Here’s an intriguing story of how Government investigators employed an unorthodox, surefire tactic to track down players in the dope game.
Drug Enforcement Adminstration(DEA) went deep undercover to secretly obtain ‘bulk records’ of sales data which identified names and addresses of American consumers who purchased Money Counting Machines.
Money counters are used for counting cash and DEA suspect major drug dealers just may buy the device for their trafficking operations.
To carry out the covert job, DEA issued internal Administrative Subpoenas to storefront merchants and online businesses that sold the electronic devices in order to confiscate people’s identity, according to an expose by the Office of Inspector General (OIG). IG is a shorter abbreviation for OIG.
The low down on the DEA story happened in a manner that raised suspicion about what our government is doing to spy on Americans when no crime has been committed. DEA’s gathering of thousands of names and addresses of individuals without knowing which person may or may not be a drug dealer is a long shot and the operation raised serious privacy violations.
“It’s not illegal for a person to buy an electronic money machine,” said Constitutional law expert, appellate specialist and criminal defense attorney Stephen Leckar. Leckar is a senior partner in the prominent law firm Kalbian Haggerty based in Washington DC.
Unrelated to the DEA surveillance of the money machines, Leckar’s high-profile cases have involved the recent appeal that Leckar filed on behalf of Mexico drug Lord Alfredo Beltran Leyva. Government prosecutors alleged Alfredo was the billionaire leader of the Beltran-Leyva drug cartel. Leckar also scored a huge landmark Fourth Amendment violation in a drug case at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.
To keep a lid on the value of information gleaned from the money machines the DEA hid the operation from the courts and the accused narcotic defendants who were subsequently arrested, including their lawyers, before ending the program in 2013 amid the scandalous affair over the shocking intelligence disclosure by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden who uncovered the activity.
Snowden revealed to the world how the operation worked, the OIG discovered.
Chances are, if you purchased a “Money Counter” machine from Walmart, Amazon, Office Depot, or anywhere the machines were sold in the United States, DEA may suspect you as a drug dealer or an individual involved with money laundering, and, based on the sales data identifying the person that paid for the device, they know exactly who you are.
You may ask the question, “what’s really going on?”
Welcome to law enforcement’s “Dark Side” where secret evidence straddles the fence between legal and illegal tactics that usually are the norm in many ongoing criminal investigations.
It is widely known among defense attorneys specializing in federal narcotic cases that DEA occasionally build up cases during drug operations with questionable constructed evidence. Much of the information comes from a clever scheme known as “parallel construction” whereby the evidence in a case is re-constructed, and the agents will deliberately shield the true source of where the information came from.
This deep undercover program threatens people’s privacy rights and their right to a fair trial in the sense that if the DEA falsely claims they received a lead on a suspect through another source, when, in fact, the actual lead came from sales data showing the names and addresses of individuals that purchased a money counting machine is wholly misleading.
Human Rights Watch roundly condemned the DEA’s secret surveillance program. Their report argued “it was an abuse to suck Americans’ names into a database subjective to analysis to identify criminal suspects, based solely upon their purchase of(money counting machines), a lawful product.”
David Rudovsky, a Penn State Professor and “search and seizure” expert, told Newsblaze, “Without knowing if DEA had already targeted individuals prior to getting the information from the merchants it’s hard to say if what the DEA did was wrong because it is not wrong for the law to target someone for criminal activity.”
Rudovsky further added, “If DEA arrested someone as result of collecting names to see who bought money machines, and later lied about it, and said they got the information elsewhere, instead of saying the information lead actually came from bulk sales data records, then there could be a Fourth Amendment problem.”
The IG report released earlier this spring in March 2019, shed light into the dark inner-workings of a DEA surveillance operation that spied on Americans who owned legitimate businesses and needed to purchase legal “Money Counting” Machines that are typically used to count proceeds easier and faster.
That’s right. You heard correctly; money counting machines that are legal to buy.
Automated “Money Counting” Machines are perfectly legal to use to count large sums of cash money more efficiently. Money counters are often used by banks, government agencies, food vendors, casinos, including check cash businesses etc.
Despite the swirling controversy over the spy surveillance data program the DEA still insisted they scored a resounding victory. They claimed the information from data sales of money counters helped the agency to take numerous drug traffickers, illegal narcotics, and millions of illicit ‘dirty’ money off the streets.
Calls to DEA office in Washington D.C. to identify the names and case numbers of people arrested during the probe hasn’t been returned.
