Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Uncle Sam has a major problem in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Some law enforcement agents working the task force investigating public corruption worry that they’ve got an informer in their midst. And the U.S. Justice Department better investigate before somebody gets killed.
But, federal agents who have knowledge about an incident that happened during the “Kids for Cash” investigation have apparently decided against singling out the officer who might have tipped off one of the main targets of the probe.
I know that officer’s name and spoke with him yesterday.
That seasoned investigator denies what other seasoned officers accuse him of doing.
Here’s what happened: One day two FBI agents sat in a surveillance vehicle as a wired cooperating witness met with the main targets in the case. The agents listened and recorded the crucial conversation that took place inside a Luzerne County condominium.
Suddenly one of the targets looked out the window and spotted the suspicious vehicle. He and the others panicked. Desperate, he went outside to see what he could see. Thankfully the agents had covered the windows he could not see the agents inside as they sat in silence after turning off any audio equipment that he might hear.
Thankfully they had locked the doors because they heard him try all the handles.
Heading back inside, the future convicts agreed that they better get out of there.
And they did.
That audio surveillance tape was played in a federal trial in Scranton. Everybody knew that the defendant almost busted the cops who would eventually bust him. What they didn’t hear was what police sources say happened next.
One of the targets of the investigation rushed back to Luzerne County where he allegedly contacted the high-ranking police officer. The target asked him to run the license plate number of the vehicle that had just given the target fits.
The officer did as he was told, entering his official code number into the national vehicle tracking network that police use daily to help them enforce the law. As simple as running a plate number is, the task is relegated only to those who officially need to know the confidential details contained in the official records. To do otherwise might constitute a crime or, at the very least, a serious and dangerous breach of ethics.
Since FBI surveillance vehicles are registered to fictitious corporations so they don’t come back as FBI surveillance vehicles, the investigation was not compromised.
I have not yet been able to confirm that the target of the investigation suspected anything out of the ordinary. I also don’t know if the police officer even reported back to him.
But as soon as the officer ran the plate, sources say the overseers of the NCIC system knew the plate had been run. And they contacted FBI agents in Philadelphia who contacted agents in Scranton who allegedly went to the officer and asked why he ran the plate of an FBI surveillance vehicle that was part of a massive federal public corruption task force investigation in which he was not involved.
Even though the officer admitted that he ran the plate, sources say nothing happened to him – a man who other officers claim willingly helped a gangster who tried to compromise the federal investigation into his crimes.
I’m told that the FBI agents inside the vehicle reported the incident to their superiors. I’m told that other federal officials, including some prosecutors, also know what happened. I’m told that the case is closed.
Still, the story is the talk of the federal building in Scranton where Justice Department offices house FBI, IRS, DEA and other federal agents. And not everybody is happy with what they see as a security breach that could have gotten agents killed by a sloppy cop who operates at a high law enforcement security level.
The officer whom other officers name as the culprit yesterday denied “unequivocally” that he ran the plate. He said he has heard the story himself and has “no clue” as to why fellow officers would finger him. He said he believes that a law enforcement officer ran the plate, however, and that the FBI knows that officer’s identity.
So why not do something to make sure the officer never attempts to compromise a future investigation? Why not take formal disciplinary action against the officer? Why risk morale and safety by covering up for a bad cop who is part of the culture of corruption that task force officials are supposedly fighting?
The ongoing federal public corruption probe is charged with many missions, including the restoration of the public trust. But how can anyone expect the public to trust the government when government agents don’t even trust each other?
Good question, huh?
I’ll let you know what U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Peter Smith says when I ask him.