authored an emergency petition calling for the database to be disabled. The Health Department has agreed to improve security, but the protesters want to see quicker action.

Delaware

Last Thursday, Gov. Jack Markell (D) announced he would move forward with opening a state-registered dispensary. He had balked at implementing that portion of the state's 2011 medical marijuana law after receiving a threat letter from federal prosecutors, leaving the state's patients without any legal access to their medicine. The law called for one dispensary in each of the state's three counties, but Markell said he would start with one.

Florida

Last Thursday, medical marijuana initiative organizers cleared their first hurdle on the way to the November 2014 ballot. They handed in more than 110,000 voter signatures, well above the 68,000 valid signatures required to trigger a review of the initiative's language by the state Supreme Court. See our feature story on the Florida effort.

Massachusetts

On Saturday, a Sandisfield town hall meeting rejected a proposal for the town to explore running a nonprofit dispensary. The proposal would have allocated $30,000 for a consultant who would advise the town on how to submit an application before next week's competitive filing deadline.The state is currently accepting applications for up to 35 statewide dispensaries. The deadline is August 22.

Michigan

On Tuesday, DEA agents raided an Ann Arbor dispensary. Hit was People's Choice Alternative Medicine. The dispensary had a sign on the door Tuesday afternoon saying it was closed until further notice. It's the second such raid by the DEA in Washtenaw County in a month. On July 30, a search warrant was executed at The Shop -- a medical marijuana dispensary in Ypsilanti.

New Jersey

Last Thursday, the state's only dispensary reopened after being closed for seven weeks. The Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair had closed its doors because of a lack of supply. Because it is the only dispensary operating in the state, it quickly was overwhelmed by demand. Now, they will limit new patients to the seven-county north Jersey region it was originally licensed to serve. Two other dispensaries, one in Woodbridge and one in Egg Harbor, have been given permission to begin growing their crops and are expected to open this fall.

Last Friday, Gov. Chris Christie (R) conditionally vetoed a bill allowing medical marijuana for children, but signaled to the legislature that he would okay it if it were changed to require that kids see not only a pediatrician, but also a psychiatrist, and if the use of medical marijuana edibles were limited to children. On Monday, the state Senate approved those changes. Action awaits in the state Assembly.

New Mexico

Last Wednesday, the state Medical Board postponed a hearing on proposed new rules for providers, saying high public interest required it to find a larger meeting space. The hearing was set for a space holding 100 people, but the board said it now expects 400 to attend. It will provide 30-day notice of the new hearing date. The proposed new rules include requiring providers to consult with a patient's other medical providers and requiring a periodic re-diagnosis of conditions warranting medical marijuana use.

Oregon

Last Thursday, Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) signed into law a medical marijuana dispensary bill. Kitzhaber signed House Bill 3460, which authorizes the Oregon Health Authority to establish procedures to license and regulate dispensaries. Oregon has an estimated 200 dispensaries already operating, but until now, they have operated in a legal gray area and have been subject to harassment and prosecution depending on the attitudes of local police and prosecutors. This bill will require them to register under OMMA and comply with regulations, which will include testing, tracking to ensure that only valid patients are receiving marijuana, and restrictions on location.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Serial Offender: Miami Fed. Prosecutor Called on Misconduct in Drug Cases [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by Houston-based investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Part 6 in a series, "Prosecutorial Misconduct and Police Corruption in Drug Cases Across America."

There is something rotten in Miami. A federal prosecutor there, Assistant US Attorney Andrea Hoffman, seems to have problems staying within the bounds of the law as she attempts to prosecute major drug cases. As a result, cases are coming undone, and some Colombians are going home, some who likely were innocent. And Hoffman's pattern of prosecutorial misconduct has so far come without serious professional consequences.

2011 press conference in Bogota announcing the 56 indictments (presidencia.gov.co)
On September 2, 2011, US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in Miami Wilfredo Ferrer announced the arrest of 56 Colombians in a trio of separate foreign investigations -- Operation Seven Trumpets, Operation Under the Sea, and Operation BACRIM (Bandas Criminales). In what was one of America's biggest drug busts, authorities also seized 21 airplanes, 12 submarines, millions of dollars in cash, and more than 20 tons of cocaine and heroin.

"Together with our law enforcement partners in Colombia, we have developed a proactive strategy to combat the rise of narco-trafficking operations to eliminate the threat they pose to the security of the international community," Ferrer crowed at a press conference with Colombia President Santos and Prosecutor General Viviane Morales in Bogota that day.

But what appeared to a slam-dunk case validating America's never-ending war on drugs soon went sideways, and Hoffman was there. Two Colombian nationals arrested in the case, John Winer and Jose Buitrago, who were looking at life in prison without parole, are now free men after federal District Court Judge Marcia Cooke ruled earlier this year that Hoffman deliberately withheld key evidence from the defense, undermining the defendants' rights to a fair trial.