Forget a Warrant
Administrative Subpoenas Are More Sneaky and Efficient
DEA agents utilized Administrative Subpoenas, one of their most powerful tools to collect thousands of records pertaining to the identity of individuals who paid to buy money counters.
What is an Administrative Subpoena?
Under federal law(12 USC 876(a), Administrative Subpoenas, abbreviated “AS,” are issued by a federal investigative agencies like DEA, FBI, ATF, IRS, NSA and Homeland Security. Once issued, there’s no direct judicial oversight like a regular court warrant.
When federal authorities legalized the use of Administrative Subpoenas, critics vehemently argued that Congress authorized the government to bypass the Fourth Amendment’s constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Under the Fourth Amendment law, police are required to obtain a probable cause warrant, signed by a judge.
Unbeknownst to criminal justice lawyers, legal specialists and , the DEA was granted Administrative Subpoena power under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970.
To simply use it against a target, DEA only has to show the requested information is relevant to an investigation. No judge is needed to enforce safeguards against potential abuse when DEA serve the subpoenas to get paper trail evidence on an individual or specific group.
In an interview with Wired magazine, DEA spokesman Lawrence Payne explains the importance of Administrative Subpoenas and how it benefits ongoing cases.
“It’s a tool in the toolbox we have to build a drug investigation,” although, Payne further added, an Adminstrative Subpoena, “is a much lower threshold than a search warrant.”
Included in the redacted IG report was a paragraph mistakenly left that no one was supposed to read except for the investigators.
Here’s the mistake to show how the DEA tried to cover-up their operation.
The phrase “Money Counters” wasn’t supposed to be mentioned in the investigative report. But an eye-opening paragraph written by an agent, explicitly said, “criminals would obtain money counters by other means if they knew DEA collected this data.”
Stephen Leckar said the DEA’s collection of personal data that showed who bought a simple legal product is similar to police “going to telephone companies for phone records.”
“It raises serious concern over the dragnet searches that underlie the Fourth Amendment,” added Leckar.
Leckar said the other concern, “is who has standing to complain when these agents go to third parties for information.”
Leckar successfully argued and convinced U.S. Supreme Court Justices to reverse the life without parole drug trafficking sentence of Antoine Jones in a landmark Fourth Amendment privacy violation case. DEA agents in Jones’ case illegally attached a GPS tracking system on Jones’ vehicle to monitor his every move. Capitalizing on the victory, Jones was recently released from federal prison.
Drug Cartel Case
Electronic “money counting” machines played a pivotal role in a drug cartel case in Houston Texas. Recovery of the machines proved the participants were heavily involved with laundering narcotic proceeds derived from sales of illegal drugs sold on the streets, drugs belonging to Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel that were transported throughout the Gulf Coast region.
Around May 2015, a patrol deputy near New Orleans stopped Fredrick “boobie” Brown on Interstate-12. During a consent search of Brown’s truck authorities found a suitcase packed with approximately $800,000.00. Brown confessed to DEA agent Chad Scott that he’d been paid $50,000,00 – to transport the money from an Alabama source to Houston where the source would buy multi-kilos of cocaine from a Mexican guy.
Brown also told DEA Scott how he made five previous trips transporting cocaine from Houston to Atlanta. Prior to Brown’s Louisiana arrest he told police that he scored 30 kilos of cocaine from Cruz Rocha of Houston and Derrick Fields, Rocha’s driver. In a sting, Fields, was arrested in Houston. DEA agents released Fields after he passively agreed to identify an apartment in Houston where dealers counted substantial amounts of cash and stored cocaine. Making entry into the apartment, agents recovered several money-counting machines. All three men, Brown, Fields and Rocha, were indicted on an array of drug-related charges including conspiracy.
DEA Parallel Construction Investigations
DEA collection of names of people involved with purchasing money counters is the same technique known as “Parallel Construction.”
What is a parallel construction?
According to news media, Justice Department reports and former drug agents, parallel construction is a law enforcement process of building a ‘parallel or separate’ evidentiary basis for a criminal investigation to conceal how an investigation began or where the exact source of information came from.
“I have never heard of anything like this,” said Nancy Gertner, a professor at Harvard Law School and former federal judge from 1994-2011. [Reuters]
DEA defends “parallel construction” practices by explaining how important it is to protect informants, undercover agents, including other discreet investigative methods associated with the operation.
Parallel construction used in narcotic cases is also a process that makes use of information intercepted by National Security Agency (NSA). The program is managed by DEA’s Special Operation Division (SOD).
