One of the men who helped the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) search for potential targets in a sweeping undercover drug and gun sting operation in Albuquerque last year is paid an $80,000 annual salary, court filings show.
The man appears to have been released early from a 10-year federal prison sentence and goes “around the country with his handlers creating crime for the government to prosecute” as a ‘“confidential informant,” the documents say.
Another informant ATF brought to Albuquerque for the operation is paid $1,400 a week plus occasional “bonuses,” he said under oath, according to a recording from a state court hearing obtained by New Mexico In Depth. He did not say what the bonuses were for.
That informant considers working for the ATF his full-time job.
The ATF, using those two men and three other informants, struck up relationships with hundreds of people between April and July 2016 in a largely minority swath of southeast Albuquerque. The nation’s leading agency in the fight against gun crime made 103 arrests, most for drug trafficking and conspiracy, and hailed the operation as an unqualified success.
With their taxpayer-funded salaries, the informants were far better off than many of those they helped to sweep up, some of whom were homeless or living in cars.
An NMID investigation found ATF’s sting netted mostly low-level offenders, not the “worst of the worst” officials claimed they’d taken off the streets. Most did not appear to have violent criminal histories. The vast majority sold relatively small quantities of drugs to agents or simply brokered deals.
The sting ensnared disproportionate numbers of minorities, including 28 black people — that’s 27 percent in a city with a 3 percent black population, in a state where blacks made up just 5 percent of gun- and drug-crime defendants in federal court between 2006 and 2015.
The sting operation relied heavily on the informants. They helped arrange drug sales with targets, then led them to undercover ATF agents. Three of the five informants ATF used in Albuquerque were black. Two were Hispanic.
ATF brought at least four of the men in from out of town to Albuquerque, a city beset with spiking violent and property crime rates in recent years.
That’s a flaw in the design of the operation, according to a retired Albuquerque Police Department detective with extensive experience in narcotics cases and an attorney for one of the 103 defendants. They questioned whether informants with no street-level understanding of the city’s criminal underworld knew enough to identify and infiltrate the “violent, repeat offenders” officials said they were after.
In a traditional undercover operation, law enforcement first identifies an existing criminal organization and arrests one of its lower-ranking members, the retired detective said. Facing charges, that person becomes an informant and offers a roadmap to the organization’s inner workings.
“That’s what you’d do if you wanted to get at some of the mid- or higher-level people,” said the detective, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive tactics because he still has dealings with law enforcement. “But to go in cold with an out-of-town group, just jump out on Central (Avenue) and start trying to buy dope? You’ll get what it sounds like they got here.”
Brian Pori, the federal public defender representing Yusef Casanova, who was arrested last summer by ATF, said out-of-town informants are left with little choice but to look for random targets on the street.
“They’re going through neighborhoods at night, saying: ‘Who wants to commit a crime?” Pori said. “‘Commit a crime! Come over here!’ And they’re not getting people who traffic in huge amounts of firearms, the worst of the worst.”
ATF officials did not respond to questions about how the bureau used informants. Elizabeth Martinez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, which is prosecuting the 103 cases, declined to comment.
Confidential informants are not law enforcement agents. Rather, they are citizens working for money, in exchange for leniency in their own criminal cases or both. Theirs is a shadowy world, and federal agencies such as the ATF closely guard informants’ identities and other information about them.
Informing for the government also is dangerous work. ATF Special Agent Russell Johnson, who helped oversee the Albuquerque sting, testified in court last month that criminals murdered one of his informants in 2015 after discovering his identity.
NMID is not identifying any of the informants.
Johnson testified that ATF plans to use at least some of the informants they employed for the Albuquerque sting for future operations in other cities.
Pori and other attorneys are fighting through court motions to pry loose detailed information about the five informants ATF used. The attorneys want to know how much each of them was paid, the extent of their criminal histories and more. The attorneys believe that information will help prove their claim that ATF racially profiled Albuquerque in search of targets.
Prosecutors are opposing those motions. Along with the ATF, they have denied the racial profiling allegations.
The use of confidential informants is common among federal law enforcement agencies, with payments in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Since 2012, ATF and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) paid nearly $260 million to informants, according to testimony before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last month. DEA appears to have spent the bulk of that money.
In many cases, field agents for DEA and ATF approved payments to informants without seeking approval from agency higher-ups, drawing criticism from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.
NMID learned of one informant’s arrangement with the ATF through two audio recordings.
One includes sworn testimony by the informant during a hearing for a man who allegedly violated his probation — unrelated to the sting — in state District Court in Albuquerque. The other is from a pretrial interview the informant gave a few days before the hearing to an attorney who represents the alleged probation violator.
The informant began working for federal law enforcement in 2001 after DEA agents arrested him for delivering a pound of methamphetamine, he said in the pretrial interview.
“I listened to some recordings the agents had and basically decided, ‘OK, what do I need to do?’” said the informant, who is based in another state. “They asked me if I would be willing to cooperate, and I said yeah … Basically, I worked my charges off.”
After that, the man worked as an informant for the DEA, the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, he said in the interview. He hooked up with ATF in 2009.
“I’ve been bouncing from one state to another, working with ATF,” he said, ticking off eight states including New Mexico. “I do this full time.”
The informant described the Albuquerque operation: “ATF had a specific reason why they were here, and they brought in myself and several other people” to work as informants.
He said at one point during the interview that he received $900 a week in “subsistence” pay from ATF, plus a free place to stay in New Mexico. He later said his pay was $1,400 a week plus bonuses, which are “not guaranteed.”
During the probation violation hearing, the informant clarified his pay scale under oath, saying his base weekly pay was $1,400. He said he had not yet received a bonus for the Albuquerque operation.
Did he expect one, the attorney asked.
“I don’t know what type of mood the agent’s gonna be in,” the informant replied. “I don’t know if he’s gonna put me in for one or not.”
“What type of bonus would you receive or would you expect in this type of case?” the attorney continued.
“I don’t know. I’ve never done this type of case before,” the informant said.
The informant led agents to at least three of the 103 defendants in Albuquerque, according to court documents filed by the Federal Public Defender’s Office.
The ATF informant who is paid $80,000 was far more prolific in Albuquerque, the records show.
That man had a hand in at least 31 of the 103 arrests, including the case of 22-year-old Julian Brown.
At the time of his arrest, Brown had worked for two years on a stucco crew, Steve McCue, his federal public defender, wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed in court last month. He had recently moved into a one-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend and infant daughter and was “feeling the stress of trying to support a household and family.”
Brown had no felony record, according to the memo.
The informant, meanwhile, has been convicted of felony drug charges three times, the memo says. In 2011, he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for cocaine trafficking and being a felon illegally in possession of a firearm.
Despite that, “he is at large working for ATF,” McCue wrote. That included befriending Brown by offering to sell him cigarettes at 50 cents on the dollar.
Brown took the offer. The two stayed in touch and, later, the informant “enticed him to engage in illegal transactions by offering him easy money,” the memo says. The informant arranged for Brown to sell a shotgun to an ATF agent and to act as a middleman in a drug deal.
The drug charge against Brown was dismissed after he pleaded guilty to one count of possessing an unregistered firearm. McCue is pushing for a two-year prison sentence — at the low end of the federal sentencing guidelines.
In his memo, the public defender summed up the different life circumstances of the two men.
The informant “is paid approximately $80,000 a year before bonuses,” McCue wrote. “He has owned or currently owns a boat, automobiles and a home. Mr. Brown on the other hand hauls mud for a stucco crew, and was living in a one-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend and their infant daughter.”