And that's just for starters.

Winer and Buitrago

On May 21, a jury had already been seated to hear the case against Winer, represented by attorney Jose Quinon, and Buitrago when the latter's defense attorneys, Kashap Patel and Helen Batoff, got DEA agents and a Colombian narcotics officer to acknowledge they knew the DEA was making monthly payments to "vetted units" of the Colombian narcotics police -- and that prosecutor Hoffman also knew about those payments.

"Vetted units" are elite anti-drug squads whose members have passed muster as not being corrupt, and are often used by the DEA and other agencies in their overseas investigations. These units are required to file monthly reports on their activities in order to justify incurred expenses paid for by the DEA as part of US foreign assistance to Colombia to wage the drug war.

Hoffman denied any previous knowledge of the payments to the vetted units.

But on the stand that day, Colombian police officer Pacheco blew up Hoffman's denials about the DEA payments. Pacheco said the matter about the money was discussed between him, Hoffman, and DEA agent Guillermo Turke upon arriving in Miami from Bogota on Sunday, May 14th.

Attorneys Patel and Batoff had already been tipped-off about the use of the vetted units in the case against their clients, and prosecutors acknowledged as much, but refused to disclose information about their role in the case unless the defense attorneys could prove they were entitled to it.

Under the Brady rule, the government is required to turn over exculpatory evidence or material information in the government's possession that could be favorable to a defendant.

"The defense sent a written request to get the documents from Hoffman and her co-counsel, Cynthia Wood, on April 3, 2013," Patel told Judge Cooke. Receiving no reply from Hoffman,  defense attorneys re-sent the letter and, on May 1, received a reply from Hoffman's office acknowledging that the payment information existed, but demanding that the defense explain how it was entitled to that information.

"Tell me why it's Brady material, or under what theory you are entitled to it," prosecutor Christina Maxwell responded.

"The DEA payments to Colombian officers were disclosable to the defense without them having to file a Brady motion to get them," harrumphed Washington, DC, criminal defense attorney Stephan Leckar in an interview with the Chronicle.

US District Court Judge Marcia Cooke didn't let Hoffman get away with misconduct. (stu.edu)
Judge Cooke suspended the trial to hold a hearing on the matter, and things only got worse for Hoffman. Cook and the defense attorneys grilled a bevy of DEA agents, and they testified that Hoffman had known about the payments at an earlier date.

Bogota DEA Special Agent Guillermo Turke reiterated Pacheco's testimony that the "payments were specifically discussed with Hoffman on May 19th".

Miami DEA Corrine Martin told the frustrated judge "after all of the court motions, we spoke with DEA Special Agent Ed Reed about the payments and we also let Ms. Hoffman know."

Replying to a question from Judge Cook, Miami DEA Special Agent Mike Torbert concurred.

"I discovered there was a $200 operational expense given to SIU (special investigation units)," he told the court. "I passed the information to Ms. Hoffman."

Although her office had responded to defense letters about the payments on May 1, acknowledging they had occurred, Hoffman insisted to Judge Cooke that she had first found out about them on May 20, on the eve of the trial. But when Cooke pressed, Hoffman revised.

"Your honor, I found out about the payments at noon on May 21," she then replied.

But after hearing the defense evidence that Hoffman in fact knew about the money paid to the Colombian sources before the trial started, Judge Cooke accused Hoffman of prosecutorial misconduct, or intentionally engaging in inappropriate or illegal behavior by withholding evidence or knowing permitting false testimony and tampering with witnesses. Hoffman had violated the Brady rule by not automatically turning over materially important evidence to the defense prior to trial and when the trial started.

Had defense attorneys been given the information by Hoffman about the DEA payoffs, the wiretaps in the Winer-Buitrago case could have been challenged and used to impeach witnesses, the attorneys argued.  "The scope of the defense would've been different," Patel explained to the judge.

Hoffman apologized to the court, blaming her misconduct on miscommunications due to language barriers, but Judge Cooke wasn't buying it.

"I think the US government was aware of Colombian police officers receiving payments and did not disclose it to the defense," an angry Cooke replied. "The prosecutor was ethically and legally bound to turn the information over. This does not make sense to me. This is all you do. Answer this:  Why does the government get a pass?"

Defense attorneys moved to have the case dismissed because of Hoffman's misbehavior.

"The government's conduct deprived the defendants of their constitutional rights to due process," the attorneys wrote. "Such flagrant disregard for the rule of law and brazen dishonesty to the court and to opposing counsel should 'shock' the court's conscience."

Judge Cooke denied the motion to dismiss but a deal was struck. Winer and Buitrago both pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of conspiracy to transport cocaine and were sentenced to 36 months, with credit for the two years they had already been behind bars pending trial. Both men were subsequently released from custody.

