A top Republican senator has demanded that the Drug Enforcement Administration respond to allegations that agents exaggerated their record of drug seizures “in order to obtain funding from Congress.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, who chairs the powerful committee that oversees the DEA and Department of Justice, raised the issue in a letter sent last week to Chuck Rosenberg, the DEA’s acting administrator, and to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. It cites a BuzzFeed News report from earlier this month, about a DEA agent stationed in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who asked his girlfriend, Larissa Carvalho, to translate sensitive DEA memos. After she ended the relationship with him, the agent, Scott Nickerson, stalked and harassed Carvalho and her friends and relatives, BuzzFeed News reported.
The harassment continued for months despite numerous official complaints by Carvalho and others, Grassley noted in the letter. She received little response from either agency, it said.
In response to BuzzFeed News’s investigation, the DEA said it initiated an investigation into Nickerson’s conduct in June 2016, “but Nickerson is still employed by DEA and reportedly has remained free to continue to harass and threaten Carvalho and her friends and family throughout the course of that investigation,” Grassley noted in his letter.
Carvalho reported the questionable drug seizure reports to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Grassley chairs, his letter said. In a WhatsApp conversation with Carvalho dated May 2014, Nickerson appears to describe how agents stationed in Brazil lied to Washington, falsely taking credit for drug seizures by local authorities in order to help justify the field office’s funding. DEA ”receives money by telling congress how much money and dope we seize,” he wrote. “In the US, everything is pretty accurate. here, however, the office in Brazil takes credit for everything the Brazilians do, even if they had nothing to do with it.”
Agents sometimes “will take newspaper articles and report it like dea assisted with the seizure,” Nickerson added. He called the actions “an insult to the agents that are busting their ass in the States, and I don’t want to do it.” He said that if he reported these actions to senior officials, that could influence the agency’s decisions about where to station agents when they returned to the US.
Spokespeople for the DEA did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Nickerson’s attorney. A spokesperson for the Office of the Inspector General declined to comment.
Nickerson, a married agent 10 years older than Carvalho, met her in 2014 and soon began dating her, BuzzFeed News first reported on May 5. He sent her at least five documents detailing the operations and associates of drug kingpins, including their phone numbers and mobile PINs. Strict rules govern the way details like that are handled, to protect the integrity of an investigation as well as the safety of innocent people. Passing sensitive documents to people who are not meant to see them violates DEA rules and can be grounds for firing; it is not clear whether Nickerson’s actions were unlawful. After BuzzFeed’s report, one of the memos was posted in full on Twitter by an anonymous account. Images of some of documents also appeared on an online message board.
Nickerson’s written communications with Carvalho include numerous references to additional misconduct by him and other agents, as Grassley laid out in his letter. He said he hired sex workers, which is a fireable offense for DEA agents; he said the tinted windows on his government-issued SUV were useful “for safety and blow jobs”; and he used government funds to help pay for travel with Carvalho — a practice he jokingly called “Obama pays.”
After Carvalho broke up with him in late 2015, Nickerson began a campaign of stalking and harassing her, her friends, and family that continued until earlier this month, BuzzFeed News reported.
Sen. Grassley’s letter concludes with 13 questions for the DEA and the Office of the Inspector General, an independent watchdog within the Department of Justice. They include what the agencies knew about about Nickerson, when they learned it, and what they did about it. It asks the DEA when it began investigating him and which allegations it focused on, whether Nickerson has been disciplined or stripped of his security clearance, what steps the agency has taken to prevent Nickerson’s stalking and harassment, and whether DEA has looked into other agents’ misreporting of drug busts in the manner Nickerson described.
Grassley also asked the Office of the Inspector General when it became aware of allegations against Nickerson, when it first acted, and whether it recommended any actions to DEA in response to the allegations.
The Office of the Inspector General has repeatedly criticized DEA for failing to adequately supervise agents working overseas, for rampant sexual misconduct including soliciting sex workers, and for failing to discipline employees after their misconduct is exposed.
Daniel Wagner is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Daniel Wagner at Daniel.Wagner@buzzfeed.com.
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