Sunday, April 12, 2015

Informants: The Disorder Side of Law and Order

Hands down, the most infamous snitch of all time has to be a guy named Judas Iscariot. He ratted out a troublesome Jewish preacher and the rest is history.

If the passing of secret information involves governments, we call it spying or espionage. Informants, snitches, rats, spies, whatever we call them, they have always been part of the story of humanity. Informants aren’t just criminals, either.

Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI in the early 70s, was revealed near the end of his life as the infamous “Deep Throat” secret informant for Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. Felt provided the Post with key information that helped the newspaper bring down the presidency of Richard Nixon.
The FBI's Mark Felt-aka-Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal. AP Photo

Thus, one of the top executives of the federal government’s premier law enforcement agency was himself an informant, albeit for a newspaper investigation not a criminal case.

What the American people need to know but most don’t know is how central informants are to the functioning of our criminal justice system. Snitches enable prosecutions, especially in major drug conspiracy cases. Informants are “essential to obtaining convictions in nearly all significant cases,” David Hickton, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The United States takes pride in having a “justice” system that is hopefully fair and presumably open. Court files, with the exception of certain sensitive information sealed by a judge’s order, are open to public inspection. If you have the time and inclination you can browse the court record on millions of criminal and civil cases.

We conduct trials and hearings in open court with legal representation for the opposing parties and a jury system to decide which side will prevail in a dispute. We insist the parties file certain on-the-record papers as part of the process. If someone is accused of a crime, they are entitled to face their accusers in a court of law. Judges like to tell juries they are the triers of fact while the judge applies the law. Open proceedings are one of the features that set our court system apart from dictatorships. 

But there is a dark side to the system and it has enormous influence every day over what we like to think is law and order. It is the wheeling and dealing and information-in-exchange-for-lesser-punishment trading that goes on between informants, the police and prosecutors.

In her book Snitching, Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at the Loyola School of Law in Los Angeles, compares the public versus secret informant elements of American criminal justice. She writes: “Snitching is the clandestine, black-market version of this process. It resolves guilt mainly off the record, without rules, at the discretion of individual law enforcement officials.”

In more than a few cases, murderers have gotten away with murder. If a killer can help prosecutors nail a Big Fish, he may do 10 years, or less. In one case a major drug trafficker got to keep millions of dollars of his drug profits and he was allowed to have a satellite terminal in his prison cell with which to buy and sell stock because he helped the “Justice” Department make a big case.

When judges get involved, the snitch’s deal with the police and prosecution is usually a done deal. As for prosecutors, they don’t get involved with informants until it’s absolutely necessary.  Informant work is dirty business and many prosecutors don’t want to know the ugly details of the deal the cops have cut with their snitch. Informants are sometimes allowed to commit crimes while snitching as long as the crimes aren't violent. 

Then too, if an informant is valuable, the police jealously guard the informant’s identity knowing assistant U.S. attorneys and assistant county prosecutors often turn to private practice and become defense attorneys and take their case knowledge with them.

The recruitment and development of confidential informants is a requirement for FBI special agents. It is part of their performance evaluation. These human resources can be violent, low-life criminals looking to get a deal on how much prison time they may be facing or they can be law abiding citizens. On the good-citizen side of the ledger, one of the City of Detroit’s career auditors, Gerald O’Neill, provided endless information and tips to the FBI about situations where he suspected criminal wrongdoing in the disbursement of taxpayer money. His tips to the FBI lead to several major public corruption cases.

Informant development is not a tidy or risk-free process for any law enforcement agency. The FBI is no exception. In 2005, the Justice Department Inspector General released the results of an audit which studied 120 FBI informant files from around the country. The audit showed agents had violated Bureau policy in 87% of the cases examined.

At least the FBI has an informant policy. The same can’t be said for many local police departments. They all have informants, but the use of informants to make criminal cases is often a fly-by-the-seat-of-the pants proposition.

Many informants are in it for the money; they are paid informants. The FBI has designated informant payment accounts and rules which say two agents should be present when an informant is getting federal dollars, to ensure there are two witnesses to the payment, how much it was for, who received the funds and so on.

Contrast this with local law enforcement. Payments are usually one-to-one between an officer and his or her snitch. Where does the money come from? Heh heh. Ahem. Some departments have “special operations” funds, but many don’t. In truth, the money to pay snitches is often stolen by the police during drug raids.