Winer and Buitrago and the Practice of Information Buying and Selling

The little matter of the Brady rule violation in the area of the vetted units wasn't Hoffman's only problem in the Winer-Buitrago case. Defense attorneys also accused her of failing to disclose a letter indicating that another Colombian, Daniel Bustos, who was facing years in prison on a cocaine conspiracy charge, had paid money to another drug defendant, Fabian Cruz, so that Cruz would use his informant connection with prosecutors or outsiders to obtain "inside information" about evidence in the Winer-Buitrago case and feed it to Bustos. Then, Bustos and other defendants could use that information to testify falsely for the prosecution against the Operation Seven defendants in exchange for leniency.

But Assistant US Attorney Hoffman rejected a defense request to obtain the whistleblower letter exposing the dealings between Bustos and Cruz. In the courtroom, Hoffman confirmed that the letter existed, and Judge Cooke gruffly ordered her to produce it for the defense, again citing the Brady rule. At the time, Bustos and Cruz were already on the prosecutors' witness list.

This underground scheme is called "buying and selling" evidence (fake or real) for a defendant to get on the bus with the Feds and ride all the way home to freedom. In a December 2012 story in USA Today, reporter Brad Heath exposed the inner workings of the practice, illustrating how prisoners game the system by buying and selling evidence against other defendants with pending drug cases, then using that bought information to testify for the prosecution in exchange for sentence cuts and early freedom.

That report found that "one out of eight" federal drug convicts had their sentences reduced for helping prosecutors. Similarly, the Houston Chronicle reported that federal judges last year "resentenced 1,738 inmates nationwide after they provided substantial assistance" to investigators and prosecutors.

The corrupt scheme works like this: An inmate with outside connections (or already an informant) will have relatives and friends collect information on the street about a drug dealer's operation, or have operatives to dig up additional information about a dealer awaiting trial. Then the inmate will sell the collected information to prisoners who have money but are short on facts or criminal contacts to cooperate with the government on their own.

Daniel Bustos was hoping to lessen his sentence by paying Cruz to get information on Winer and Buitrago and then using that information to testify against them. And Hoffman was prepared to let him until defense attorneys blew the whistle.

Hoffman has not been officially sanctioned by the court for her misconduct in the Winer-Buitrago case. A court worker told the Chronicle recently that while the matter was under consideration, no ruling had been issued, and Hoffman was still assigned to Cooke's courtroom.

A Miami public affairs spokesman for US Attorney's Office for Florida Southern District declined to comment.

That's not the end of the trouble in Miami. Operation Seven Trumpets and its prosecutors have taken more hits, with other Colombians who had been indicted in the operation and extradited to the US being released and sent home after the charges turned out to have been unfounded.

Carlos Ortega Bonilla

Carlos Ortega Bonilla hugs his son as he is released. (seitleslaw.com)
Carlos Ortega Bonilla and William "Willy" Gil-Perenguez, both Colombian nationals, were arrested and extradited to the US as part of operations Seven Trumpets and BANCRIM. Both were thrown into the Miami Federal Detention Center to await trial on cocaine charges, and both faced up to life in prison if convicted.

Ortega Bonilla, the former head of Colombia's Flight Security (the equivalent to the Federal Aviation Administration), was enjoying his retirement in Bogota when agents armed with paramilitary-style weapons swarmed his home and arrested him.

"You have been indicted for supplying airplanes to traffickers to ship tons of cocaine to other Latin countries and the US," one of the drug agents told him. The agent explained that Ortega Bonilla's voice had been heard on wiretaps selling planes to drug dealers, in particular one Alvaro Suarez, a veteran trafficker who had once worked as a pilot for legendary Medellin Cartel capo Pablo Escobar.

Protesting his innocence all the while, Ortega Bonilla was imprisoned in Bogota while he unsuccessfully fought extradition to the US. He was eventually transferred to Miami, where he languished in jail as he sought to prove his innocence, but that was an extremely hard sell for Assistant US Attorney Hoffman.

"I never worked harder in my life," Miami criminal defense attorney Mark Seitles told the Daily Business Review about his attempts to convince Hoffman to drop the charges.

Seitles immediately hired Ed Kacerosky as an investigator. Kacerosky is a highly decorated former US Customs Agent credited with helping the Feds dismantle the infamous Cali Cartel. Ironically as an agent, Kacerosky had worked closely on previous major drug cases with Hoffman.

Authorities targeted Ortega Bonilla, tapping his phone, but failed to provide evidence that any airplanes he sold were linked to drug trafficking. The key to his freedom would lie in the wiretaps.

"Kacerosky realized after hearing the wiretaps that there was a gross misidentification, and they indicted my client Ortega for acts of another guy named Carlos," Seitles explained.

