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Editorial: DEA has the chance to leave a different legacy

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 23, 2015 5:00 AM

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The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s chief, Michele Leonhart, is stepping down amid heated congressional hearings into her agency’s scandals involving sex parties and compromised information leaked to Colombian drug lords. An internal report documented that prostitutes, sex parties, and undercover apartments were paid for by government money from 2001 to 2005 in Colombia.

Although Leonhart did not publicly cite the intense scrutiny from public officials in the hearings and in the media as the reason for her departure, it’s fair to assume that it played a huge role. She has served the DEA for 35 years and has been chief since her nomination by President Obama in 2010, but much of her tenure has been regarded by many in the White House as facilitating an agency with no regards for rules or consequences.

When it came time to punish 10 DEA agents accused of the aforementioned misconduct in Colombia, only seven had been issued suspensions, all consisting of fewer than two weeks. But nobody was fired. Agents accused of having sex with prostitutes in Colombia only face what is seen by many as a glorified slap-on-the-wrist in the form of a few days vacation.

Why Leonhart did not fire any agents she attributes to the lack of power that a DEA chief actually has to effectively remove workers. The extraordinary job security through civil-service protections make it incredibly difficult to fire appointed agents. But it is not definitively clear if she had had the ability to do so would have fired those affiliated with the scandal, and that is the real problem.

When a culture exists in an agency where there is no incentive to be ethical and professional, no consequences for wrongdoings, it becomes a place that breeds egregious behavior such as the acts committed in Colombia. It’s a “don’t ask for permission, only ask for forgiveness” way of thinking that has permeated through the lifeblood of the DEA and it will not end until new leadership is in place and more power is granted to Leonhart’s replacement to expunge agents in extreme cases such as this.

The American people deserve a new DEA, chief who will change the culture within its walls. What has happened in the past decade has been filled with tremendous embarrassment, but Leonhart’s departure gives way to new opportunities to not only improve the professionalism of the DEA itself, but to also usher in an administrator representative of a more progressive movement to change the federal approach to marijuana and potentially other drugs within the agency’s purview.

The current model is outdated and has contributed to the United States’ world leading incarceration rates. Obama will now have the chance to leave another legacy — this time for drug reform.


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