The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) failed to manage undercover money-laundering operations that move millions of dollars of illegal drug proceeds each year through a network of government fronts, according to a report from the inspector general (IG) published Tuesday.
The IG's findings add to concerns about the potential for abuse of the important crime-fighting tool that was laid bare in the recent indictment of a former star agent, Jose Irizarry, for allegedly conspiring with the same Colombian drug cartel he was hired to fight.
While Irizarry's alleged crimes aren't mentioned in the report, criticism of the undercover operations he helped lead dates back years. The new report cites a number of deficiencies in the department, including weak oversight from the Justice Department of what are supposed to be tightly monitored stings, loose record-keeping to evaluate results and lax control of confidential sources working for the cartels. The audit also faulted the DEA for failing to submit annual reports to Congress about the undercover operations.
For decades, so-called attorney general-exempted operations have required approval at the most senior levels of the Justice Department. Through them, the DEA becomes an active part of money-laundering schemes with the aim of targeting high-level traffickers. Agents follow the money by opening front businesses, buying property and depositing funds into banks to facilitate transactions on behalf of drug trafficking organizations.
The extent of the DEA's involvement moving dirty money is unknown but believed to be only a small part of the annual $64 billion in drug trafficking activity in the U.S. The 72-page report is redacted to exclude the amount and size of financial transactions carried out by the undercover operations.
The DEA agreed with the inspector general's 15 recommendations and said it has already updated its policies twice since the audit period to improve oversight of the money-laundering operations. It has also added annual training conferences for investigators involved in the program.
"Significant progress has been made in recent years and that effort continues today," the DEA said.
In delivering the report Tuesday, Inspector General Michael Horowitz acknowledged the potential for abuse.
"The risks associated with undercover money laundering are significant and therefore compliance with department policies and statutory requirements are critical," Horowitz said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.