Was Customs Agent Greedy or Just Stupid? Jury to Decide

Times Staff Writer

Did criminal greed draw a U.S. Customs Service agent into an international marijuana smuggling scheme? Or was it plain stupidity that led him to lie about his ties to the supposed smugglers as he innocently sought to build his dream house in a swank Bonita subdivision?

A federal court jury will try to choose today between those theories when it begins deliberations in the corruption trial of suspended Customs investigator Richard P. Sullivan, charged with being the San Diego connection in a marijuana smuggling ring also involving Customs agents in Florida and New Orleans.

Sullivan, a 10-year Customs veteran and former Border Patrol officer, is accused in a 23-count indictment of supplying his alleged co-conspirators with charts showing safe routes for smugglers’ planes to fly into Southern California; laundering $160,000 in drug proceeds for the former Customs station chief in Key Largo, Fla.; falsifying bank loan applications, and lying to Customs investigators about his dealings.

U.S. District Judge Leland Nielsen is presiding at the trial, now 2 1/2 weeks old. He is expected to read the 12 jurors their instructions on the law this morning and to order them to begin deliberations. Sullivan faces more than 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted on all charges.


During more than a day of testimony earlier this week, Sullivan conceded that he lied about his ties to the Florida official, Charles F. Jordan, who was not charged in the case and was acquitted in February of other drug-smuggling charges.

But defense attorney Sheldon Sherman sought to prove that Sullivan’s dealings with Jordan and the other suspected smugglers--including his twin brother, a fugitive ex-biker--were otherwise innocent, and that the allegedly laundered funds were obtained legitimately.

“Mr. Sullivan has already told you he was stupid,” Sherman said in his closing argument Thursday, asking jurors not to dwell on a videotape of a Jan. 30 interview in which Sullivan admittedly lied to a Customs internal investigator. “Don’t convict him of these charges because he was stupid for two hours of his life.”

Sherman said Sullivan was simply pursuing “the American dream” of a home in the suburbs as he sought construction loans from a series of banks to finish a $250,000 house he was building in Bonita. Pointing to testimony that surprised the prosecution in the final days of the trial, Sherman said loans from Jordan and a Mexican dentist and the proceeds from the sale of Sullivan’s old house paid for the new home--not illicit drug profits.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Phillip L.B. Halpern insisted, though, that Sullivan’s entire defense was contrived and that the agent had continued to lie in his testimony.

“He received this money for the part he played in transacting illegal business, and he’s got to cover it up,” Halpern said. “And he does attempt to cover it up.”

Customs officials have said the investigation that led to Sullivan’s indictment uncovered the most serious instances of alleged corruption in the recent history of the Customs Service.

Two high-ranking agency supervisors from Louisiana are facing a retrial in New Orleans next month after their convictions in a related drug-smuggling case were set aside because two jurors recanted their guilty verdicts after the first trial. Jordan remains suspended and under investigation, and additional Customs officers in southern Florida also are suspected of corruption, but no others have been charged, Halpern said.


Halpern argued that evidence in the San Diego trial indicated that Sullivan, while in Georgia in 1984 at a Customs training academy, revived a relationship with his brother, Robert Sullivan, that had been dormant for nearly 20 years.

Using phone company records, Halpern traced repeated telephone contacts between the brothers and Jordan, and between Robert Sullivan, Jordan and a Cuban in Miami identified by Robert Sullivan’s ex-girlfriend as a drug runner.

Sullivan acknowledged sending Jordan a set of charts last year showing radar-free air routes and hard-to-detect landing sites in the San Diego area. In August, 1985, meantime, Jordan shipped Sullivan more than $200,000 in cash through the mails. Sullivan used most of the money to purchase a lot in Bonita for Jordan, but more than $50,000 of the cash was unaccounted for.

In his testimony, Halpern noted, Sullivan could not explain why he used the false name he employed in undercover investigations to transact business related to his new home and the Jordan property, or why he conducted his banking in a manner designed to avoid the filing of currency reports.


Halpern also said that Sullivan was caught in a contradiction. He revealed his newly boosted assets to banks in construction loan applications, but he continued to list minimal assets on Customs Service disclosure forms to avoid raising his employer’s suspicions, Halpern said.

“Once Mr. Sullivan started on this roller coaster, once he made up his mind in June, 1984, that he was going to cooperate--that he was going to work with Charles Jordan and Robert Sullivan--from that point the die was cast,” Halpern said. “He had to conceal his assets from the U.S. Customs Service. And he had to lie about his assets to the bank.”

Sherman countered that prosecutors had snared Sullivan in little more than a web of insinuations, suspicions and lies by government informers.

There was nothing criminal, Sherman said, in a man striking up relations with his twin brother. Nor was there anything wrong with Sullivan helping Jordan purchase property in California--he got a $2,000 commission for the work, Sherman said, money he needed for his own construction project.


Besides, the defense lawyer argued, Sullivan’s conduct was hardly that of someone who knew he was doing something wrong. He bought property in his own name, did business under a false name that was easily traceable to him, brought Jordan around to meet buddies at the office and sent Jordan messages in government envelopes.

“If you wanted to leave a trail, you couldn’t have done so any better,” Sherman said. “There’s no hiding, no conspiracy, no money-laundering. He’s helping a friend buy a lot and getting $2,000 for it.”

Sherman insisted that prosecutors pursued the case against Sullivan because they had failed to convict Jordan earlier in the year and wanted results to show for their investigation.

“It’s ridiculous, a joke, what the government is trying to do in this case,” Sherman said. “What they’re trying to do to ‘get’ Mr. Sullivan is to take little bits and pieces of a puzzle. But these little pieces don’t fit.”


Halpern, though, said Sullivan was on trial because he was a cop who had succumbed to temptation.

“What are the reasons for an individual who is in law enforcement going bad?” Halpern asked the jurors. “Well, who are the players you’ve had a chance to see? Greed, avarice, jealousy. Perhaps arrogance.”