In text message after text message, FBI agents and their key informant joked about sex, booty calls, prostitutes, cigars, the Village People, the informant’s wives and an agent’s girlfriend. They even pondered who might play their roles in a movie based on their sting.
When arrests were announced by the Justice Department, the agents and informant basked in positive press. “It’s like an atomic mushroom cloud,” the informant gloated in a text to his FBI handler.
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.
In a statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said prosecutors have informed a federal judge that, in light of the first two trials, the government is evaluating “whether to continue to go forward” with the remaining prosecutions of 16 defendants, seven of whom had their cases end in hung juries.
The foreman of the jury in the most recent trial — a 36-year-old non-practicing lawyer — said in an interview that the texts hurt the prosecution, as did the agents’ evasive testimony about the messages’ lewd content.
“We found the government witnesses to have little credibility,” said the foreman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy. He added that the investigation was poorly run and conceived — the agents made a basic math error, among other mistakes — and the “texts were one of many things that point to an absolutely amateurish operation.”
Setting up the sting
The texts emerged in a sting whose genesis can be traced to 2007, when Richard Bistrong, a tall, thin, tan and confident vice president at a police equipment company, came to the FBI’s attention. Although he appeared to be a successful jet-setter who lived in a 6,000-square-foot mansion in upscale Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., his life was rending, according to his own testimony.
Bistrong, then 44, had a $15,000 monthly cocaine habit and routinely had sex with prostitutes, he testified. His second marriage, to a former U.S. diplomat, was cratering. In February 2007, he was fired by his company when it discovered he had been bribing foreign officials to get business. He also had accepted $1.3 million in kickbacks from suppliers.