At an August 14, 2012, hearing in the courtroom of Judge Cooke, Seitles explained that his client had been wrongfully indicted on drug crimes and that his own investigation discovered irrefutable evidence the feds had misidentified his client's voice on the wiretaps.

As a plane broker, Ortega Bonilla sold or leased aircraft, and someone had convinced the feds that he was dirty. But they were wrong.

"Ortega Bonilla's voice was on the wiretaps in one plane deal where he determined that the men who sought the aircraft were drug dealers," Seitles explained. "And he refused to do the deal. No plane was ever sold and emails sent by Ortega Bonilla to the men showed he refused to do business with drug traffickers. There are even recorded calls with Ortega Bonilla attempting to contact the FBI to tell them about this. And the affidavit in support of extraditing Mr. Ortega Bonilla mentioned seven planes and no mention of that airplane, which was an E-90."

The seven planes in question actually belonged to another Carlos, Honduran drug dealer Carlos Litona, Seitles explained.

But Hoffman was having none of it. She argued to Judge Cooke that she had a witness, a co-defendant willing to testify that Carlos Ortega Bonilla was the right guy. Seitles countered in a separate hearing, putting Kacerosky on the stand with the wiretap tapes to explain how he had uncovered evidence that the feds had fingered the wrong man.

"The real guy is Carlos Litona," Kacerosky told the judge.

Without calling her secret witness, Hoffman dropped the charges on August 31.

When Ortega's family arrived at the airport in the Colombian capitol, hundreds of supporters surrounded them, hugging him with teary eyes and wishing him well. But his problems aren't over.

"Ortega Bonilla's US visa has been revoked, and he's having a hard time accepting that he was in custody for a crime he did not commit," Seitles told the Chronicle.

Ortega Bonilla has hired a Colombian attorney to file a lawsuit there and is currently searching for legal representation in the US to file a lawsuit here.

William "Willy" Gil-Perenguez

In June 2006, DEA and Colombian National Police jointly investigated a widespread conspiracy among multiple defendants importing cocaine and heroin on cargo planes traveling from Colombia and landing at Miami International Airport. DEA picked up the name of a cargo worker named "Willy" who supposedly was part of the conspiracy. An informant even identified "Willy" 's voice on wiretaps.

Willy Gil-Perenguez was living the good life at the time in Cali. He had a beloved girlfriend and a decent job, working for the Girag cargo air freight company. But in June 2007, his good life came to a screeching halt, when Colombian drug agents arrested him, believing he was the "Willy" overheard on the drug investigation wiretaps.

He was taken to a DEA office in Colombia, where agents threatened him, telling him to cooperate with them or they could make a phone call and have him sent to prison for 30 years. Gil-Perenguez maintained his innocence, saying he had no idea what they were talking about. In September 2008, he was extradited to Miami to face assorted drug charges that potentially carried a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Facing the wrath and the resources of the US government, Gil-Perenguez caught a lucky break while sitting at the Miami Federal Detention Center awaiting trial. He encountered another detainee, Neixi Garcia Lamela, a major target of Operation Seven Trumpets, who had agreed to cooperate with the feds. But he had bombshell news for Gil-Perenguez.

"DEA agents and Hoffman tried to pressure me to implicate you but I refused, because I knew I would be fabricating testimony to implicate an innocent person," Garcia Lamela told Gil-Perenguez, according to a lawsuit he later filed.

Gil-Perenguez immediately contacted his attorney, Luis Guerra. Guerra relayed to Hoffman the information about Garcia Lamela's admission that his client was innocent.

"I went to Hoffman and said, 'You have the wrong guy. My guy is innocent,'" Guerra told Law.com. "She said she had other witnesses. Turns out the witnesses never existed," Guerra recounted.

After serving 19 months behind bars, which included one year in Colombia's Combita lockup, a place described by human rights activists as one of the most oppressive and notorious prisons in the world, US District Judge Donald Graham freed Gil-Perenguez in February 2009, finding that his voice had been wrongfully identified on the wiretaps.

Gil-Perenguez returned to Colombia wearing a "bad jacket." His fellow countrymen think he snitched on others to be released so early. He filed a $10 million wrongful arrest lawsuit against the US government, charging that he had been left jobless and in pain and suffering. But the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the lawsuit, ruling that the US lacked jurisdiction and that it couldn't be sanctioned for "any claims arising in a foreign country."

"Our country is not supposed to be making these kinds of mistakes," Florida attorney Richard Diaz, who represented Gil-Perenguez  in the civil suit, told Law.com.

Hoffman and her colleagues have managed to win some convictions in these high-profile drug conspiracy cases, and given her hardball attitude and willingness to skirt -- if not cross over completely -- the bounds of prosecutorial misconduct, that comes as no surprise. But other Colombian defendants continue to be exonerated, with two more of them, Luis Alfonso Rubiano Ramos and Jose Norberto Mejia Cortez having their cases dismissed and going home in June.

