Since reaching court, however, there hasn’t been much to brag about in the Justice Department’s largest investigation of individuals accused of bribing foreign officials. In two lengthy and high-profile trials in the District’s federal court, one of which ended last month, federal prosecutors failed to win a single conviction. One reason for the courtroom setbacks can be traced to the ribald texts exchanged between the informant and his FBI handlers.
It’s no secret that informants, like the one in this sting, tend to have shady pasts, traits that make them easy targets for defense attorneys. But modern communications — texts, in this case — permitted a new line of attack: Defense lawyers used the questionable messages to savage the credibility and professionalism of FBI agents, who not only seemed to share their informant’s offensive sense of humor but also appeared to like him. While close relationships sometimes develop between agents and their informants, it is rare for such communications to become public. FBI agents closely guard the details of those relationships and are generally careful about what they put in writing.
In this case, the messages shocked former prosecutors, who said the texts hurt the agents’ credibility. “It was just foolish,” said Steven Levin, a former federal prosecutor in Maryland. “Jurors are loath to convict if they feel that both the informant and the law enforcement officers have acted improperly.”
During the most recent trial of six men and women on charges of paying a bribe to win business with a foreign government, defense attorney Steven McCool used the texts not only to attack the character of the informant but also to accuse an agent of being a bigoted, anti-gay misogynist.
For example, McCool asked the agent if his reference to “da hood” in a text was meant to have “racial overtones” and if he was expressing “a bias against gay people” when he texted the informant about dressing up in chaps and spurs while making a reference to the Village People.
Defense attorney Paul Calli, whose client was acquitted by a judge before his case even reached the jury, said such texts showed that “the FBI had established no appropriate boundaries” with the informant.
The agents, who declined interview requests, testified that the off-color texts were “operationally necessary” to build rapport with the informant and that they were not expressing biases in the messages.
Testimony indicates the agents never thought their colorful texts, which represented a tiny fraction of the messages exchanged during the investigation, would be made public.