MIAMI — It's an agency with a critical mission of keeping American streets safe from narcotics. But in recent years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has needed protection from itself, with several agents charged with corruption and the agency engulfed by scandal.
This week came more upheaval as Attorney General William Barr installed the DEA's fourth acting administrator in five years. His choice: Tim Shea, the U.S. attorney in Washington who recently oversaw the controversial effort to dismiss charges against ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Barr had been looking to provide a soft landing spot for Shea, a close aide whose stint as acting U.S. attorney was set to end in June, barring an unlikely extension by the district court in Washington. But in so doing, he found an easy target in Uttam Dhillon, who drew mounting criticism in his less than two, tumultuous years as the nation's top U.S. anti-narcotics official.
Many field agents complained that Dhillon, a former Los Angeles federal prosecutor, was more of a bureaucrat than a leader, lacked experience and, as an acting administrator who was never confirmed, the full authority to implement meaningful reforms.
"If you're not from the agency, it takes a while to figure out how we work, where we work and what our issues are," said Jack Riley, a former deputy administrator of the DEA.
Dhillon inherited some of the problems from the Obama administration after the agency's last permanent administrator, Michele Leonhart, resigned in 2015 amid questions from Congress about her handling of agent misconduct allegations involving cartel-organized sex parties in Colombia.
"After that control became much more centralized and the culture more risk adverse," said Mike Vigil, the DEA's former chief of international operations. "But to do this work you need to trust your agents in the field."
Since 2015, at least a dozen DEA agents across the country have been charged federally on counts ranging from wire fraud and bribery to selling firearms to drug traffickers, according to an Associated Press review of hundreds of court records. At least eight of those agents have been convicted, while four are awaiting trial.
Last year alone, a longtime special agent in Chicago pleaded guilty to infiltrating the DEA on behalf of drug traffickers and was sentenced to four years in federal prison, while another was charged with accepting $250,000 in bribes to protect the Mafia. In February of this year, a federal grand jury in Tampa indicted once-standout DEA agent Jose Irizarry on allegations he secretly used his position to divert millions of dollars in drug proceeds from the DEA's control.
Dhillon "came in very, very unprepared," Riley said, and leaves an agency that's "been a little bit of a dysfunctional place for a while."
As part of this week's shakeup, Dhillon was moved to what officials would say only was a senior position in the Justice Department.
While pressure had been building on Dhillon for some time, the latest doubts emerged in the wake of a botched military raid May 3 of Venezuela by a ragtag contingent of U.S.-trained volunteer fighters seeking to arrest Nicolás Maduro, according to four former U.S. law enforcement officials who are in contact with senior Justice Department officials. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Maduro's government blamed two alleged DEA informants for providing logistical support to the mercenaries, although there's no evidence the U.S. government played any role in the undertaking. Trump even joked that had the U.S. government been involved it would have ended far worse for the socialist leader.
Still, in the raid's aftermath, questions have been raised in Congress and at the highest levels of the Trump administration about what the DEA — and other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies — knew about Jordan Goudreau, the former U.S. Green Beret who claimed responsibility for the armed incursion.
As part of those inquiries, Dhillon reported back that the DEA knew nothing, one of the ex-officials said.
However, on May 6, the AP, citing two former U.S. law enforcement officials, reported that an informant approached the DEA in Colombia with an unsubstantiated tip about Goudreau's alleged involvement in weapons smuggling. The anti-narcotics agency, not knowing who Goudreau was at the time, didn't open a formal probe but suspected that any weapons would have been destined for leftist rebels or criminal gangs in Colombia — not Venezuelan freedom fighters.
Dhillon and the DEA referred requests for comment to the Justice Department, which said only that the Venezuela matter played no role in Dhillon's replacement. "To publish anything otherwise would be to publish a false story," said Kerri Kupec, a department spokeswoman.
Kupec declined to answer written questions on a host of issues about Dhillon's leadership including what, if anything, the DEA knew about Goudreau and the Venezuela raid.
Dhillon made no mention of an impending departure in a recent interview with the AP. And in a farewell email sent on his behalf Monday, a number of achievements during his tenure were highlighted.
"We have increased the number of agents going through the academy for the first time in over eight years; helped drive down drug overdose deaths for the first time in over two decades; and put some of the world's worst offenders behind bars," according to the message, a copy of which a recipient shared with the AP.
Former DEA officials embraced Shea's appointment as an opportunity for change within the agency, but cautioned that some problems can't be fixed until a permanent administrator is in place.
"He understands some of the issues we're up against," Riley said, "and having been a fresh U.S. attorney, I'm really hopeful."