Dr. Ali Shaygan

Dr. Ali Shaygan has nothing to do with Colombian drug trafficking conspiracies, but his case is yet another example of Hoffman's prosecutorial overreach. As previously reported in the Chronicle, Shaygan was charged with overprescribing narcotics as part of the federal government's campaign against prescription drug abuse, but later acquitted.

After his acquittal, Shaygan won a $600,000 judgment against Hoffman and another federal prosecutor, with the judge in the case finding their conduct in attempting to influence witnesses and deny potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense so "profoundly disturbing that it raises troubling issues about the integrity of those who wield enormous power over the people they prosecute."

That judgment was overturned by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Shaygan and his supporters sought review at the US Supreme Court, but were turned down. In the meantime, Hoffman is still on the job in Miami and, if her work on the big drug investigations is any indication, still bumping up against the rules without serious professional consequence. Prosecutorial misconduct still seems to be a bridge too far for the American criminal justice system to address.

Miami, FL
United States

HUGE: Sanjay Gupta Apologizes for Anti-Marijuana Stance, Slams DEA

In a commentary on cnn.com this morning, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta endorsed medical marijuana -- and apologized for not doing so sooner:

Reading... papers [about medical marijuana] five years ago, it was hard to make a case for [it]... I... wrote about this in a TIME magazine article, back in 2009, titled "Why I would Vote No on Pot."
 
... I didn't look hard enough.. I didn't look far enough. I didn't review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis...

I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a schedule 1 substance because of sound scientific proof... Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have "no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse."

They didn't have the science to support that claim, and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn't have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works...

We have been terribly and systematically misled [about marijuana] for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.
 

Gupta's documentary "WEED" will run on CNN this Sunday at 8:00pm EST.

 

 

For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

DEA Unit Uses Spy Data to Launch Criminal Investigations, Then Hide Their Origins

At an undisclosed location in Virginia, a publicity-shy DEA unit is feeding surveillance data from the National Security Agency (NSA), as well as wiretaps, informants, and a massive DEA phone record database, to law enforcement officials around the country to help them launch criminal investigations of American citizens. Reuters broke the story with an investigative report Monday.

Law enforcement has been directed to conceal how those investigations really began, deceiving not only defense attorneys, but also prosecutors and judges, raising serious questions about the propriety and even the constitutionality of the practice.

“The DEA increasingly qualifies as a rogue agency -- one that Congress needs to immediately investigate," "said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "This latest scandal may well be just the tip of the iceberg," he added, referring to the agency's checkered past.

"It's remarkable how little scrutiny the DEA faces from Congress or other federal overseers," Nadelmann continued. "With an annual budget of over $2 billion as well as significant discretionary powers, DEA certainly merits a top-to-bottom review of its operations, expenditures and discretionary actions."

The DEA unit in question is the Special Operations Division (SOD), which was created in 1994 to combat Latin American drug trafficking organizations. Its members also include the FBI, CIA, NSA, IRS, and Department of Homeland Security, among two dozen partner agencies. Since its inception, SOD has grown from several dozen employees to several hundred, Reuters reported.

Most of its work is classified and is intended to remain confidential. But Reuters managed to get its hands on key documents, including the one quoted from below.

"Remember that the utilization of SOD cannot be revealed or discussed in any investigative function," one document tells agents. It directs agents to not mention SOD participation in investigative reports or search warrant affidavits in courtroom testimony or discussions with prosecutors, instead instructing agents to use "normal investigative techniques to recreate the information provided by SOD."

In other word, to lie about the origin of information that becomes the basis for criminal prosecutions. DEA officials and former federal agents defended the practice, and one described the process to Reuters.

"You'd be told only, 'Be at a certain truck stop at a certain time and look for a certain vehicle.' And so we'd alert the state police to find an excuse to stop that vehicle, and then have a drug dog search it," the agent said.

Agents would then pretend that the investigation began with traffic stop, not with the tip from SOD, a practice known as "parallel construction." Surprisingly, senior DEA officials told Reuters the practice is nothing new and is used to protect sources and methods.

"Parallel construction is a law enforcement technique we use every day," one official said. "It's decades old, a bedrock concept."

But the practice could violate a defendant's right to a fair trial. Disguising the origins of information could violate pretrial discovery rules by obscuring evidence that could be helpful to defendants. And without knowing how an investigation began, defendants cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence.

Legal experts pronounced themselves troubled by the revelations.

"I have never heard of anything like this at all," said Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law School professor who served as a federal judge from 1994 to 2011, who along with others said the practice was more disturbing than the revelations that the NSA is collecting domestic phone records. "It is one thing to create special rules for national security," Gertner said. "Ordinary crime is entirely different. It sounds like they are phonying up investigations."

