UPDATE (9:35 a.m., WEDNESDAY) — Federal prosecutors moved to dismiss charges in a heroin-smuggling case early Wednesday morning as The Republic published a story raising questions about a key informant in the case.
The motion to dismiss the charges against Luis Hernandez-Flores and Saul Sandoval states that federal prosecutors recently discovered information. The document also states that dismissing the heroin distribution and money laundering charges is in the interest of justice.
The document offers no clues about what information prosecutors recently discovered, but it does reference a motion to dismiss the case that defense attorneys filed last month expressing concerns about the veracity of the informant, Andrew Chambers Jr.
“This motion is based on the fact that Mr. Chambers is a paid informant who the DEA alleges committed perjury in at least 16 cases while working for the department between 1985 and 2000 and engaged in income tax fraud and/or the non-payment of taxes on millions of dollars of income from the DEA and other agencies on multiple occasions in the 1990s,” the defense motion states.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix did not respond to requests for comment on why the case was dismissed.
Originally published on A1 in the Wednesday edition of The Arizona Republic:
A government informant who was terminated by the Justice Department years ago amid accusations of serial perjury has been reactivated and is working an undercover drug case with DEA agents in Phoenix, prompting allegations of government misconduct by a defense lawyer in a pending case.
Andrew Chambers Jr., once labeled in court records as “the highest-paid snitch in DEA history,” gave false testimony under oath in at least 16 criminal prosecutions nationwide before he was exposed in the late 1990s, according to U.S. District Court filings.
Chambers was an informant from 1984 to 2000 for the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies in at least 280 cases. The sting operations, which sent dozens of suspects to prison, took place in 31 cities across the nation.
During his first career as an informant, Chambers, 56, reportedly received up to $4 million in government money, nearly half of that from the DEA. He also was a paid informant of the FBI, customs-enforcement officers, postal inspectors, the Secret Service and other police agencies. He was credited with a role in 445 drug arrests.
The DEA conducted an internal probe in 2000 documenting Chambers’ dishonesty after defense lawyers and the media criticized the pattern of perjury and a lack of federal oversight. The Republic has obtained a copy of the 157-page Management Review, which says the DEA deactivated Chambers indefinitely as a confidential source on Feb. 2, 2000.
Yet, somehow, he resurrected his career and surfaced in Phoenix about three years ago in a sting that targeted defendant Luis Alberto Hernandez-Flores, accused as the kingpin in a major drug-trafficking organization.
Cameron Morgan, an attorney for Hernandez-Flores, filed a motion to dismiss charges or suppress testimony after uncovering the informant’s background.
“The DEA rehired Mr. Chambers, is using him in investigations all over the country, is again paying him exorbitant amounts of money and refuses to provide discovery about what he’s up to,” Morgan wrote in a petition under consideration by U.S. District Judge Stephen McNamee. “If Chambers were nothing more than a run-of-the-mill criminal, that would be one thing. But both Chambers and his defenders in the DEA brag that he is a con man extraordinaire.”
Chambers could not be reached for comment. It is unclear if he has a lawyer.
Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, expressed shock when told that a known perjurer is again working in the justice system.
“Wow! That’s pretty outrageous,” said Sterling, former assistant counsel to the House Subcommittee on Crime. “It’s just inexcusable. … This is really a breakdown in the management of the DEA and the Department of Justice.”
Dawn Dearden, a DEA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said she cannot discuss ongoing investigations or Chambers’ activities. “However,” she added, “I can say that DEA follows very strict and rigorous guidelines and protocols when handling all informants.”
Public-affairs officers at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix and the Justice Department did not respond to interview requests.
During a 2000 appearance on the PBS show “Frontline” about his controversial career, Chambers said he helped bust criminals not for the money but because he didn’t want them selling drugs to his kids. “You need more people like me out there to deal with these guys.”
Chambers also was featured in 2000 on the ABC News broadcast “20/20.” He admitted giving false testimony about his criminal history, saying, “I just lied about it. I didn’t think it was that important what I did.”
Richard Fiano, then chief of operations at the DEA, told reporter Connie Chung that repeated, court-documented perjuries by Chambers “fell through the cracks” at his agency. “Would DEA use him (again)?” Fiano said. “No.”
The DEA’s internal investigation of Chambers in 2000 generally exonerated federal agents and prosecutors.
It said the informant was not urged to lie by agents or prosecutors. It asserts that his dozens of handlers were unaware of the deceit because of communication failures within the agency. Among those handlers was current DEA Director Michele Leonhart, who worked with Chambers as a field agent in St. Louis and as an administrator in Los Angeles. There is no public record of any DEA employee receiving discipline.
The DEA management review, a detailed inquiry conducted by the Office of Inspections, said Chambers misrepresented his past to sanitize his image and credibility. It asserted that his fibs were not germane to guilt or innocence of defendants.
