Saturday, April 14, 2007

Cheering From Frankfort

FBI avoiding Kentucky? Governor Fletcher is elated

From the Lexington Herald-Leader:

Before the FBI led two high-profile investigations into public corruption in Clay County, voters were so disgusted with the county's crooked politics that few went to the polls. Two years later, investigations have led to charges against a former county election commissioner turned drug dealer, a county clerk, the Manchester mayor, an assistant police chief and a 911 director. Residents say the federal investigations have restored some faith in the system. "It gave people courage," said Doug Abner, a local minister.

Many former and current law enforcement agents are worried that a drop in the number of federal agents -- particularly FBI agents -- will mean fewer public corruption investigations such as the ones in Clay County. Former and current law enforcement agents say some FBI offices in Kentucky have been investigating criminal cases with fewer than half the agents they had 18 months ago. Last year, the FBI closed an office in Ashland after it had been open for decades. The bureau is also considering closing its Elizabethtown office, but no decision has been made yet, said an FBI spokesman.

The current number of FBI agents in Kentucky is not known. Nor is the net loss of agents over the past 18 months. The Herald-Leader sent the FBI a public records request in January, asking for a breakdown of the number of agents in Kentucky by office. More than 60 days later, that request is still pending.

A shift in the priorities of the FBI since Sept. 11, 2001, has meant there are fewer agents available to investigate white-collar crime and public corruption across the country, former and current law enforcement officers say. "Everyone in Eastern Kentucky should be concerned about this," said Scott Barker, a former supervisor for the FBI in Eastern Kentucky.

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer investigation has found that 2,400 FBI criminal agents nationwide who were transferred to counterterrorism squads since Sept. 11, 2001, have not been replaced. The FBI has requested money for more agents over the past two years, but those requests have been denied, according to the Post-Intelligencer story printed Wednesday. The six-month newspaper investigation found that the overall number of FBI-driven criminal investigations referred to federal prosecutors dropped from 31,000 cases in 2000 to 20,000 in 2005.

Many in Congress are calling for an increase in the FBI's budget. Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, pushed legislation to hire 1,000 more FBI agents and add money to state and local law enforcement budgets, but the measure died. Since the Seattle newspaper's investigation, Biden and others are trying to push the legislation forward in the next Congress. Kentucky federal officials say there has been a drop in the number of agents in Kentucky but say that over the past several months they have hired some agents to fill some of those vacant positions. Tracy Reinhold, FBI special agent in charge of Kentucky, said that over the past year the FBI has expanded its task forces and partnered with more local and state agencies to augment their forces.

Reinhold pointed to the Clay County investigation as an example of a case that used multiple agencies and got results. Reinhold said every tip that comes to the FBI's attention is investigated. U.S. Attorney Amul Thapar, the top federal prosecutor for Eastern Kentucky, said FBI agents and federal prosecutors are doing more with fewer resources. Thapar said the lack of resources is not just a Kentucky problem or a federal issue. "There isn't a federal agency or a state agency that has enough resources," he said.

The task forces have created a closer working relationship between state, local and federal officials, Thapar and Reinhold said. "Kentucky has been one of the best places I've ever worked," Reinhold said, whose career stops include FBI offices in Detroit and Las Vegas.

But many former FBI agents say that task forces have their limitations. A federal officer has to serve on those task forces to get a case into federal court. In some areas of Kentucky, federal resources are spread too thin. There are Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents that are on drug task forces because there isn't a Drug Enforcement agent available, agents say. Jim Huggins, a retired FBI agent and former supervisor, said some of Eastern Kentucky's most well-known public corruption cases have involved state and local police. Those are the types of cases that task forces can't handle, Huggins and other agents say.

David Keller, a former FBI agent whose work led to the arrest of several corrupt Kentucky sheriffs and police officers, said the bureau's decision to close smaller offices such as Ashland could result in fewer tips and investigations. "You can't cover Ashland from Lexington," Keller said. People in rural areas are more likely to report suspicious activity to someone they know -- a local FBI agent -- than call a 1-800 number.

"For some people, calling Louisville is like calling a foreign country," Huggins said.

Agents in Lexington and Louisville are so loaded with work that they can't take on cases in the far eastern portions of the state, former agents say. Both Huggins and Keller and other former agents the Herald-Leader spoke to said they have high regard for their former employer and are not criticizing bureau leadership. The agency has to work within its budget, they say.

"We are in a fight against terror across the globe, and there is only so many resources to go around," Keller said. "We have to address our needs here at home as well," Keller said. "In the past 25 years, I've seen Eastern Kentucky become a much better place to live. If the feds pull back because of funding, we could easily slip back to the early 1980s where we nearly had an open market for marijuana."

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