"That's outrageous," said Tampa attorney James Felman, a vice chairman of the criminal justice section of the American Bar Association. "It strikes me as indefensible."

A systematic effort to conceal the evidence that sparked criminal investigations "would not only be alarming but pretty blatantly unconstitutional," said New Jersey defense attorney Lawrence Lustberg.

"You can't game the system," said former federal prosecutor Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. "You can't create this subterfuge. These are drug crimes, not national security cases. If you don't draw the line here, where do you draw it?"

Even prosecutors have problems with the program. One federal prosecutor told Reuters that in one case, a DEA agent "misled" him, telling him an investigation of a US citizen began with an informant's tip. When the prosecutor pressed for more information, a DEA supervisor revealed that the information had actually come via the SOD from an NSA intercept.

"I was pissed," the prosecutor said. "Lying about where the information came from is a bad start if you're trying to comply with the law because it can lead to all kinds of problems with discovery and candor to the court."

The prosecutor never filed charges in the case because he lost confidence in the investigation, he said.

The SOD has claimed some "successes," including a 2008 DEA sting in Thailand aimed at Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was convicted of conspiring to sell weapons to the Colombian FARC guerrilla army. It also coordinated Project Synergy, a crackdown on synthetic drugs that resulted in 227 arrests in 35 states.

"It was an amazing tool," said one recently retired federal agent. "Our big fear was that it wouldn't stay secret."

Medical Marijuana Update

A dispensary is now open for business in the nation's capital, several dozen are coming to Arizona, dispensary and cultivation battles continue in California, Massachusetts advocates prepare to protest restrictive regulations, and the DEA hits a Michigan dispensary. Let's get to it:

Arizona

On Tuesday, state officials announced they had issued 61 dispensary licenses with two weeks left to go in the year-long licensing period. Another 21 would-be dispensaries are scheduled for inspection in the next week.

California

Last Monday, the DEA announced it had raided a defunct Orange County dispensary. Agents hit La Habra Cares weeks after it closed its doors last month after the La Habra city council voted to ban dispensaries, but still maintained a marijuana garden there. No one was arrested.

Last Tuesday, the Anaheim city council banned medical marijuana delivery services. The ban was passed as an urgency ordinance and goes into effect immediately. The city had banned dispensaries in 2007, but didn't enforce the ban until the state Supreme Court ruled in May that such bans are legal. The city's 11 dispensaries all closed, but at least 30 delivery services have popped up.

Last Wednesday, the Rancho Santa Margarita city council passed a first reading of a dispensary ban. Mayor Tony Beall said most medical marijuana patients appeared to be young men and that the herb "is routinely abused and not appropriate for this community." The ordinance will become law if it passes a second reading. The city has had a moratorium on dispensaries since 2011, but that is set to expire this fall. Meanwhile, the council also passed a zoning ordinance that would allow fortune tellers to operate in residential and general commercial zones.

Last Thursday, the Santa Maria city attorney's office presented a dispensary ban ordinance to the city council. The city already bans them, but the new ordinance would specifically ban them in all zoning districts of the city. The proposed ordinance must be approved by the city planning commission and then by the city council, most likely in September.

Also last Thursday, a state appeals court rejected a lawsuit over the seizure of a medical marijuana crop. The First District Court of Appeals ruled that police who seized a marijuana field in Humboldt County and destroyed over 1,500 pounds of pot did not violate the owners' constitutional or statutory rights, including the right to use marijuana for medical purposes. Authorities raided the property despite the presence of posted medical marijuana recommendations for four people, but the court said there was enough marijuana on hand to supply those patients for the next five years.

On Monday, opponents of a new Bakersfield dispensary ban fell short in their efforts to get enough signatures to place the issue before voters. Patients for Compassionate Use Policies needed to come up with some 15,000 signatures to block the ordinance from going into effect, but they didn't show up with any as the deadline expired Monday evening.

On Tuesday, a San Diego judge sentenced a medical marijuana hash maker to jailtime, but not before berating him for having supporters in the courtroom and slamming medical marijuana as a dangerous farce. Judge Peter Gallagher sentenced Victor Marion to eight months and warned supporters, who had demanded that prosecutors heed public opinion, that "if there are anymore attempts to contact the prosecutor, they will be met with arrest and prosecution." Gallagher also treated the courtroom to a diatribe against medical marijuana:  "Medical Marijuana is not a good business plan, 22 year old kids are getting doctor's recommendations for toe fungus and frying their brains on marijuana," he railed.

Also on Tuesday, Tehama County supervisors considered amendments to the marijuana cultivation ordinance that would tighten up rules and regulations. Under the current ordinance, growers can grow 12 mature or 24 immature plants on properties of 20 acres or less and up to 99 plants on larger parcels. The amendments would limit gardens to 12 plants no matter the size or the parcel and whether or not they are mature. They would also create a $1,000 a day fine for abated gardens that aren't destroyed within 10 days after notice. The council acted after hearing complaints from residents of many out of compliance gardens.

