Friday, December 8, 2000

The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration yesterday said he personally ordered that an investigation into a suspected Houston drug kingpin be continued after Rep. Maxine Waters complained that the probe’s target was a victim of racial profiling.

DEA Administrator Donnie R. Marshall challenged the decision to shut down the investigation, telling the House Government Reform Committee he has since sought an internal probe to determine if DEA officials “succumbed to political pressure” in closing an investigation that had netted 20 convictions and more than $1 million in cocaine.

“At no time did anyone tell me the criminal investigation had been shut down,” Mr. Marshall said. “My orders were to continue the active investigation and I was sure that was being done. We need to determine if anyone succumbed to political pressure and, if so, take the appropriate action.

“The DEA must be free of political influence, and I am committed to ensuring that it is,” he said.

The accusations of racial profiling were made by Mrs. Waters, California Democrat, to Attorney General Janet Reno in August 1999 days before Ernest L. Howard, head of the DEA Houston office, ordered members of a DEA/ Houston Police Department drug task force to end inquiries or pursue no new leads involving the probe’s target, James A. Prince.

A DEA internal investigation later ruled that the accusations were unfounded, and that the sole source of the complaint was Mr. Prince, owner of a rap recording firm known as Rap-a-Lot.

Three Houston detectives, along with veteran DEA agent Jack Schumacher, who oversaw the probe, told the committee during testimony yesterday and on Wednesday that the investigation was prematurely shut down because of “political interference” and that additional investigative leads and targets were ignored.

Mrs. Waters complained to Miss Reno that Mr. Prince was harassed by DEA agents and Houston police and he feared for his life, although she offered no specific examples or cited any incidents.

Four days after the letter was received by the attorney general, the DEA’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) interviewed Mr. Prince in Mrs. Waters’ congressional office in Washington.

During the interview, DEA Chief Inspector Felix Jimenez, who was conducting the OPR review, noted that Mr. Prince had provided “insufficient” information for the agency to open an investigation, saying he had not identified any specific acts of wrongdoing. Later, a private investigative firm in Houston hired by Mr. Prince offered new accusations, involving brutality.

Mr. Marshall said that at that point, Agent Schumacher’s removal from the case was suggested in an effort to guarantee his safety pending the OPR review, noting that a contract had been offered on the DEA agent’s life. But, he said, he gave no order that the Rap-a-Lot investigation be shut down.

“I believed that the criminal investigation was proceeding with a new case agent,” Mr. Marshall said. “I directed a certain course of action with regard to this investigation, and I assumed it was being followed.”

Mr. Marshall said he has sent a new team of agents to Houston to investigate the case and determine what course of action the agency should take. He said the team has made a preliminary report to him, although he declined to discuss it in an open session.

In an Aug. 20, 1999, memo to Miss Reno, in response to the Waters letter, Mr. Marshall described the Houston probe as “a significant criminal investigation” and identified Mr. Prince and others as “legitimate suspects” based on “multiple sources of information.”

Mrs. Waters was unavailable for comment. Her spokeswoman, Betty Edwards, referred inquiries in the matter to her August 1999 letter. Mr. Prince also has not returned calls, but he previously has denied any wrongdoing.

Agent Howard told the committee yesterday and on Wednesday he did not order the investigation closed, and could not explain why the three Houston detectives and Mr. Schumacher testified under oath to the contrary.

He also was hard pressed to explain e-mail messages he sent to DEA headquarters saying he had shut down the probe “because of the potential political pressure associated with it.” He said he lied in the e-mail messages to get the attention of DEA supervisors.

The committee’s inquiry also has focused on suspected efforts by the Justice Department to block the panel’s own inquiries.

House investigators said Mr. Marshall voluntarily came forward when the accusations surfaced on the probe’s being ended and promised full cooperation.

Later, they said Justice Department officials blocked his efforts. At one point, they said, he was ordered not to return calls from Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican.

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