Out of control
Legal rules have changed, allowing federal agents, prosecutors to bypass basic rights
November 22, 1998
Loren Pogue has served eight years of a 22-year federal prison sentence on drug conspiracy and money laundering charges.
Pogue, a Missouri native, never bought drugs, never sold them, never held them, never used them, never smuggled them, never even saw them.
But because federal prosecutors allowed a paid government informant to lie about Pogue’s involvement in the sale of a parcel of land to supposed drug smugglers, he was convicted. Under tough federal sentencing guidelines, a judge had no choice but to give the Air Force veteran what might effectively be a death sentence.
Pogue — father of 27 children, 15 of them adopted — is 65. He doesn’t expect to leave prison alive, and as details later in this story will show, he is baffled that the government he served for more than 30 years worked so hard to betray him.
In another case, hundreds of miles away, federal agents interrogated businessman Dale Brown for four hours at a Houston, Texas, warehouse. When he tried to leave, they stopped him. When he asked for a lawyer, they refused to get him one.
After Brown finally was charged in a government sting called Operation Lightning Strike, federal prosecutors denied that the warehouse interrogation had even happened. They said the dozen others who reported the same coercive tactics in the sting were making it up, too.
Federal sting operations are supposed to snare criminals, but in Operation Lightning Strike, federal agents spent millions of dollars entrapping innocent people who worked on the periphery of the U.S. space program.
The evidence against them was contrived. The guilty pleas were coerced. Those who fought the charges won.
Brown said all it cost him was his business, his savings, his family and his health.
In Florida, prisoners call the scam "jumping on the bus," and it is as tantalizing as it is perverse. Inmates in federal prisons barter or buy information that only an insider to a crime could know — often from informants with access to confidential federal crime files.
The prisoners memorize it and get others to do the same. Then, to win sentence reductions, they testify about crimes that might have been committed while they were in prison, by people they’ve never met, in places they’ve never been. The scam succeeds only because of the tacit approval of federal law enforcement officers.
Cocaine smuggler Jose Goyriena used "jump on the bus" testimony to help federal prosecutors put three men in prison for life, and he was set to do it again for prosecutors who promised to cut his 27 year sentence by 10 years or more.
Prosecutors knew Goyriena had bragged about his lies to cellmates, but the prosecutors didn’t reveal what they’d heard to any of the men Goyriena had helped condemn — violating one of the fundamental tenets of American justice. It was defense attorneys who finally caught Goyriena in the scam.
In this nation’s war on crime, something has gone terribly wrong.
A two-year investigation by the Post-Gazette found that powerful new federal laws designed to snare terrorists, drug smugglers and pornographers are being aimed at business owners, engineers and petty criminals.
Whether suspects are guilty has come to matter less than making sure they are indicted or convicted or, more likely, coerced into pleading guilty.
Promises of lenient sentences and huge government checks encourage criminals to lie on the witness stand. Prosecutors routinely withhold evidence that might help prove a defendant innocent. Some federal agents work so closely with their undercover informants that they become lawbreakers themselves.
Those who practice this misconduct are almost never penalized or disciplined. "It’s a result-oriented process today, fairness be damned," said Robert Merkle, whom President Ronald Reagan appointed U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, serving from 1982 to 1988.
"The philosophy of the past 10 to 15 years [is] that whatever works is what’s right."
The Justice Department did not respond to questions the newspaper posed in writing about concerns raised in this series. Nor would it return phone calls requesting comment.