U.S. Agents Make Increasing Use of Informants : But ‘Handlers’ Face Complex Legal Hazards When Condoning Criminal Acts

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Times Staff Writers

Larry A. Long, an FBI agent in Lexington, Ky., was running a sting operation aimed at catching dealers of stolen truck parts when the roof caved in.

His informant, Delano (Red) Colvin, charged that Long, a 17-year FBI veteran, had helped him steal a truck and $48,000 worth of truck parts. Now Long is facing complicity-in-burglary charges instead of an FBI commendation for imaginative investigative work.

Long’s case, scheduled for trial in August, vividly points up the hazards of relying on informants to combat crime--hazards that have surfaced dramatically in the government’s case against Teamsters Union President Jackie Presser. Robert S. Friedrick, a veteran FBI agent assigned to handle Presser’s work as an informant on organized crime, now is accused of making false statements to protect Presser from charges that he padded the payroll of his hometown local with ghost employees.


Top Investigative Tool

Despite such risks, government agents--not only FBI but Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service, Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service and others--are relying increasingly on informants. FBI Director William H. Webster rates them as the bureau’s single most important investigative tool. Informants “help us reach beyond the street criminal to the upper echelons of criminal enterprises,” Webster said recently. “And they help us obtain information that traditional investigative techniques--the interview, the physical surveillance and the crime scene inspection--simply will not produce.”

Law enforcement authorities have been using informants at least since Judas Iscariot provided information to chief priests and elders on Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Nearly 2,000 years later, Joseph Valachi’s informing, carried out in dramatic televised Senate hearings in 1963, lifted the curtain on the Mafia’s far-flung operations--and won Valachi cushier accommodations than he otherwise would have enjoyed behind federal bars.

Over the last five years, the number of FBI informants has mushroomed. In 1980, the last year the FBI disclosed the total, it stood at 2,800, including 1,000 in organized crime. Today, knowledgeable sources estimate, that number has gone well beyond 6,000.

Played Critical Roles

In fiscal 1985, FBI informants provided information that led to 1,700 arrests--one-fifth of total FBI arrests made that year. That same year, FBI informants played critical roles in persuading judges to issue warrants for more than 280 wiretaps--most of the 333 new and extended wiretaps obtained by all federal investigators.

But if informants play an increasingly central role in solving complex crimes, they also have a way of seducing their law-enforcement “handlers” into engaging in criminal acts themselves or harming innocent third parties.

“You absolutely need them,” a senior IRS official said of informants. “But almost all of them are headaches for you.”


Historically, the relationship between law enforcement agents and informants who commit crimes has been an ill-defined one. Agents have found it tempting--sometimes irresistibly so--to let the end justify the means.

Put Controls on Informants

In the wake of disclosures of widespread civil liberties abuses by the FBI during the 1960s and 1970s, Atty. Gen. Edward H. Levi for the first time imposed Justice Department controls over FBI informants in January, 1977, in the final days of the Gerald R. Ford Administration. Nearly four years later, in December, 1980, Atty. Gen. Benjamin R. Civiletti issued more detailed and rigorous rules at the end of the Jimmy Carter Administration.

“The rules don’t prevent violations, but they do provide for sanctions if agents screw up--and that’s a significant change,” said one official who has worked with the guidelines.

In today’s most celebrated case, the central question is whether Presser, as a top Teamsters Union official, had FBI authority to do what would otherwise be criminal--to allegedly pay more than $700,000 in Teamster funds to associates who did no work.

After a three-year investigation, a federal strike force in Cleveland recommended that Presser be prosecuted, but Justice Department officials last July overruled them. An inquiry by the Senate Government Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations said the officials based their decision on statements by Friedrick and two of Presser’s earlier FBI “handlers” that they had sanctioned the ghost worker payments.

Indictments Handed Down

Last month, however, a federal grand jury in Cleveland indicted Presser and two Teamster associates for siphoning off more than $700,000 of union funds in the ghost-worker scheme. Friedrick was indicted separately for lying last year to internal investigators about his role in Presser’s purported authorization by the FBI to engage in the scheme.


Attorneys in the Justice Department’s office of professional responsibility concluded that Presser had no FBI authorization after all. They determined that the authorization was concocted after the fact to protect a highly valued informant, although he was taken off the informant rolls when he became Teamster president in 1983.

Presser’s handlers in the FBI conceded that they had failed to follow Civiletti’s 1980 guidelines, which required the FBI to leave a written record when it permitted an informant to commit an otherwise criminal act. Nor did they receive authorization from the agent in charge of their Cleveland office, as required in the case of “extraordinary” crimes--a category that covers Presser’s alleged offenses. Friedrick and Presser’s other two handlers had a reason--that the ghost payments were already being made when the 1980 guidelines went into effect.

May Have Lost Perspective

Sources inside the FBI believe that if Friedrick lied about authorizing Presser’s ghost payments, as he is accused of doing, he did it for the best of motives: to protect a highly prized informant. They point out that Friedrick is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who was wounded leading a Marine platoon in Vietnam and compiled an award-winning record as an FBI agent.

But government sources outside the bureau who are familiar with the record contend that Friedrick became overwhelmed with the power of his informant, who boasts an enormous salary as president of the Teamsters Union, had stretch limousines and Teamster-owned Learjets at his command and was classified as “top echelon” because the FBI believed he had access to the top levels of organized crime.

“It became a question of who was controlling whom,” said one non-FBI investigator, who declined to be identified by name.

Presser’s is hardly the first FBI informant case of recent years that has become embroiled in controversy. The FBI’s highly effective Abscam investigation, a bribery “sting” operation aimed at members of Congress in the early 1980s, was itself flawed by the work of a controversial FBI informant, Melvin C. Weinberg, who was a convicted con artist.


Received $250,000

Weinberg helped the FBI by vouching for the credentials of undercover agents who were masquerading as wealthy Arab sheiks in search of political favors from members of Congress. For his services, the government paid Weinberg $250,000 over the course of three years and provided him with expense money to travel between New York and Florida without always accounting for his time and movements.

Although Abscam resulted in the convictions of seven past or present members of Congress, a select Senate committee found that the FBI failed to supervise Weinberg adequately and allowed him to continue his escapades as a con man.

In addition, federal court files revealed that some FBI agents assigned to work with Weinberg purchased sports coats and other items from him at bargain prices and accepted small favors from him. FBI agent Anthony Amoroso, for example, said in a sworn affidavit that he paid Weinberg $2,300 for some books, used clothing and second-hand furniture.

FBI officials testified that they did not condone such relationships between agents and informants. However, Weinberg’s conduct did not legally taint any of the bribery or conspiracy convictions obtained in Abscam, they said, and a series of federal District Court and appellate judges agreed.

Justice Department Faulted

Even the FBI’s parent agency, the Justice Department, has shown too little concern for the niceties of the informant system, according to a recent report on the Presser case by the investigation subcommittee. In a report last month, the subcommittee faulted the department for hesitating to press the FBI for information about its informants, even when such data might be crucial to an active departmental investigation.

“Presumably the department did not wish to jeopardize good relations with the FBI,” the report said. “However, this laudable goal appears to have resulted in the department dealing with the FBI as an autonomous entity to which it had to defer, rather than as part of the department under the jurisdiction of . . . the attorney general.”


The subcommittee criticized Justice Department attorneys for failing to press the FBI about its relationship to Presser. Had they done so, the subcommittee said, their badly mishandled Presser investigation could have been concluded much sooner.