12/03/2008

FBI staged sting on corrupt Ill. officers

By Mike Robinson
Associated Press

CHICAGO — Duffel bags stuffed with cocaine were delivered by plane to a suburban airport in the U.S. state of Illinois while two sheriff's officers provided security.

A police officer stood by to guard the cash and keep out the riffraff at a poker game where $100,000 changed hands.

And a drug dealer was told squad cars marked "sheriff" and "sheriff's police" might be available on a "freelance" basis to provide protection for his deliveries.

Such tales of law enforcement gone awry emerged in court papers Tuesday as U.S. federal prosecutors unveiled a series of elaborate sting operations aimed at officers who hired out to ride shotgun for drug deals and other criminal activities.

Fifteen officers and two other men who had pretended to be law enforcement officers were charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine or heroin or both.

But the most spectacular pretending was done by the federal agents themselves.

The pilots of the airplane were not drug runners but undercover agents. So were the gamblers who busily played hand after hand of high-stakes poker - all for show.

The drug broker who squired the officers to the airport to pick up the duffel bags was an agent. So was the drug dealer who stuffed the bags into his Mercedes-Benz.

U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said he was dismayed to find that so many law enforcement officers had "sold out their badge."

"When drug dealers deal drugs, they ought to be afraid of the police - not turn to them for help," Fitzgerald said at a news conference.

Officials paid homage to an unnamed FBI agent who moved into a business in Harvey more than a year ago and set up shop as a drug broker. He soon attracted the attention of police and the corruption grew, authorities said.

They said the agent was sent in undercover because there had been reports of police corruption over the last several years in southern Cook County, including the Harvey police department. An investigation into allegations of robbery, extortion, narcotics offenses and weapons distribution is ongoing, officials said.

Those charged include 10 Cook County sheriff's correctional officers, four Harvey police officers and one Chicago police officer.

Of the 17 defendants, 14 were arrested or surrendered Tuesday and were being immediately brought before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Mason. Two sheriff's officers are on active duty with Army National Guard units in Afghanistan, and warrants were issued for their arrest.

If convicted of conspiracy to possess and distribute more than 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of cocaine or one kilogram (2.2 pound) of heroin, the defendants would face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of life. The maximum fine would be $4 million.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart called the alleged behavior "absolutely reprehensible."

Each of those charged has been suspended with pay pending a hearing next week, Dart said. "That step will then lead to a request for termination."

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