The report listed numerous cases in which he gave false testimony about his criminal history. In at least a half-dozen trials and depositions, he denied any arrests or convictions even though he has been arrested 13 times and has a conviction for soliciting prostitution.
Chambers also testified falsely about his education and taxes, the report alleged: In a Florida case, for example, he swore that he had attended Iowa Wesleyan College for three years; he was there only one semester. He testified that he paid taxes on $60,000 of informant earnings during the previous year even though he filed no return.
When confronted with his contradictions on the witness stand during the 1990s, Chambers admitted under oath that he had repeatedly given false testimony. In the “Frontline” interview, he said he was accused of lying “because I didn’t say that I had been arrested for traffic tickets.” He added that he solicited a hooker to further his undercover role.
Federal prosecutor Stephen Wolfe described Chambers in a 1999 appellate case before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as “undefendable” because of his deceit and said the DEA’s repeated failure to confront and disclose the perjury was “carelessness, recklessness and probably deliberate,” according to a transcript.
Yet Chambers was not not charged with perjury or with tax evasion. Justice Department officials declined to explain the lack of prosecution. In 2000, federal attorneys in Miami and South Carolina threw out criminal indictments because of Chambers’ damaged credibility. News accounts at the time predicted a flurry of appeals nationwide by prison inmates seeking to have their convictions overturned; it is unknown how many appeals were filed or how many of those efforts were successful.
The DEA report said all of Chambers’ interactions with suspects were recorded except for first contacts. Defense attorneys view those initial meetings as critical to establishing whether Chambers entrapped their clients — inducing them to commit crimes that would not otherwise have occurred.
The DEA sought to conceal records of Chambers’ work from attorneys who filed a request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. A federal court in the District of Columbia ordered the release of the materials, noting that the plaintiffs provided “compelling evidence … suggesting massive government misconduct.”
After revelations about Chambers became public in 2000, then-Attorney General Janet Reno suspended his use as an operative.
Nevertheless, federal court records in Arizona show that Chambers was quietly reactivated about five years ago and took on a controversial role in the Hernandez-Flores case now being litigated in Phoenix.
Informants, also known as confidential sources, are undercover operatives used by law-enforcement agencies to infiltrate criminal organizations. Some are criminals who accept the work to avoid prosecution or severe sentences. Others are paid for their services, usually under contracts.
The job, often perilous, requires courage, stealth and skilled deceit. Drug informants typically gather intelligence and in many cases orchestrate sting operations — phony narcotics deals — that are monitored by agents who sweep in and make arrests. In addition to payments for service, informants may be eligible for rewards and a percentage of seized cash from criminal enterprises.
A specialist in sting operations, Chambers typically poses as an out-of-town narcotics trafficker, often flashing bling and driving fancy cars. The Missouri native is said to be bold and street-savvy, using multiple aliases, able to convincingly portray a slum gangster or a Mercedes-driving entrepreneur. Once he identifies suspects, transactions are filmed or recorded by agents.
That’s what allegedly transpired with Phoenix defendant Hernandez-Flores, who was indicted in March 2012 on charges of narcotics possession and conspiracy. A DEA search-warrant affidavit identified Hernandez-Flores as the kingpin in a trafficking organization that deals in marijuana, heroin and cocaine.
In his May 21 motion to dismiss charges, defense attorney Cameron Morgan ripped the government for employing a “serial perjurer” who was previously banished from informant work.
Morgan declined to be interviewed for this story but confirmed this week that he forwarded information about Chambers to justice committees of the U.S. Senate and House.
In court papers, Morgan said federal officials provided an “open-ended grant of immunity” and paid a lot of money for testimony from a confessed perjurer. “At some point, the danger to the integrity of the court system is too great,” he wrote, arguing that charges should be thrown out or that testimony should be precluded because of “outrageous government conduct.”
Terry Rearick, a private investigator who years ago helped expose Chambers’ pattern of false testimony, said re-employing him for drug stings shows “a blatant, arrogant disrespect of justice from the government.”
“He was supposed to be out of business,” Rearick added. “I can’t believe it.”
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch story on Jan. 16, 2000, described Chambers as a high-school dropout who became an informant after failing to qualify as an agent. The story, headlined, “Top U.S. drug snitch is a legend and a liar,” also said he was an expert at duping criminals as well as the federal agents who employed him.
Chambers’ rap sheet contains at least 13 arrests on suspicion of assault, forgery and other crimes, according to public records. There is one conviction: In 1995, he was snared in a Denver sting operation in which undercover female officers posed as prostitutes. He also was charged with impersonating a federal agent at the time of that arrest, according to multiple published reports.
Federal authorities today refuse to divulge who authorized the 2008 reactivation of Chambers as an operative or why.
It is unknown when he started doing cases in Arizona. Morgan’s motion says a supervising federal prosecutor in Phoenix endorsed the decision. Former U.S. Attorney Diane Humetewa, who served in 2008, said she has no recollection of Chambers. Her successor, Dennis Burke, could not be reached.
