WASHINGTON -- The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration defended herself on Tuesday against charges by skeptical members of Congress that the DEA dealt overly lax punishments to agents who participated in “sex parties” with prostitutes in Colombia.
At a hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart also admitted that “a number” of agents who were involved in prostitution were promoted between the time the incidents occurred and the time they were fully investigated. None of the DEA employees involved were fired.
The DEA “sex parties” were revealed in a report that was released last month by the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General. The IG report addressed the handling of allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct at a number of federal law enforcement agencies that fall under DOJ’s umbrella.
One of the agents involved retired, while seven others were suspended for periods ranging from one to 10 days, according to internal DEA reports recently turned over to committee investigators. Two other DEA employees received letters of caution.
The reports showed that the allegations about the “sex parties” in Colombia dated back to 2001. One cooperator told investigators he recalled getting prostitutes for at least 15 to 20 parties for DEA agents, and said that he would “stay at the party and provide protection for the agents weapons and personal belongings.”
An agent admitted that he engaged in prostitution and held at least two parties at his residence at which prostitutes were present, according to the documents. He also said that certain parties were "possibly" funded by operational funds. Another agent told investigators that “if an agent stated he did not know if the dancers/strippers who attended parties were prostitutes; they would be lying.”
In defending her agency on Tuesday, Leonhart pointed to a memo she sent in 2014 outlining her concerns about the behavior of DEA employees, as well as some slides about prostitution that were added to a presentation that agents watch before they go overseas. Among the reminders in Leonhart's Oct. 22, 2014, memo to DEA employees: Don’t lie, don’t solicit prostitutes, don’t drink and drive, don’t sexually harass employees, don’t sleep with sources and make sure to secure your firearms.
Leonhart also wrote that she “noted an increase in incidents involving allegations of domestic violence” and reminded employees that they are expected “to refrain from all acts of domestic violence.”
During the hearing, Leonhart said that she was disappointed that the punishments weren't more severe and said civil service laws restricted the impact she was able to have on the outcomes.
Several lawmakers were highly critical of Leonhart’s leadership of the DEA. Leonhart is a longtime DEA official who has held top leadership positions at the agency since 2004. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) questioned whether she was right for the job.
“This new internal report details years of allegations -- beginning in 2001 -- that portray DEA agents as completely out of control,” Cummings said in a statement Tuesday. “They appear to have fraternized with cartel members, accepted lavish gifts, and paid for prostitutes with no concern for the negative repercussions or security vulnerabilities they created.”
“You get called before this committee and you say, ‘Oh, it’s terrible, it’s awful.’ But you, you personally, have been responsible for this for more than a decade and you didn’t do anything about it,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who chairs the oversight committee. “It took you two years to get out a memo.”
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) said the DEA has had a “spring break frat party mentality” for the past 15 years. Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) said lawmakers “need to seriously consider new leadership at the DEA.”