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DEA covertly paid hundreds of thousands for open information on train passengers

Published time: August 12, 2014 20:51
AFP Photo / Getty Images / David McNew

AFP Photo / Getty Images / David McNew

A United States senator is asking the US Drug Enforcement Agency to explain how an employee for the Amtrak train line got away with receiving over $850,000 from the DEA by working as a federal informant for nearly 20 years.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote in a letter to the DEA’s top administrator last week that reports of an informant working within the ranks of Amtrak from 1995 until earlier this year “raises some serious questions about the DEA’s practices and damages its credibility to cooperate with other law enforcement agencies in narcotics investigations.”

Grassley wrote to DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart after a recent report published by Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General acknowledged that more than three-quarter of a million dollars were spent compensating the informant in exchange for Passenger Name Information, or PNR, details — details, Amtrak acknowledged, which the DEA would have otherwise received free of charge.

“A secretary to a Train and Engine crew regularly provided confidential PNR information to US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents without seeking approval from Amtrak management or the Amtrak Police Department (APD). The employee received $854,460 in payment from DEA for this information from 1995 to the present,” reads a section of the audit, published in late June. “APD and DEA participate in a joint drug enforcement task force. The drug task force members can obtain Amtrak PNR information from APD task force members at no cost. The actions of the secretary prevented APD from jointly working with DEA in narcotics trafficking on Amtrak property, thus depriving APD from receiving $854,460 in asset forfeiture funds.”

According to the statement, Amtrak removed the unnamed secretary from service after the details were uncovered, and the employee then retired when the company moved to press charges.

“In addition to the unnecessary expenditure of $850,000, DEA’s actions reflect an unwillingness to cooperate jointly with the APD on investigations of narcotics trafficking on Amtrak property,” Grassley wrote to Leonhart. “This undercuts the purpose of the joint drug enforcement task force and prevented the APD from coordinating and sharing information with the DEA.”

In the letter, the senator wrote that he wants Amtrak to explain by August 21 if the DEA has identified the weaknesses in its internal controls that allowed this payment plan to happen for nearly 20 years, if disciplinary action has been taken against the employee(s) responsible and if any other similar scandals were uncovered by the inspector general’s audit.

"We suggested policy changes and other measures to address control weaknesses that Amtrak management is considering,” the OIG report concluded.

According to the audit, Amtrak had 66 active investigations focusing on significant allegations of suspected fraud, waste and misconduct as of late June, with the majority of the cases, 37, involving major misconduct or general crime.