Wheeler Dealer

How Minnesota cops and the war on drugs made a successful entrepreneur out of a small-time hustler and snitch named Michael Felix

Tom Ploof is chief deputy of the Morrison County Sheriff's Department and one of the people who vouched for Felix when it was time to end his Little Falls sting. "We got pretty good recommendations for him and when we used him we didn't have any problems," he says. "Of course, any informant is only as good as your controls on him. And that's what the cops are there for, to do the quality control."

 

In 1988, a New York City police officer named Edward Byrne was killed during a drug raid. Byrne's parents took his badge to Washington and, in a highly publicized display, presented it to Ronald Reagan. Conveniently, Reagan was in the process of declaring war on drugs, and the Byrnes begged him to avenge their son. The result: the U.S. Department of Justice's Edward Byrne Memorial Fund, which last year doled out hundreds of millions to bureaucracies involved in fighting drugs and violent crime.

Although the grants can be applied in some 29 anti-crime "purpose areas," by far the largest single kind of expenditure, accounting for 40 percent of the dollars spent, is funding for regional drug task forces. The Justice Department gives the money to states, which kick in a 25 percent match and redistribute the money.

According to documents obtained from the state Department of Public Safety under Minnesota's Data Practices Act, Deputy Johnson's sting was paid for by a Byrne grant. "In our task force area, at least 80 percent of all drug crime is solved through confidential informants," the task force's 2002 grant paperwork states. "With the development and use of confidential informants, we are able to conduct controlled buys and undercover agent introductions for the purchase of narcotics. This method is highly effective and these informants are crucial to our task for operations."

The paperwork filed by the task force goes on to estimate that Felix, described as "a mercenary informant," would be far more effective than he in fact was. "At this reporting, approximately 72 individuals have sold, on numerous occasions, quantities of methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, and other illicit drugs," the documents state. "A majority of these 72 defendants will be charged with mandatory minimum 86-month commitments to prison. Some of these defendants are second- and third-time offenders. This total operation has cost the WCM Task Force and the City of Detroit Lakes $62,780."

Regardless of the final number of cases made by the sting, it's clear the drug agents were pleased. "Even though this sting operation put the West Central Minnesota Task Force in the red, we feel that it was needed to gain back the streets of Detroit Lakes and the county of Becker," the documents conclude. "WCM would also like to have another mercenary informant, such as we had in Detroit Lakes, to be utilized in another portion of our nine-county area in 2002." The task force's activities fit tidily into several of Byrne's "purpose areas," including "drug-free school zone enforcement."

The money kept flowing. In 2003, the task force asked for and received $113,671 in Byrne grant funds and $37,891 in matching state funds. The agency's final progress reports have yet to be turned in, but according to its 2003 application, almost $40,000 of the money was earmarked as "confidential funds" that were to be used to pay for drugs and other evidence and for informants.

The gravy train may be coming to an end, though, because Byrne has increasingly become the subject of critical scrutiny. Rural anti-drug task forces operating with Byrne grants and little oversight have sparked a number of scandals across the country in recent years. To date, the most visible of those scandals centered on a drug sting that took place in Tulia, Texas, in the late '90s.

Based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of a police officer working as a private informant for the Byrne-funded Panhandle Narcotics Task Force, 46 people were arrested. Forty of them were black (representing 15 percent of Tulia's black population), and the remainder Latino or involved in interracial relationships. After the first seven defendants tried received lengthy prison sentences--one of 99 years--14 more defendants quickly pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison. Still others were sentenced to probation.

The prosecutions unraveled after two of the defendants were able to prove conclusively that they were at work or outside the state at the time the informant said they were selling drugs. After a state judge ordered new trials for 35 of the defendants, Texas Gov. Rick Perry simply pardoned them. The informant, meanwhile, was charged with perjury last April. The prosecutor in the cases is under investigation for possible misconduct.

After the Tulia scandal, the Texas ACLU studied Byrne funding in that state and found scandals involving 17 regional drug task forces underwritten by the grants. "The fundamental problem is that you have these task forces out there operating with little or no supervision and absolutely no state or federal accountability," Texas ACLU President Will Harrell told the Dallas Observer. "No one is accepting responsibility, and the task forces have one motive and one motive only: to produce numbers lest they lose their funding for the next year. But no one questions how they go about their business."

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