- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2000

Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday ordered an investigation into accusations by five Houston police detectives who said they were pulled off a yearlong undercover drug probe after a key suspect in the case met with Vice President Al Gore.

Miss Reno ordered the probe amid accusations of "political interference" by the Houston detectives, members of a joint Drug Enforcement Administration/ Houston Police Department task force. The case was shut down two days after the probe's key target, Houston rapper James Prince, met with Mr. Gore at a Houston church.

She also ordered that DEA agents in Houston be removed from the case and replaced by "a new team of experienced special agents" from other offices assisted by FBI agents, who also will be assigned to the investigation. She said the new team would be in place in a week.

"The Department of Justice and the DEA administrator find the DEA reports regarding the status of the Houston investigation disturbing," Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben said in a letter last night to the House Government Reform Committee, which had sought information on the accusations.

"Further, we take very seriously any allegation that an investigation has been politicized. For these and other reasons, the attorney general and the DEA administrator have asked the Office of Inspector General to investigate these matters," he said.

On Monday, the Houston detectives told House investigators that DEA Agent Ernest Howard, head of the agency's Houston office, said the probe had been shut down despite more than 20 arrests with others pending. They said they were told not to conduct further inquiries or pursue new leads involving Mr. Prince, head of a music recording firm known as Rap-A-Lot.

One Houston detective told investigators, "It was a slap in the face to me …. The rug was pulled out from under us." The probe, dubbed "Rap-A-Lot," had netted several of Mr. Prince's employees.

House investigators want to know if there is a connection between a March 12 campaign visit by Mr. Gore with Mr. Prince at a Houston church to which Mr. Prince had donated $1 million and a decision two days later to end the probe. They also are looking into accusations that Mr. Prince offered $1 million to the Gore campaign prior to the vice president's visit.

Mr. Prince was not available yesterday for comment, although he told the Dallas Morning News, which first reported the undercover probe had been shut down, he had unfairly been targeted because he is wealthy and black. He has denied any wrongdoing and Federal Election Commission records show he has not contributed to the Gore campaign.

James Kennedy, spokesman for Mr. Gore, dismissed the accusations as "baseless," saying the vice president had no knowledge of the Houston investigation.

But James C. Wilson, the committee's chief counsel, took exception to Mr. Kennedy's comment, saying that in view of the Justice Department investigation, "Mr. Kennedy's comments are nothing more than meaningless spin."

Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Burton asked DEA Administrator Donnie R. Marshall in a letter this week for information on whether "Mr. Prince was promising a large political contribution to the Gore campaign, the [Democratic National Convention] or any other political committee." The Indiana Republican wants the DEA to make nine agents involved in the probe available for interviews to determine if political pressure was brought to bear to end the probe.

Mr. Burton told the DEA that while Mr. Gore's role in the matter remained "unclear," the Houston detectives were certain why the probe had ended. He also said Mr. Howard, when questioned by House investigators, denied the case had been closed a statement since contradicted by e-mails Mr. Howard sent to DEA headquarters in Washington.

One e-mail, sent two days after Mr. Gore's visit to Houston, said the undercover probe was closed due to political pressure. Mr. Howard also noted that Mr. Prince was present "with the VP at the church" during his March 12 visit and "undoubtedly had a picture session as well."

In another e-mail, Mr. Howard said the situation involving the probe "has only gotten worse" and he had decided "that the Houston Division will curtail any enforcement action against this subject." He also said he had transferred Agent Jack Schumacher, a veteran DEA official who headed the Rap-A-Lot probe, to a desk job, describing the order as "an unfortunate occurrence."

Mr. Howard, in another e-mail, said he had briefed former DEA Administrator Thomas Constantine on the probe "because of the potential political pressure associated with it," but that the investigation had been shut down anyway.

"Now we bow down to the political pressure anyway," he said. "If I had known this, I would have NEVER brought Jack into this case, nor would I have pursued it. But it is over now."

House investigators also have focused on what role Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, played in the matter. She had complained in a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno that Mr. Prince was the victim of police harassment and was fearful for his life, demanding that Miss Reno intercede in the "questionable practices of DEA."

The DEA's Office of Professional Responsibility later investigated those accusations, interviewing Mr. Prince in her Washington office along with his attorney and Mrs. Waters' husband, Sidney Williams, who grew up in the same Houston neighborhood as did Mr. Prince. OPR later ruled that the accusations were unfounded.

The site of the Prince interview, however, was questioned by investigators, who said the use of Mrs. Waters' office was unprecedented since she had brought the accusations against the DEA. They said the agency normally avoided contact with members of Congress until an internal-affairs probe ended.

Mrs. Waters did not return calls to her office for comment.

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