NATIONAL NEWS

Takeaways of AP report on watchdog probe into DEA hiring

Apr 19, 2023, 8:11 AM

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, right, with Attorney General Merrick Garland at left, speaks during...

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, right, with Attorney General Merrick Garland at left, speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Friday, April 14, 2023. The Justice Department has charged 28 members of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel, including sons of notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, in a sprawling fentanyl-trafficking investigation. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal watchdog is investigating whether the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration under chief Anne Milgram improperly awarded millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to hire her past associates. That’s according to several people familiar with the widening probe who spoke to The Associated Press.

Here are the key takeaways:

WHAT’S UNDER INVESTIGATION?

The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General is scrutinizing $4.7 million the DEA spent over the past two years for “strategic planning and communication” to help bring in people Milgram knew from her days as New Jersey’s attorney general and as a New York University law professor.

Some of the contract hires make up Milgram’s inner circle, handling intelligence, data analytics, community outreach and public relations — at costs far exceeding pay for government officials.

Investigators are also homing in on a $1.4 million contract awarded to a Washington law firm to review the DEA’s scandal-plagued foreign operations, a report widely criticized for giving short shrift to repeat instances of agent misconduct. The long-delayed review was co-authored by Boyd Johnson, former right-hand man to one of Milgram’s closest friends, Preet Bharara, when he was U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. Bharara himself landed at the firm, WilmerHale, even as the review was being conducted.

“Some of these deals look very swampy,” said Scott Amey, general counsel of the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, noting that federal contracting is not intended to bypass the government hiring process and rules require government business to be conducted with no preferential treatment.

If misconduct is found, the Inspector General can recommend anything from administrative sanctions to criminal prosecution.

WHAT DOES DEA SAY?

The DEA declined to make Milgram available for an interview or to discuss specifics of the investigation, which comes on the heels of several agent misconduct scandals and a fentanyl crisis claiming more than 100,000 overdose deaths a year.

Instead, the agency released a statement:

“DEA has acted with urgency to set a new vision, target the global criminal networks responsible for hundreds of thousands of American deaths, raise public awareness about how just one pill can kill, and promote and recruit hundreds of highly talented people,” it said. “These changes have been made through an extensive and multi-part process, and we are committed to ensuring that DEA is working relentlessly to protect the national security, safety, and health of the American people.”

WHO IS ANNE MILGRAM?

The 52-year-old Milgram, a former federal prosecutor, New Jersey attorney general and law professor, is a Biden appointee who came to DEA nearly two years ago with a mandate to clean house.

But the administrator ruffled feathers by pushing out several career DEA officials she viewed as part of a culture that allowed misconduct to flourish. Instead, she favored the counsel of newly installed attorneys and data crunchers who work with her in an isolated part of the 12th floor of DEA headquarters.

Milgram has also made a point to show zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and racism in the ranks, warning agents they may now be fired for certain first offenses, a departure from previous administrations.

Milgram ordered the external review of DEA’s 69-country sprawling foreign footprint after the high-profile arrest of José Irizarry, a disgraced agent now serving a 12-year federal prison sentence for laundering money for Colombian drug cartels.

WHO ELSE IS UNDER SCRUTINY?

Another no-bid contract under scrutiny went to Jose Cordero, a longtime New York City police official whose ties to Milgram go back to 2007 when as attorney general she named him New Jersey’s first statewide director of gangs, guns and violent crime. Less than three weeks after taking the top job at DEA, Milgram awarded Cordero what has become a nearly $400,000 contract to conduct data analysis of crime stats.

Another hire in question is Lena Hackett, who came to DEA through The Clearing, a Washington-based federal contractor. Milgram described Hackett as her main partner in a policing reform project she established in Indianapolis in 2020 while teaching at NYU. For her services, the DEA budgeted $257 an hour — more than triple the hourly rate earned by the agency’s top civil servants, including the head of community outreach.

Neither Cordero nor Hackett responded to requests for comment.

“This looks terrible to taxpayers,” said Don Fox, a former general counsel and acting director of the Office of Government Ethics. “The appearance is awful.”

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Takeaways of AP report on watchdog probe into DEA hiring