DEA Chief Stepping Down in Wake of 'Sex Parties' Scandal

PHOTO: DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart prepares to testify before a Senate Appropriations Commerce hearing on the 2016 budget, March 12, 2015 in Washington. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images
DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart prepares to testify before a Senate Appropriations Commerce hearing on the 2016 budget, March 12, 2015 in Washington.

The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration is retiring in the wake of a scandal over DEA agents who allegedly participated in sex parties in Colombia with prostitutes paid for by drug cartels and hosted in government housing paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed the move late Tuesday in a statement, calling DEA administrator Michele Leonhart a "good friend" who has been a "partner in the work of safeguarding our national security and protecting our citizens from crime, exploitation and abuse."

She will leave her post in the middle of next month.

Last week, she was in the hot seat on Capitol Hill, trying to explain to an outraged congressional committee why she could not fire the DEA agents involved.

Members of the House Oversight and Governmental Affairs Committee were flabbergasted by Leonhart's admission that of the agents who participated in sex parties "the majority are still on the job."

Some of the agents received light punishments, including between two and 14 days' suspension without pay, but civil service protections made it difficult for the director to take more significant disciplinary action.

"It is embarrassing that you don’t fire that person," Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, admonished the director.

In a joint statement Tuesday, Chaffetz and the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., called Leonhart’s departure "the appropriate consequence" in light of "the bad behavior that was allowed to fester for more than a decade."

The allegations involved conduct that occurred between 2001 and 2012, some of which were revealed in an Department of Justice Inspector General report last week.

Unlike Secret Service Director Julia Pierson, who was appointed director of the service after the 2012 Cartagena prostitution scandal, Leonhart has been director since 2007, during the time some of the alleged conduct occurred. However, Leonhart said she did not become aware that DEA agents were having sex parties in Colombia until after the 2012 Cartegena scandal which uncovered similar conduct by DEA agents.

The Inspector General's report focused on how the four enforcement agencies housed in the Department of Justice, DEA, FBI, ATF and U.S. Marshals Service, handled misconduct allegations. The report found that in many cases, DEA supervisors in the field did not notify headquarters about allegations of misconduct. One regional director who failed to move cases involving sex parties further up the chain of command was merely counseled as a reprimand for his actions.

Some members raised the possibility of amending the Title V of the Civil Service Act to allow for more swift and severe punishment for sexual misconduct. However, Chaffetz questioned whether the charges leveled at the agents involved with prostitutes were appropriate, suggesting that different charges could have resulted in dismissal.

Two weeks ago, Holder took the unusual step of issuing a memorandum to all Department of Justice employees expressly prohibiting the solicitation of prostitutes on or off duty in any foreign or domestic jurisdiction.

"Department employees who violate these prohibitions will be subject to suspension or termination," the memo states.

In his statement Tuesday confirming Leonhart’s retirement, Holder called DEA employees "some of the finest law enforcement officers in the world."

"Every day, these remarkable men and women put their lives on the line – in communities across the United States and around the world – to safeguard our way of life," he said. "And they do so at a time of increasingly complex challenges and constantly evolving threats."

As for Leonhart, he thanked her "35 years of extraordinary service to the DEA, to the Department of Justice and to the American people."

"She has devoted her life and her professional career to the defense of our nation and the protection of our citizens, and for that, I am deeply grateful," he added. "Going forward, I have no doubt that the women and men of the DEA will continue to perform their duties with the utmost integrity, professionalism and skill."

In their own statement, Chaffetz and Cummings said there is now an "opportunity … for fresh leadership," and they "are hopeful that the DEA can restore itself to an agency of distinction and excellence."