Bennett v. DEA, 55 F.Supp.2d 36 (D.D.C. 1999)

From Punch and Jurists

This is a revealing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) decision­­although it is really the story of one of the DEA's most notorious informants, one Andrew Chambers. With good cause, plaintiff's counsel alleged that Chambers "is perhaps the highest paid confidential informant in DEA history (having received perhaps as much as $ 4 million for his services), despite a criminal record, frequent perjury, and specific targeting of African American communities." (Id., at 41).

The plaintiff in this case had numerous reasons to suspect that Chambers' record would provide fertile information. Chambers' exploits have been chronicled in at least two reported Federal cases. In U.S. v. Duke, 50 F.3d 571, 578, n. 4 (8th Cir. 1995), the Eighth Circuit noted that "[t]he record . . . clearly demonstrates that Chambers did in fact perjure himself at Duke's trial when he testified that he had never been arrested or convicted. . . . This is unfortunately not the first case we have seen where the government has failed to successfully complete a routine background check." In U.S. v. Ransom, 990 F.2d 1264 (9th Cir. 1993), the Ninth Circuit noted that "Chambers's credibility [at trial] already was undermined significantly by his trial admission that he had lied in previous cases while testifying as a government witness."

Sadly, there was even more. Judge Kessler concluded that Chambers is not "the usual government informant"­­rather, he has "made a career out of serving as a government informant" and has probably earned "substantially more than the vast majority of other, more traditional, federal employees. To prove her point, Judge Kessler cited "[o]ne media article uncovered by Plaintiff [which] outlines in dismaying detail the alleged misconduct Chambers and DEA have engaged in. Chambers has allegedly been involved in more than 150 federal drug cases in thirteen years, resulting in more than 300 arrests... Chambers sometimes works on a percentage basis, collecting up to 25% of the value of the drugs and cash seized from sting operations in which he is involved.

Furthermore, there is evidence that Chambers does not pay taxes on his 'earnings', and that [the] DEA has not taken steps to ensure that he does." (Id., at 42, n. 7). [That evidence was the fact that Chambers was never prosecuted for tax fraud "despite not filing returns for six years." (Id., at 40).

The plaintiff sent a FOIA request to the DEA for information about Chambers; and, of course, that request was instantly stonewalled. Kevin Janet, the Acting Chief of the Litigation Unit of the Freedom of Information Section at the DEA, did conduct an investigation of the DEA records dealing with Chambers. And he did receive back 33 pages of responsive materials: "five pages containing Chambers' criminal records [and] twenty-seven pages containing lists of monies paid to Chambers." (Id., at 39).

Nevertheless, Janet­­obviously a dedicated team player­­concluded that Chambers' criminal records were exempt from disclosure, under the provisions of 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(C) and (F), because such disclosure "would constitute an unwarranted invasion of [Chambers'] personal privacy, given the humiliation, stigmatization, and embarrassment that could result from such disclosure." (Id., at 41). He then concluded that Chambers' payment records were also exempt from disclosure, under the same provisions, because such disclosure "would reveal the purpose, duration, and scope of Chambers' participation in criminal investigations, and such disclosure would bring with it an invasion of personal privacy because of the stigmatization attached to being a government informant." (Id).

Quite bluntly, Judge Kessler rejected those arguments, stating that "[b]y choosing to 'work' as a regular government informant, and by testifying about his activities and 'earnings' in open court, Chambers has chosen to give up his personal privacy interests to this information. . . . [Furthermore], given the compelling evidence Plaintiff has uncovered, suggesting massive government misconduct, the public interest in disclosure of this information far outweighs any privacy interest Chambers may have." (Id., at 42-43).

Chambers will now clearly be dropped as a reliable informant (although we assume that counsel for the 300 defendants who have already been convicted will investigate whether this information warrants reopening those cases); and the DEA will indubitably find some other criminal who is willing to lie in exchange for millions in tax free dollars and immunity from prosecution!