SOD is a secretive DEA branch most famous for arresting notorious international arms dealer Victor Bout. This covert techniques goes down when agents pass incriminating information about a foreign or U.S. citizen whose information was intercepted by NSA and given to the agents.
According to civil libertarians including the ACLU, the NSA top level classified intelligence is supposed to be used for terrorism-related cases, and definitely not for narcotic investigations.
“When you have parallel construction, you have defendants and even judges who don’t know how evidence was gathered. And the defendants cannot challenge the constitutionality of that,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Sarah Vincent, in a story published by Reason Magazine, April 2018.
Reuters News Service quoted a senior DEA official as saying: “Parallel Construction is a law enforcement technique we use every day.”
DEA and the NSA collect highly sensitive information about American and Foreign citizens under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Act(FISA).
Although FISA is controversial, it is legal.
And the practice has been upheld in appeals courts following the expose of the technique by NSA contractor Edward Snowden. DEA officials argue, as long as local law enforcement make a legitimate traffic stop and legally establish probable cause for a vehicle search independently, the parallel construction, to repeat, is legal.
Henry Hockeimer Jr., a New Jersey defense attorney, scoffed at the so-called legality of parallel construction, calling the scheme totally illegal. “These are drug crimes, not national security cases. If you don’t draw the line here, where do you draw it?”
In a USA Today story, Jerry Cox, President of National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, at the time when Reuters News reported stories on the practice, that the ‘parallel construction’ represents “perjury.”
“When you lie about something, you are giving a parallel story,” Cox said. “If you did it or I did it, we would be punished for perjury.”
“We do not instruct anyone to lie,” a DEA official responded during the USA Today news story, citing anonymity.
“It’s building an investigation another way to confirm a tip or lead based on a source or method that cannot be disclosed,” the DEA official said.
A former drug agent recalled how he worked “parallel construction” drug cases with DEA and FBI.
“You’d be told only, ‘Be at a certain truck stop at a certain time and look for a certain vehicle.’ And so we’d alert the police to find an excuse to stop the vehicle-and then have a drug dog search it,” the agent told a Reuters reporter.
When the drugs are found, police will arrest the person, then comply with the federal agent’s request not to reveal to judges, prosecutors or lawyers as to who told the officer about the car. And, moreover, the agent will further tell the officer or state trooper, to “pretend their investigation began with the traffic stop, not with the DEA’s Special Operation Division tip,” the agent concluded.
“It is one thing to create special rules for national security but ordinary crimes (like drug cases) are entirely different,” professor Gertner, pointed out.
Real Life Examples
Here are real life examples of police using parallel construction in drug cases.
Arizona vs Abdul Wakil
In Arizona vs Abdul Wakil, a Human Rights Watch report reveals that in July 2009, DEA requested Arizona State Police to stop Wakil’s, new, white-colored, 2009 BMW as he traveled Interstate-40 near Flagstaff.
Wakil had no idea the agents had been monitoring his movements with a “slap-on” GPS tracking system without a warrant nor did agents tell the state court they’d attached the tracking system on Wakil’s car.
Police recovered cocaine and methamphetamine from Wakil’s car.
Wakil copped to five years in state prison on charges of transportation of illegal narcotics for sale and possession.
At the time the DEA used the GPS without a warrant to track Wakil’s car, this undercover tactic actually violated Arizona State Law against warrantless tracking. When the operation was uncovered in a separate California federal drug case that Wakil was accused of being connected with, an Arizona State Judge threw out Wakil’s five-year prison sentence.
Alverez-Tejeda and Volerio Perez
DEA agents used the “parallel construction” scheme in La Pine Oregon against Alverez-Tejeda and Volerio Perez, Tejeda’s girlfriend, on December 18, 2004.
DEA had intelligence the couple were transporting illegal narcotics in a vehicle.
Just when Alverez-Tejeda was driving to a “red light turned green” – a vehicle in front of them stalled, causing Alverez-Tejeda to hit the bumper. To make matters worse, while Tejeda was stopped at the light behind the first vehicle, a truck rear-ended his vehicle; a double whammy for sure.
As Tejeda got out to talk with both drivers and to carefully inspect the damage, police arrived, and quickly arrested the truck driver for DWI.
Police officers ordered Alverez-Tejeda and Perez to drive their lightly damaged vehicle to a nearby parking lot and to leave the keys in the ignition, then sit in the patrol car, to give police a statement about the dual collision.
Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a thief “bum rushed” Alverez’s car, and drove off, with tires screeching.
