Senior FBI managers have frequently received more favorable treatment than lower-level employees in high-profile investigations of alleged bureau misconduct, leading to "the strong perception that a double standard of discipline" exists in the FBI, according to a report released yesterday.
Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, also found in a review of FBI internal probes that many top FBI officials, including the current head of the Washington field office, received thousands of dollars in cash bonuses even while they were under investigation for possible wrongdoing.
The report sharply criticizes former FBI director Louis J. Freeh for "poor judgment," saying he sent a message that the bureau would "overlook serious allegations of misconduct and even reward the subject of the allegation with a major promotion." Fine concluded that despite some improvements, many of the same problems with double standards remain under FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.
The FBI said in a statement that changes implemented under Freeh in 1997 in the bureau's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) have solved many of the problems, and that rules governing the disciplinary process continue to be reviewed.
"The mission of the FBI OPR is to fairly and expeditiously identify misconduct wherever it occurs within the organization, and to appropriately punish the involved persons without fear or favor to anyone," the statement said.
The inspector general's report is the latest in a series of harsh condemnations of the FBI's personnel system, which lawmakers and internal reviews alike have repeatedly characterized as riddled with favoritism and unfair treatment of underlings. Rank-and-file FBI agents have long complained that senior officials cover for each other during controversy, while lower-level agents shoulder the blame.
"The examples of the double standard in this report are an outrage," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a frequent FBI critic who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Too many top officials got away with lying, cover-ups, obstruction, negligence and using taxpayer money for personal pleasure. . . . The FBI's discipline system still needs serious reform."
The report focuses on two notable internal scandals: the follow-up investigations to the deadly 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff, and allegations of phony expenses connected to a 1997 retirement party for former FBI deputy director Larry Potts.
The standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, began with a shootout on Aug. 21, 1992, that resulted in the deaths of U.S. Marshal William Degan and Sammy Weaver, the young son of white separatist Randy Weaver. The next day, an FBI sniper killed Weaver's wife, Vicki, after an unprecedented "shoot-to-kill" order that was later ruled illegal by a federal court.
Fine's investigators concluded that the original investigations into Ruby Ridge "were significantly flawed, perhaps to protect senior officials" from punishment for those orders and that subsequent allegations of cover-up were not properly investigated or punished.
In the 1997 Potts case, senior FBI executives allegedly used a phony conference set up at the FBI's Quantico, Va., facility as an excuse to obtain reimbursement for travel expenses to a retirement dinner for Potts. Fine found that "the disciplinary decisions stemming from this case were fundamentally flawed," and called it an "egregious example" of the FBI's double-standard problem.
Last week, an official who heads one of the FBI's internal affairs units, John E. Roberts, alleged that he was singled out for ridicule and harassment after appearing on a television interview that had been approved by top FBI brass. Roberts has previously testified in Congress that his career was hampered after he uncovered problems in FBI internal investigations.
Contrary to descriptions by several sources last week, the inspector general report released yesterday did not include any findings on Roberts's allegations of retaliation. His case is being examined separately, according to officials familiar with the probe.
Many subjects of the internal Ruby Ridge probes were promoted and given bonuses while under investigation, the report said. One prominent name in the Fine report is Van A. Harp, now head of the FBI's large Washington field office, who received $22,000 in bonuses while under investigation, according to the inspector general.
Fine concluded that Harp should have been disciplined for improperly editing notes and other conduct in a Ruby Ridge probe he helped lead. Fine also found that Harp, while head of the Cleveland field office in 1997, claimed in travel documents that he had attended a board meeting that did not exist on the weekend of the Potts dinner.
Harp said yesterday that disparities in the disciplinary system frequently work against FBI executives and complained that he has no recourse to object to Fine's report. "In 33 years, I have never been disciplined," Harp said. "But in this case, I have no opportunity to appeal the factual inaccuracies" in the report.