District of Columbia

On Monday, the nation's capital saw its first medical marijuana sale at a dispensary. Capital City Care dispensary made two sales Monday, marking the culmination of an effort that began 15 years ago with the passage of a medical marijuana initiative in the city. Congress blocked the initiative from being implemented until 2009, and the District of Columbia government then spent the next four years coming up with strict regulatory and licensing scheme. But now patients can get their medicine legally in the District. "After a couple of years of hard work, it's exciting to open our doors and serve the patients our facility is really for," said dispensary spokesperson Scott Morgan. "This is a moment we've all been looking forward to for a long time."

Massachusetts

On Wednesday, medical marijuana supporters called a demonstration for Thursday at the state Department of Public Health to protest new state regulations limiting patients to only one caregiver, making home cultivation illegal if a dispensary is nearby, and blocking compensation for caregivers. The protest is a picket with signs between 2:00pm and 4:00pm, followed by speeches and a press conference. The address is 250 Washington St. in Boston.

Michigan

On Tuesday, DEA agents raided an Ypsilanti dispensary. The raiders hit The Shop, seizing two vehicles as well as inventory from inside the store. Ypsilanti Police and other state law enforcement assisted. One man was temporarily handcuffed and detained, but later released without arrest. The DEA had no further comment because of "an ongoing investigation."

Washington

On Monday, the Lynnwood city council voted to continue its moratorium on dispensaries and collective gardens. The moratorium will continue for another six months as the city attempts to deal with the issues.

For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

DEA to Pay $4.1 Million to Man Forgotten in Cell

The DEA has agreed to pay $4.1 million to San Diego college student Daniel Chong after rounding him up in a drug sweep last year and then forgetting him in a holding cell for five days without food or water.

UC San Diego student Daniel Chong
Chong attorney Eugene Iredale announced Tuesday that he reached a settlement with the Justice Department. He didn't even have to file a lawsuit.

Chong's not-so-excellent adventure began on the night of April 20, 2012, when the engineering student went to a friend's house in University City to celebrate the pot-smokers' holiday. He was unaware that the house had been under surveillance by a federal drug task force, and had slept over when DEA agents raided the place early the next morning.

Agents found 18,000 ecstasy tablets, as well as marijuana and several weapons in the home. They also found Chong sleeping on the living room couch. DEA agents transported Chong and six other people in the house to the DEA's San Diego office for follow-up questioning.

After questioning, DEA agents decided against charging him and said they would release him. But instead, he was returned to a temporary holding cell -- and forgotten. Chong spent the next four days in the cell without food or water. He said he resorted to drinking his own urine, became delirious, and broke his glasses, using shards from them to cut the message "Sorry, mom" in his own forearm.

Chong said that despite repeatedly pounding on the cell door and calling for help, no DEA personnel came to his assistance. The DEA later admitted that its agents "accidentally" left Chong in the cell and publicly apologized for the oversight.

Neither DEA headquarters in suburban Washington nor the San Diego office has commented on the settlement. The incident was investigated by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General, but the results of that investigation have not been released.

San Diego, CA
United States

Chronicle Book Review: Too High to Fail

Doug Fine, Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution (2012, Gotham Books, 319 pp., $28.00 HB)

[Ed: This review was based on the hardcover edition of "Too High to Fail." The paperback edition of Too High Fail has now been published as well. According to the author it includes a a postscript that reflects "more unbelievable happenings in Mendocino County and worldwide through the beginning of this year."]

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/toohightofail-200px.jpg
Marijuana and marijuana policy are big news these days -- they are exciting times, indeed! -- and that's reflected in what has now become a deluge of books on the topic. We've probably reviewed a dozen or more pot books in the last year alone, and here's another one. While, given the torrent of titles, it becomes increasingly difficult to stand out in the crowd, New York Times bestselling author Doug Fine's Too High to Fail is exceptional.

Fine writes with verve and passion, making it clear from the outset that he views marijuana prohibition as not only useless, but harmful -- not only to any sense of justice and morality, not only to the millions of people arrested and punished in myriad ways for the crime of possessing or trading in a hugely useful and versatile plant, but also to the country's efforts to claw its way back from the precipice of the Great Recession.

With that out of the way, in early 2011, Fine heads off for Mendocino County, California, ground zero in the new marijuana economy. A couple of hours north of San Francisco on US 101, Mendocino is part of the state's famous marijuana-growing Emerald Triangle, and is, to a mind-blogging extent, dependent on the pot economy. In fact, if not for pot, Mendocino would probably wither up and blow away. The logging industry is history, and the legal agricultural economy is a fraction of the size of the pot economy. (The county's largest legitimate ag crop, wine grapes, pulled in about $75 million in one recent year, at the same time the pot harvest was estimated at $8.1 billion, or about a hundred times as much).