Reacting quickly, police in another cruiser sped behind Alverez’s car.
Visibly upset, Tejeda and his girlfriend hurled profanities as the patrolman went after the car thief.
Unexpectedly, the patrolman and another friendly cop returned with Alverez’s car, claiming the thief got away. By having the car towed the officers were able to obtain a warrant. While searching the vehicle the officers discovered what they were looking for all the time: cocaine and meth.
Besides Alverez and Perez, every actor in this Oscar-winning drama was either a DEA agent, local police, including the driver of the stalled vehicle in front of Alverez’s car, the fake drunk driver and even the make-believe guy who stole Alverez’s vehicle; all were police officers, who staged an accident, an auto theft and a high-speed chase to seize the drugs found in Alverez’s car without alerting the conspirators.
You’d think the drug case was thrown out of court on technical grounds, right.
Alverez-Tejeda won the first court battle when a federal judge dismissed the original charges by ruling the DEA’s malicious deception violated the “Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure.”
Determined to put Alverez in prison the government prosecutors appealed the lower court’s initial ruling by filing an interluctory plea to the conservative Ninth Circuit Appeals and won. On June 8, 2007, Ninth Circuit reinstated Alverez’s indictment, ruling, in effect, the abuse of Alverez’s constitutional rights were “relatively mild,” and that the ruse of staging the incident to seize the drugs was “within the scope of a lawful seizure.”
Evidence in another recent “parallel construction” investigation contradicts the DEA’s assertion of no lies told in “parallel constructive” drug cases.
Misleading a Florida Federal Prosecutor
For example, a Florida federal prosecutor got a dose of reality from a “parallel technique” drug investigation when a DEA agent misled him. First, the agent told the prosecutor he’d received a tip from an informant about a particular dope dealer. When the prosecutor pressed for more information, a DEA supervisor intervened and finally revealed the actual tip came from DEA (Special Operation Division) … as result of a National Surveillance Agency (NSA) intercept.
“I was pissed,” the prosecutor said.
“Lying about where the information came from is a bad start if you’re trying to comply with the law because it can lead to all kinds of problems with discovery and candor to the court,” the prosecutor told Reuters News Service.
Needless to say, the prosecutor dropped the drug case due to the DEA agent’s outright lie.
Legal or Illegal? The Hunt For Suspected Drug Dealers
Beginning in 2008, DEA issued Administrative Subpoenas to wholesale vendors and store merchants that sold money counters, to identify people buying the machines. By compiling thousands of names and addresses of money machine purchasers the DEA claimed this maneuver actually identified drug dealers.
The initial DEA plan to target drug dealers for the nationwide program began during a Chicago operation following three months of records showing purchases of “Money Counting Machines” from a local store. IG report indicated the sales receipts from the electronic money counters in Chicago led to two arrests and “significant seizures of drugs and related proceeds.”
As previously mentioned, to keep the scheme a secret, DEA deliberately hid their operation from the courts including the accused defendants arrested on drug charges as result of the covert operation.
From a philosophical viewpoint, DEA considers drug dealing as a steady cash flow business. And since thousands of “Money Machines” had been seized in previous narcotic operations, law enforcement realize the electronic cash counters are in big demand by dope dealers who rake in “tens of thousands” of dollars, and up to millions from selling illegal drugs on the streets. DEA has repeatedly declined requests from news media outlets to discuss the IG findings. An arm of the Justice Department, DEA didn’t respond to specific allegations, yet instead the agency issued a “cloaked in secrecy” response to the IG’s findings, pledging fealty to the rule of law, citing, “the importance of protecting the techniques and procedures that DEA agents rely upon to protect our nation.”
During extensive audit, Inspector General officials stated the DEA operation, as stated earlier, ran in deep secrecy between 2008 and 2013. It collected ‘tens of thousands’ of records obtained from merchants and electronic vendors which showed the names, addresses, and phone numbers of buyers. Only 131 arrests were made.
DEA also declined publicly to reveal how many convictions were won after making 131 arrests. IG investigation also reported that bulk ‘sales data’ from merchants which showed who purchased the “money counters” helped the DEA to seize $48 million in cash, $4 million in real estate, 88 vehicles, 179 firearms, approximately 1,500 pounds of cocaine and over 21,300 pounds of marijuana. Arrests of suspected drug dealers in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and throughout South Texas were the result of law enforcement tracking purchases of money counters.
