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

In response to the scandals and the governor's pardons, the Texas legislature recently passed a law saying no one can be convicted based on the word of an informant without strong corroborating evidence. Similar laws have long been in place in many states regarding the testimony of co-conspirators, and police are routinely trained to collect corroborating evidence.

The grants haven't been a problem just for Texas, either. Task forces in Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama, and Virginia have faced allegations of corruption. Many of the operations being scrutinized involved informants located in school zones, public housing projects, or other drug-free zones; paid informants allowed to operate with little or no supervision; drugs provided to minors. Congress's investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, has criticized the program for failing to monitor grant recipients adequately.

"Really the Byrne grant incentives just perpetuate the arrests of small-time, nonviolent drug offenders as opposed to really reducing drug use and the costs associated with drug use," says Bill Piper, associate director of national affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Drug Policy Alliance. "The feds are passing this anti-drug money out like candy and they are not monitoring what local and state agencies are doing with it. There's little accountability over these regional task forces because they exist in kind of a gray area between the local, state, and federal governments. No one is really watching what they are doing."

The lack of accountability is especially dangerous, he continues, because the grants give police an incentive to make as many arrests as possible, whether or not the arrests will help make the community safer. "The more these task forces fail, the more they get money," he says. "And by fail, I mean that the problem is that to get money they have to go out and make all sorts of arrests. The more arrests they make, the more money they can get in the future. We've been arresting more and more people for 30 years now in the war on drugs and clearly it's not working. Is drug use going down in their district? I doubt it. The Byrne grant just rewards those failed policies."

Ironically, Byrne's biggest enemies may turn out to be the very forces that backed the war on drugs. The right-wing Heritage Foundation has joined the chorus now lambasting the grants as ineffective, wasteful, and too focused on small-time drug sales instead of stemming the flow of drugs into communities. The money would be better used, according to the conservative think-tank and its allies in Washington, to fight terrorism.

Accordingly, the Bush administration plans to ask Congress for $600 million in Byrne money next year. That's one fourth as much money as the program received this year. In addition, it may be merged with another program that provides grants to local law enforcement.

In Minnesota, support for the task forces has softened, too. After funding for the state's gang strike force was nearly eliminated during the last legislative session, officials began discussing consolidating the gang- and drug-fighting agencies.

Patrick Johnson is quick to say that he thinks this would be a mistake. Without the money, he says, operations like his would be finished. As it is, he says, "We don't have as many informants as we'd like, because we don't have the money to pay these people what they deserve."

 

Despite the long line of witnesses ready to testify, the jury that convicted Trent Lederhaus never heard the bulk of the evidence his attorney planned to present. Felix served 34 months in prison following a 1988 felony drug conviction from Rice County, as well as a 1981 burglary conviction in Oregon. But Lederhaus's attorney couldn't use this information to discredit him because his convictions were more than 10 years old.

Much more damning, however, the bulk of the evidence Lederhaus had that alleged Felix was selling drugs was never aired. After presenting its case against Lederhaus, the prosecution asked the judge to "prohibit the introduction of evidence that would tend to show that Michael Felix was either selling, distributing, or using drugs" any time other than during the sales Lederhaus was charged with making.

Lederhaus's attorney protested that Felix's activities were relevant, but didn't offer any explanation why, according to Lederhaus's appeal. The court barred the evidence, and Lederhaus was convicted of all three offenses and sentenced to six and a half years in prison. He appealed to the state Court of Appeals, arguing that he had been denied his right to present a defense. The judges didn't address his claim, however, concluding that he gave up his right to argue the point because his attorney didn't raise it at trial.

Lederhaus was the first of the people arrested in the sting to go to trial. After he was convicted, attorneys representing 20 others jointly requested a court hearing to determine whether the charges against their clients should be dismissed because their right to due process had been violated. The attorneys argued that law enforcement had acted outrageously by setting the operation up in a school zone, by failing to monitor Felix's transactions adequately, and by allowing "the informant's criminal behavior to escalate to outrageous proportions." The judge denied the motion.

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