The pot economy is normalized in Mendocino County. Marijuana dollars pay for everything from the new pickup trucks flying off dealers' lots every fall to the capital necessary to open boutique businesses that dot one-horse towns like Willits and Ukiah to the salaries of Mendocino County sheriff's deputies (at least for a couple of years; see below). County officials know what the local economy runs on, and so does the sheriff, which is why the county instituted its zip-tie program for growers willing to register as medical marijuana providers. Farmers paid thousands of dollars into county coffers for those zip-ties, which would let state and local law enforcement know that these were legal grows, not outlaw ones.

If California, where medical marijuana is legal is Fine's "bubble," Mendocino County, with its casual acceptance of the pot economy is the bubble squared, and growers operating within the guidelines of the zip-tie program, complete with inspections by law enforcement are inside the bubble cubed. This is where Fine situates himself, as he uses the journey of a single plant from cloning to delivery to a patient as the hook for his narrative of his hazy Mendo days.

Fine's sympathetic portraits of the folks involved, from Sheriff Tom Allman, who told him he wouldn't get "up off my ass" to arrest a guy with a pound of pot in the sheriff's parking lot and who created the zip-tie program, to Deputy Randy Johnson, who performed the unique job of zip-tie program compliance sergeant, to novice Mendo outdoor (but experienced East Bay indoor) grower Tom Balogh, who grew the clone Fine tracked, to Northstone Organics head Matt Cohen, who was determined to run a farmer-to-patient collective in scrupulous compliance with state laws, help put a human face on Mendocino's marijuana culture and some of its intricacies.

Fine also shines at explicating the various currents and tensions that run through the community, whether it's the veteran "Redneck Hippies" unhappy with the new generation of young, bling-slinging profiteers or county commissioners not exactly happy with Mendo's free-wheeling grow scene, but who recognize that it can't be wished away and should instead be regulated for the benefit of the county and its citizens. Or the travails of newcomer Balogh, who must contend with skeptical neighbors and prove to the community that he's not just another hit-and-run wannabe "sensimillionaire."

But while Fine spent a season deep inside the bubble, he also found that it could be punctured. He details his own experience being pulled over by sheriff's deputies in neighboring Sonoma County to the south who profiled him for his facial hair and muddied, big-tired pick-up, as well as the misadventures of two Northstone Organics deliverymen also pulled over and busted by Sonoma narcs and, gallingly, prosecuted by Sonoma County district attorneys. The drive from Mendo south through Sonoma and on to the Bay Area was called "running the gauntlet," as law enforcers on the hunt for busts and assets to seize preyed on the US 101 traffic less like highway patrolmen than highwaymen.

(As a resident of medical marijuana-friendly Sonoma County, such behavior by my elected officials and their minions offends my sensibilities. I'll be attending a Summer Solstice event this coming week to celebrate the formation of a political action committee whose goal is help enlighten our public servants, or replace them if they appear too thick-headed to get it.)

But Fine, Northstone Organics, and the entire Mendocino County effort to craft a tightly-regulated, county-benefiting medical marijuana program encountered an even more dramatic bursting of the bubble when federal prosecutors renewed their war on medical marijuana in the fall of 2011. Mendonesians had largely ignored the raids on dispensaries going on elsewhere in the state as the war ramped up, but they couldn't ignore the crew of DEA agents who rousted Cohen at gunpoint and chopped down Northstone's 99 plants, depriving more than 1,700 patients of their medicine, and effectively putting an end to the innovative zip-tie program.

With Too High to Fail, Fine show us how marijuana can be regulated and integrated into the community. And he dares to dream of a future where the cannabis plant, with all its manifold uses, can be integrated into, and indeed, become a boon for, the American economy. He also shows us the obstacles in the way.

The story of Mendocino's (and America's) marijuana adventure didn't stop in the fall of 2011. Since then, even as the first two states legalized marijuana outright at the ballot box, the federal offensive against medical marijuana in California has continued. Mendocino County had to fend off an overreaching federal subpoena of all records related to its medical marijuana program, Northstone has been knocked out of business, and an innovative program that served the interests of the community and the local economy has been stopped in its tracks.

In the new paperback edition, Fine returns to Mendocino and adds a 6,000 postscript on all the exciting developments since 2011, including legalization in Colorado and Washington, the seismic shifts in public opinion in favor of legalization, and the continuing trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the county's growers and the public officials attempting to come to grips with it all.

Although Fine looks bravely and boldly toward a cannabized future, we aren't there yet. But Too High to Fail chronicles what it could look like based on the Mendo experience, and provides a valuable and entertaining read along the way.

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