Hernandez-Flores, scheduled for trial this summer, became the target of a DEA task force at least three years ago — suspected of drug-dealing and money-laundering. A federal search-warrant affidavit says the racehorse owner was investigated along with his wife, Alma Ramos, who was not charged, and associate Saul Sandoval, a co-defendant in the criminal case.
The federal indictment was a sort of do-over by DEA task-force members after an earlier state prosecution of the alleged drug ring fell apart.
In March 2010, Hernandez-Flores and 42 others were rounded up on a Maricopa County Superior Court indictment.
Hernandez-Flores was charged with 34 drug-related counts, but a judge ruled that a Glendale police detective who was working with the DEA provided “false and misleading statements” in a wiretap affidavit regarding her confidential informant.
Phone-surveillance records and derivative evidence got thrown out. Prosecutors were forced to dismiss charges against nearly all the defendants, including Hernandez-Flores, who walked out of jail in June 2011.
One month later, according to a search-warrant affidavit sworn out in federal court by DEA Agent Dustin Gillespie, Chambers bumped into Hernandez-Flores outside the suspect’s store, LJH Carniceria/SuperMercado, in southwest Phoenix.
The affidavit says Chambers parked at the business while taking a break from another investigation. It asserts that his contact with Hernandez-Flores occurred “by happenstance and was unplanned by law enforcement and the CS (confidential source).”
As a result, Chambers was not wearing a wire when Hernandez-Flores is accused of telling a complete stranger about his narcotics operation that included 80,000 pounds of marijuana available for distribution.
Within weeks, the affidavit says, a deal was struck: Chambers agreed to pay $90,000 for a kilogram of heroin, with half of the cash up front. On Dec. 21, 2011, DEA agents gave their informant a box of “simulated bulk currency.” The fake money was paid to Sandoval, who moments later crashed his vehicle trying to escape police.
Hernandez-Flores and Sandoval were indicted in March 2012.
Morgan, the defense lawyer, notes in his motion for dismissal that the previous case was thrown out based on an officer’s false statements related to an informant. Then, in the federal affidavit, Gillespie swore that Chambers was “a reliable DEA CS (confidential source)” despite the informant’s history of false testimony.
“These misrepresentations point out the danger of dealing with Chambers,” Morgan wrote. “His penchant for perjury is infectious to law enforcement.”
According to Morgan’s motion, Chambers was reactivated by the DEA in 2008, but the agency has refused to give defense lawyers any information on his role since that date.
“Here we are, again dealing with the horrific Chambers record and the DEA cover-up that has been going on since 1985 when it first rescued him from felony charges,” Morgan wrote.
Brian Russo, an attorney for Sandoval, said he also will seek dismissal. He said that Gillespie’s affidavit falsely labeled Chambers as reliable and that it defies belief to claim the case started by “happenstance.”
“Come on, I don’t believe in that much coincidence,” he added. “It’s just not plausible.”
Russo said the DEA refuses to supply defense counsel with basic information on Chambers’ investigations during the past five years, but a federal prosecutor recently disclosed in court that, since 2008, the informant has been paid an additional $1.8 million for undercover work.
“They won’t even tell us who made the decision (to reinstate him as an operative),” Russo said. “Somebody knows they’ve got serious problems.”
‘One in a million’
A review of the Nexis database for U.S. media articles shows no coverage of Chambers’ resurrection during the past five years. He is mentioned only in a 2010 news release that criticized the Obama administration for appointing Leonhart as DEA director despite her “close professional relationship” with the tainted informant.
Leonhart worked with Chambers as a drug investigator in Missouri during the 1980s and then as special agent in charge of the DEA’s Los Angeles office.
The Post-Dispatch report in 2000 quoted her as saying Chambers was “very credible, an outstanding testifier.” She also bemoaned the possibility that his undercover work would end.
“That would be a sad day for the DEA,” she told the newspaper. “He’s one in a million.”
Leonhart was confirmed by the Senate in 2010 as DEA administrator, overseeing 10,000 employees and a $3 billion budget. She had been deputy director since 2004 and was in that post when Chambers was reinstated as an operative.
Leonhart declined an interview request.
H. Dean Steward, a Southern California defense attorney who helped expose Chambers in 1999, said it is obvious who revived Chambers’ undercover career: “Michele Leonhart, head of the DEA. She was his handling agent. … I’m convinced he’s back in business because of her.”
Steward said Chambers routinely fails to record introductory meetings with suspects, as happened in the Hernandez-Flores case in Phoenix.
That practice, he said, allows for possible entrapment with lies to suspects and for fabricated accounts in court. Defense lawyers, unable to disprove Chambers’ testimony, attack his credibility. Judges and jurors must decide whether to believe the informer.
“The significance is, he can say anything he wants,” Steward said. “He can lie. … Supporting criminal cases with an admitted liar and perjurer perverts the entire system. To do it twice over 20-plus years is shocking.”
Reach the reporter at dennis.wagner@arizona republic.com