Usually when narcs raid a drug pad they find cash, and sometimes a lot of it. If there is, say, $25,000 in cash in stacks in a drawer, who’s to say it wasn’t $22,000? Some narc skims a few grand out of the stack and it goes to pay informants on other cases, or it may go in his pocket as we saw in the Detroit 10th Precinct Conspiracy case. (See the Blog post “The Gangsterization of Detroit”) 

In some cases the narcs steal cash from the dope dealers to cover the bar tab when the cops wind down at the end the night at a favorite watering hole. Police thievery from criminals is somehow okay in the minds of certain people with badges and guns.

Much has been made of the fact the FBI recruited and began using Richard J. Wershe Jr. as a paid informant at the age of 14. It must be against the law, right? Or it must be against some policy, right? Well, where does it say that? Federal law enforcement policy on the use of juvenile informants is far from clear to this day.

Several official Justice Department and FBI documents about the recruitment and use of informants are available online.

Is there anything in the FBI Manual of Investigative Operations and Guidelines from 1998 about the use of juvenile informants? Not a word.

Is there any mention of juvenile informants in former Attorney General Janet Reno’s Confidential Informant Guidelines of 2001, which supposedly tightened the rules for dealing with snitches? Nope.

Is there anything about the use of teen-aged informants in the 314-page Justice Department Office of the Inspector General report of 2005 about the FBI’s use of informants? Nothing.

How about in the updated Attorney General guidelines on the use of informants from December, 2006? Nada, zip, zero.

The care and feeding of federal law enforcement informants is complicated by the fact special agents change offices from time to time, and in the case of the FBI which has jurisdiction over multiple criminal violations, agents move from squad to squad in a large field division office for various reasons. In a big office like Detroit, if an agent moves to a different squad, the informant remains under the control of another agent on the squad handling the informant’s area of criminal specialty, so to speak.

Fourteen year old Rick Wershe became an FBI drug informant by happenstance. His late father, Richard J. Wershe Sr. was a hustler who was always on the edge of the law. Wershe Sr. became a registered FBI paid informant as something of an insurance policy. If he stepped over the line and faced charges, his role as an FBI informer might be a lifeline.

Wershe Sr.’s FBI “handler” was an agent named James Dixon, now retired. Special Agent Dixon essentially worked white collar crime and fraud violations. One day Dixon and another agent were visiting the Wershe home on Detroit’s east side. There were some drug dealing suspects living in the area so, according to the fading memories of those involved, including Rick Wershe Jr. himself, the agents produced some surveillance photos and placed them on the table. Did Richard Wershe, Sr. know any of these guys? Um, no. But his 14-year old son Ricky knew a lot of the people in the ‘hood. The senior Wershe called his son over to the table and asked if he knew any of these guys in the photos.

“Sure,” Ricky said. “That’s Little Man. That’s Big Man,” and so on. The agents realized the kid knew a lot about the Curry Brothers drug gang, an outfit the FBI was interested in under its new (back then) mandate to investigate major drug conspiracies.

Young Richard J. Wershe, Jr. wasn’t recruited to be an all-purpose narcotics underworld informant. He became an informant for a specific case—the Curry Brothers case. 

Initially, in his early teen years, Rick Wershe, Jr.’s informant work focused on the case the FBI was making against the Curry Brothers. Over the course of the case, the Curry investigation changed hands within the Detroit FBI.

The vagaries of FBI agent squad assignments for agents explain how White Boy Rick started his informant life under the guidance of Special Agent Jim Dixon, was handed off to Special Agent Herm Groman and ultimately the Curry case wound up in the final stretch under the control of Special Agent Gregg Schwarz. Special Agent Schwarz was never White Boy Rick’s “handler,” however.

As noted, Dixon worked primarily on white collar crime and fraud. Groman was assigned to the narcotics squad but moved to the public corruption squad as the Curry investigation was wrapping up. Schwarz was on the fugitive squad but transferred to the narcotics squad and took over the Curry case when Groman moved to the public corruption squad. Got all that?

The details of Richard Wershe, Jr.’s life as an FBI snitch—the teen years—will be the subject of another post on Informant America.

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