Identified only as “Program B” in a heavily redacted report, according to The New York Times, the IG investigators discovered the DEA frequently issued “Administrative” Subpoenas to companies and individual businesses nationwide that sold money counters. The New York Times article said not only were those subpoenas conducted without any oversight, they were “unrelated to a specific drug trafficking investigation or target.”
Once the sales information (names & address etc.) pertaining to the purchase of money counting machines was collected, the DEA would submit the data from thousands of purchases to their field offices. Then, DEA analysts would meticulously cross-reference the data with several law enforcement databases around the country.
Legality surrounding the covert operation prompted DEA lawyers to admit the agency never developed a comprehensive analysis to explain why it was lawful to use the statute that authorized Administrative Subpoenas to obtain bulk records of names, addresses, and phone numbers, associated with the purchase of cash money counters.
The statute allows gathering records that are “relevant or material” to a drug investigation. Therefore, when DEA used Administrative Subpoenas to gather the personal profile information to identify possible drug dealers without an open investigation on a particular person or a group suspected of trafficking narcotics was legally wrong, thus violating the law.
New York Times article reported the IG found the DEA program “troubling” for it’s use of “statutory subpoena power in this expansive, non-targeted manner.”
FBI and DEA At Odds Over Massive Data Overload
DEA’s sweeping collection of sales data on Americans who’d bought “Money Counting Machines” caused an overload of internal information. Field office officials complained incessantly they “did not have the time to review it all.”
And, to top it off, FBI officials further said the data was “too voluminous to use efficiently.”
Realizing the sales data of money counting machines yielded more misses than hits, a DEA staff coordinator wrote there were “so many (leads) we put out, we don’t know what’s being done, and why some are better than others.”
To recharge the investigation, DEA immediately resubmitted names of purchasers of the machines to Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) Fusion Center.
The Organized Crime Fusion Center holds over 500 million records from more than 15 different federal agencies, including ATF, DEA, FBI, IRS, Homeland Security and ICE.
To piggyback on the DEA’s hard work and further capitalize on the fresh data, the Fusion Center ramped up their data collection by using the DEA information for their own “intelligence products,” that, in essence, had “no connections to drug crimes.”
The Inspector General argued when DEA sent their collection of information to the Fusion Center that this particular move was “tantamount to the DEA lending out it’s subpoena authority to agencies lacking their own.”
Eventually the FBI had enough of what was going on. Agents who’d been helping DEA immediately went on the offense, asking serious questions over whether the DEA had obtained people’s data legally.
Fearing trouble may be brewing, subsequently, FBI banned their agents and civilian analysts from accessing the questionable information.
DEA Historical Secret Investigations
DEA has a long history of involvement in other surveillance operations that blurs the thin line between legal and illegal.
New York Times reported in September 2013 that AT&T, during the Hemisphere Project analyzed their massive database of historical logs about Americans’ phone calls on behalf of counter-drug agents, including DEA.
The second scandal was a DEA program that used Administrative Subpoenas to collect massive data of outgoing international phone calls from the United States to countries linked to drug trafficking. The Justice Department disclosed its existence, which began in the first Bush administration, in a 2015 court filing.
The same program later became the subject of a detailed investigative report by USA Today. Then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had ordered the DEA to close down the operation in September 2013, during the period when the voluminous records of money machines purchases came to light.
Although DEA and Justice Department announced recently they have no plans to reinstate any of the shutdown of record collections to identify drug traffickers, the Inspector General noted, “there is nothing preventing the DEA or the Department from seeking to start such a program at any time in the future. DEA is committed to ensuring its practices comply with all Department of Justice’s policies and procedures and continue to be vetted through a rigorous legal view.”
“The DEA agrees with the OIG’s recommendation of further improvement of its administrative subpoenas with respect to data collection, and it has already enhanced these processes,” said Mary Brandenberger, chief of DEA’s National Media Affairs Sections, in a statement issued to reporters.
“As a member of the intelligence community, DEA and other law enforcement entities receive tips and information from a wide array of sources. We take very seriously our responsibility to remain fair and impartial during criminal investigations, and we remain closely tethered to the rule of law,” Brandenberger concluded.
Our government collects anything in reading form about the American people. It really doesn’t matter if a person is actually innocent. People’s privacy should be respected and not have their personal information surrepticiously put into databases around the nation.
There are massive amounts of personal and very sensitive background information belonging to American citizens that are secretly stored at the “Utah Data Center” AKA the NSA Spy Center.
So how much more secret information about our lives is hidden, that we know nothing about?
Newsblaze Investigative Journalist Clarence Walker Jr. Can Be Reached At: [email protected]