DEA chief resigns after report faulted agents’ conduct

Del Quentin Wilber
Bloomberg News

The head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is stepping down, weeks after a government watchdog alleged that agents cavorted with prostitutes.

Michele Leonhart, the DEA’s administrator, had faced mounting pressure from lawmakers upset by revelations in the government watchdog report that agents had engaged in “sex parties” with prostitutes paid by drug cartels in Colombia. Last week, she was questioned about the scandal by lawmakers on a House oversight committee, a majority of whom later issued a letter expressing “no confidence” in her leadership.

Leonhart’s retirement after 35 years with the agency was announced Tuesday by Attorney General Eric Holder, who praised Leonhart as “a trailblazer for equality.”

“I have been proud to call her my partner in the work of safeguarding our national security and protecting our citizens,” Holder said in a statement.

Leonhart, who has led the agency since 2007 and was the first woman to attain the rank of special agent in charge, has faced tough questions on Capitol Hill over the years about President Barack Obama’s sentencing and drug policies. But it was the prostitution scandal that has garnered the most attention and controversy.

The Department of Justice’s inspector general last month reported that Colombian police officers alleged they arranged sex parties attended by several DEA agents at an agency facility and that they had protected the agents’ weapons during the festivities.

In addition to supplying prostitutes, drug cartels gave three DEA agents money, gifts and weapons, according to police officers who reported the behavior to the agency. The inspector general, which was investigating how law enforcement agencies handled allegations of sexual misconduct claims between fiscal 2009 and 2012, based its findings on a review of internal DEA reports and interviews.

Seven of 10 agents alleged to have participated in the parties admitted to their involvement and received suspensions ranging from two to 10 days, the inspector general found.

Among the inspector general’s conclusions as to how the DEA and other law enforcement agencies handle allegations of sexual harassment: Supervisors don’t always properly report allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct; a lack of coordination exists between internal affairs investigators and the personnel responsible for ensuring the integrity of security clearances; the agencies had difficulty detecting their employees’ sexually explicit text messages.

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said after Leonhart’s departure was announced that DEA management was to blame for systemic problems in its disciplinary process. He said his panel would continue to investigate misconduct at the agency and “do whatever it takes to see that these problems are fixed.”

“The DEA’s pattern of protecting its own agents at the expense of the transparency and justice that the American people deserve must end,” Goodlatte said in a statement. “I believe a change in leadership at the DEA is warranted.”

Earlier Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to back Leonhart, saying, “The president, as you know, maintains a very high standard for anybody who serves in his administration, particularly when it comes to law enforcement officials.”

Holder said that Leonhart will leave the agency in mid-May, according to the statement from the Justice Department.