That friendly agent who helped you book your trip aboard Amtrak may have been paid to spy on you and your fellow passengers.
The Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice found that the Drug Enforcement Administration paid 33 Amtrak workers $1.5 million to be informants between fiscal years 2011 and 2015, providing information about passengers.
The IG’s office has repeatedly said the payments made to Amtrak informants are a substantial waste of government resources and that information could have been acquired from a law enforcement task force.
The latest IG report, which was conducted in cooperation with Amtrak’s own office of inspector general, is in addition to an inquiry released last January that said that one Amtrak informant had been paid $854,460 over two decades while another received $9,701.
One Amtrak informant was a train and engine crew secretary who raked in $108,155 between January 2014 and February 2015. That employee was allowed to retire.
The DEA last July instituted a policy that prohibits the use of “government or quasi-government employees (and contractors) as sources, including Amtrak employees.”
None of the Amtrak employees who took DEA payments has been publicly identified and much about what the IG reports describes as bribes remains shrouded in mystery.
That includes whether the employees who accepted the DEA payment were subject to disciplinary procedures.
The Amtrak informant passed along to DEA agents such passenger information as name, seat number, itinerary and whether the ticket was purchased in cash. The information was sent on a daily basis via email, text or phone call.
The IG report said the DEA sought to bypass Amtrak’s police department in part to deprive it of any share of any seized assets Amtrak police would be entitled to for cooperating in investigations.
“DEA Special Agents from two separate field offices justified the continued use of these confidential sources by saying Amtrak Detectives were often too busy and unable to provide [passenger information] to the DEA,” the report said. “In addition, these Special Agents stated that Amtrak confidential sources, who handle reservations as a matter of daily routine duties, were more proficient than Amtrak Detectives at searching the Amtrak system.”
DEA agents said they used the information they gained from Amtrak informants “to conduct consensual encounters and searches with the goal of seizing currency deemed narcotics proceeds and illegal substances, and making related arrests.”
News media reports have said that the agents sometimes seized large amounts of cash from passengers who insisted that they were not involved in illegal drug activity.
One such case involved a seizure in New Mexico from a 22-year-old passenger aboard the Los Angeles-bound Southwest Chief merely by asserting a belief that the money had a connection to illegal activity.
The DEA took $16,000 that the man said constituted his life savings even though no criminal charges were filed against the passenger.
In another case reported by The Atlantic magazine, a 37-year-old mathematician said DEA agents took $60 from his bag aboard a train.
The IG report said that in cases involving 21 of the 33 Amtrak informants between FY 2011 and FY 2015 that $7.5 million in cash was seized from passengers, with $1.3 million of that being paid to the informants.
There were 175 payments made in 170 cases of which 72 cases resulted in illegal substances being seized by DEA agents.
It was not just Amtrak employees who benefited from DEA payments. Some Transportation Security Administration employees along with employees of private companies were paid.
One parcel company employee was reported to have been paid $1.4 million over a 14-year period.
A bus company employee received $429,212 over four years while an airline employee received $655,744 over three years.
Nineteen airline workers were paid $1.6 million and contributed to 381 cash seizures, totaling $14.3 million between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2015.
The IG report said the DEA relationships with travel and parcel employees raises legal questions as to whether the informants are acting as the DEA’s agents.
If so, that “could have implications relating to compliance with the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
In a statement, the DEA said it was working to address concerns raised by its practice of paying informants.
“As a result of an OIG report issued July of 2015, DEA revised its policies surrounding the use of Cooperating Sources and brought them into compliance with the Attorney General’s guidelines,” the DEA statement said. “We also changed our rules concerning the use of individuals employed by a government or quasi-government agency. Today’s report highlights the need for continued improvement. We welcome the OIG recommendations and we are committed to strengthening the accountability and effectiveness of this mission critical program.”