Feds gone wild: DOJ's stunning inability to prosecute its own bad actors

One was caught red-handed engaged in nepotism. Another, a lawyer no less, admitted to shoplifting at a Marine barracks store. A third leaked sealed court information to the news media. And a fourth engaged in fraud by turning a government garage into a personal repair shop.

Four cases, all solved in the past month, with suspects who cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and significant breaches of public trust.

But these weren’t your everyday perps.

All were U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) employees who are supposed to catch other criminals while working for the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and U.S. attorneys’ offices. Instead, they broke the law or violated the rules. And all managed to escape prosecution, despite their proven transgressions.

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Recent Justice Department disciplinary files tell an undeniable story.

Under the leadership of Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz, DOJ’s internal watchdog is doing an outstanding job of policing bad conduct inside America’s premier law enforcement agency.

And DOJ is doing a poor job of punishing its own.

In cases closed in the past month, more than a half-dozen FBI, DEA, U.S. attorney and U.S. marshal officials were allowed to retire, do volunteer work, or keep their jobs as they escaped criminal charges that everyday Americans probably would not.

In most instances, the decisions were made by federal prosecutors who work with the very figures impacted by or committing the bad conduct. In local law enforcement, that go-easy phenomenon is known as the “thin blue line.” 

Spokespersons for the Justice Department and FBI did not respond to a request for comment.

The troubling pattern of weak punishment emerges as DOJ heads into one of its most ambitious internal affairs probes in recent history. Attorney General William Barr, Horowitz and special U.S. Attorney John Durham are investigating whether the FBI and other intelligence agencies violated the law with the Trump-Russia investigation.

Even before the recent spate of closed inspector general investigations, questions surfaced about DOJ’s willingness to punish its own. That’s because fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeMcCabe says it's 'absolutely' time to launch impeachment inquiry into Trump Feds gone wild: DOJ's stunning inability to prosecute its own bad actors Comey: Trump peddling 'dumb lies' MORE was recommended for prosecution more than 15 months ago for lying about news leaks, and so far has faced no criminal charges. 

To put that into perspective, it took special counsel Robert Mueller just a few months to bring charges against multiple figures associated with President Trump’s campaign accused of lying or other process crimes.

It’s still possible that McCabe could face prosecution. But the recent spate of fresh wrongdoing inside DOJ doesn’t portray a compelling pattern of enforcement or punishment.

Take, for example, the DEA executive who just this week was found to have engaged in nepotism by routing hundreds of thousands of dollars to contractor jobs for his son and retired colleagues or friends.

Horowitz spared few words for the egregious scheme. “The senior DEA official wasted and misused hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds and engaged in misconduct when he took actions to get his son and former colleagues contractor positions and that his actions constituted misconduct in violation of federal ethics regulations, the DEA Standards of Conduct, and the Federal Acquisition Regulation,” he reported this week.

The official also engaged in a “lack of candor,” the investigative file showed.

Despite the established wrongdoing, criminal prosecution “was declined” and “the senior DEA official retired from his position.” In short, he kept his retirement benefits.

Likewise, the inspector general had harsh words for the FBI special agent in charge (SAC) who used the bureau’s official garage to perform repairs on his and other employees’ personal vehicles, calling it, among other things, a “dereliction of supervisory responsibility,” and a misuse of tax dollars for “private gain.”

“The SAC took advantage of the SAC’s official position for personal benefit by arranging to have the SAC’s personal vehicle repaired by an FBI employee in exchange for compensation, in violation of federal regulations regarding standards of conduct for federal employees and FBI policy,” the investigative file concluded. “The OIG also found that the SAC was derelict in the SAC’s supervisory responsibilities by allowing use of the FBI repair facility to conduct repairs and maintenance on personal vehicles belonging to FBI employees.”

And then there was the FBI lawyer who got caught in an embarrassing criminal act at the Marine Corps barracks (MCB) commissary in Quantico, Va.

“The FBI attorney admitted to placing numerous cosmetic items, valued at $257.99 and belonging to the MCB Quantico Exchange, into her purse without the intention to pay for them and did not pay for them before leaving the store. The FBI attorney further admitted that between February 2016 and her arrest in February 2018 she had shoplifted at the MCB Quantico Exchange one to two additional times, and at other private retailers in the area on two to three occasions,” the inspector general reported on May 14.

The investigation concluded her conduct violated federal criminal law and FBI policy regarding unprofessional conduct. But here was the outcome: “Criminal prosecution was deferred pending the FBI attorney’s completion of 125 hours of community service, after which all charges were dismissed.”

A few weeks of community service, and she was still in her job at the time the IG issued its report.

Two weeks ago, another DOJ official, an assistant U.S. attorney, escaped charges even after it was documented that he violated federal laws by possessing, transporting and consuming marijuana-laced edibles that he claimed he needed to treat back pain. He also was caught lying about his wrongdoing and 'fessed up only when his estranged wife threatened him during their divorce proceedings. Nonetheless, “criminal prosecution by federal and state authorities was declined,” the IG reported May 30

One of the internal affairs cases that stunned members of Congress this month directly grew out of the interwoven Hillary Clinton email and Russia collusion investigations in 2016, during then-FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyHannity invites Ocasio-Cortez to join prime-time show for full hour The Hill's 12:30 Report: Acosta under fire over Epstein plea deal White House repeatedly blocks ex-aide from answering Judiciary panel questions MORE’s tenure. 

The IG concluded that an FBI deputy assistant director engaged in multiple improper news media leaks while those investigations were ongoing, including one that violated a sealed court order, and accepted an improper gratuity from the news media. But prosecution was declined, yet again. FBI officials say they are considering discipline against the supervisor.

Records I reviewed indicate that more misconduct eerily similar to that already uncovered is being investigated. For example, the IG fraud unit opened a case in March and began interviewing whistleblowers about a new contract fraud matter inside the DEA, emails show.

It used to be that those who were entrusted to enforce the law were held to the highest standards.

Today, however, there is a troubling pattern of officers being held to a lower standard inside a department where critics fear there is a dual system of justice.

John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He serves as an investigative columnist and executive vice president for video at The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @jsolomonReports.