Rotten to the Core: The DEA Under Michele Leonhart

By Neville Elder 05/01/15

Michele Leonhart, the disgraced former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, didn’t fall from grace—she jumped.

Michele Leonhart
Photo via

Following revelations of sex parties with Colombian drug cartel prostitutes by agents on her watch, Michele Leonhart will leave the top job at the DEA. She told the Attorney General, Eric Holder that she planned to retire after 8 years as the Agency's administrator. The report on sexual misconduct with the DEA, Department of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, US Marshalls Service (USMS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was the final straw for the embattled Drug Agency boss, whose career was peppered with calamity, embarrassment and missteps.

What’s just as worrying as the criminal behavior of her underlings was the policy of lies and cover-ups that existed under her stewardship. Is it really surprising, that an organization’s discipline would fall apart if their boss was evasive and hostile to her superiors? She was openly critical of the president’s policies on drug enforcement and with the secretive Special Operations Division (SOD), ignored the law and skirted the judicial process.

Even before she was confirmed by Congress as the new administrator in 2010, she was stonewalling Congress.

Leonhart is a holdover from the days of Bush’s tenure as president. She joined the DEA in 1980 and was popular amongst the ranks of law enforcement for her experience on the streets as a beat cop in Baltimore, Maryland. She rose quickly to become the first female Special Agent in Charge and then became acting administrator of the DEA in 2004. A smooth run through the Bush years, where her role in the "War on Drugs," was as you might expect: No compromise and no surrender. It was heartily endorsed.

When the administration changed hands, Leonhart stood precariously in front of the Judiciary Committee with the ex-president’s nomination for administrator in her hand. She expected a rubber-stamping even from the jubilant new Democratic Congress. But she stalled at the gate. During the Bush years, the DEA had intervened in the practice of nurses dispensing pain medication to nursing home residents, unable to manage their own prescriptions. It had become virtually impossible for nurses to give pain relief to LTCF patients without a constant referral to a physician. She dodged questions about reforming these aging policies by Senator Herb Kohl, the chairman of the Senate Special Aging Committee, until the senator threatened to fight her administrator nomination. Quickly, she backtracked and promised changes in the LTCF policies and she received Kohl’s grudging endorsement.

During the same interview, she fired her first shot across the bows of the new president’s ship:

“I have seen what marijuana use has done to young people, I have seen the abuse, I have seen what it’s done to families. It’s bad...If confirmed as administrator, we would continue to enforce the federal drug laws.”

Her position on marijuana is obsolete, not to say absurd. Just a year ago, after a brief exchange in court, she was forced to return 250 pounds of seized hemp seeds bound for Kentucky—a cash crop already green-lighted by Congress.

Criticism from the house was sharp and pointed. The White House had been willing to let Colorado and Washington continue their experiment in marijuana legalization, but in January of last year, behind closed doors at an off-the-record D.C. National Sheriffs’ Association conference, she openly expressed her disdain for Obama. Also strangely, she singled out another hemp issue (strange because commercial hemp isn’t classified as a drug and can’t get you high). As reported in the Boston Herald, Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson said:

"She said her lowest point in 33 years in the DEA was when she learned they’d flown a hemp flag over the Capitol on July 4. The sheriffs were all shocked. This is the first time in 28 years I’ve ever heard anyone in her position be this candid.”

Of his dealings with Leonhart, a Democratic Representative from Colorado, Jared Polis (who was responsible for flying the hemp flag) said:

“(He) found her to be completely incompetent and unknowledgeable." 

Polis’s grilling of Leonhart on YouTube in 2012, is remarkable. The DEA boss seemed to stumble, unable to distinguish between the properties and relative health impacts of pot and heroin/meth/prescription drugs.

Pro-pot Democratic Representative Steve Cohen, for Tennessee said:

"The honorable thing to do would be to assume a Japanese posture and resign."

Throughout Leonhart’s tenure the DEA operated a policy of non-disclosure and non-transparency. In 2013, it emerged that the DEA’s secret unit, the Special Operations Division, (SOD) were using "parallel construction" to incriminate those suspected of criminal drug activity. Simply put, the SOD might tell local law enforcement to set up a traffic stop and search a vehicle suspected of drug offenses and then lie about the SOD tip, pretending the prosecution was initiated from the traffic stop. This allegedly common law enforcement tactic stops defense lawyers from discovering evidence the prosecution were obliged to reveal, such as where the tip originally came from.

It seems clear the deceit and evasion trickled down into the ranks, both on and off duty, and it was this climate of deceit that brought Leonhart and the DEA to their knees in the recent sex scandal.

Leonhart’s public outbursts and overreach into states’ affairs pale into insignificance when it comes to the revelations of sex parties involving DEA agents, managers and regional directors in Bogotá, Colombia—a regular occurrence since 2001, according to an internal DEA report.

The Inspector General’s (IG) report focuses on sex parties with prostitutes between 2005 and 2008, that occurred on US government properties in rented accommodation and government vehicles. Amazingly, three agents were given gifts, money and weapons from drug cartel members.

The IG's report also highlights the constant stonewalling by the DEA when asked to deliver information to the inquiry. Frustrations that have muddied the waters so much, it may be impossible to uncover the whole truth behind the activities of the most corrupt agents stationed in Colombia. The report states:

“Therefore, we cannot be completely confident that the … DEA provided us with all information relevant to this review. As a result, our report reflects the findings and conclusions we reached based on the information made available to us.”

There’s more dirt out there, basically.

A collapse of discipline and criminal activity is an indicator of a lack of leadership. Michele Leonhart complained about President Obama’s lead on drug policy; she seemed incompetent when questioned by Congress about the actual problems drugs caused; she overreached her authority in non drug matters; and she was held to account by Attorney General Eric Holder on at least one occasion. The secrecy, evasion and culture of deceit she incited in the drug agency brought the house down on her head.

If your boss treats her boss with contempt and she evades legal authority, turns a blind eye to indiscretions and criminality, why should you pay attention to the rules?

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. Originally from the UK, he's lived in the unfashionable end of Brooklyn for 13 years. He last wrote about the forgotten victory in the War on Drugs.

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British born Neville Elder is a writer,photographer and filmmaker. He's been sober since 2006, lived in New York since 2001 and is in no hurry to move back to a Brexited Britain. He writes the odd murder ballad with his band Thee Shambels and teaches photography at the New York Institute of photography. Find him on Linkedin and Twitter.