Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer was confident. Who could blame him?
A two-year FBI sting had just netted 21 arrests in Las Vegas at the 2010 Shooting, Hunting & Outdoor Trade Show at the Sands Expo and Convention Center in connection with apparent violations of the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits U.S. corporations from obtaining or retaining business with bribes to government officials.
Through the use of high-flying federal informant Richard Bistrong, a drug-addled former law enforcement equipment salesman, the FBI developed what appeared to be the ideal sting opportunity. An undercover FBI agent posed as a corrupt Gabonese defense minister named Ali Bongo, who required a $1.5 million "consulting" fee before approving arms sales to his government.
After apparently finding no shortage of interested parties, federal agents closed the deal in Las Vegas at the SHOT show in a case the FBI dubbed Operation Landslide.
Breuer led a contingent of federal officials who could barely contain their excitement as they addressed the media. At last, it seemed, the U.S. government had sent a clear message that it was serious in enforcing the FCPA.
"This is one case where what happened in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas," Breuer quipped in the news conference. He added, "The fight to erase foreign bribery from the corporate playbook will not be won overnight, but these actions are a turning point. From now on, would-be FCPA violators should stop and ponder whether the person they are trying to bribe might really be a federal agent."
A lot has changed since then. Two federal trials in Washington have blown up like cheap fireworks in the faces of Justice Department prosecutors. Bistrong and his FBI handlers are responsible for lighting the fuse.
Defense attorneys in discovery collected a pile of embarrassing text messages between admitted-felon Bistrong and FBI agents charged with keeping him in line. Content of the messages, as the Washington Post reported, ranged from talk of sex, prostitutes and booty calls to references to the Village People and an agent's girlfriend.
Additionally, the informant managed to work with supposedly willing participants in an illegal arrangement, but in all the time he toiled on behalf of the government he failed to mention the words "bribe" or "kickback." Perhaps the agents in charge were too busy yucking it up via text message to pay attention to such details.
According to the texts published by the Post, the informant and FBI undercover agent Michael Dubravetz were excited about their trip to Las Vegas and fondly called each other "Sato."
Dubravetz: "My goodness is young sato going to have a good time in vegas the two days before Old Sato finally makes it!!!!"
Bistrong: "One day I get there Saturday."
Dubravetz: "Whatever. By then, I'll be broke and married! You'll be too late!!!"
"Lil white chapel, Sato. Probably to a woman of ill repute!"
I'm not sure which section of the FBI manual covers appropriate text messaging, but perhaps it's time the agent reviewed it.
Facts of the investigation aside, the text messages blew open the door to establish a reasonable doubt about the credibility of the informant and the professional level of work. The U.S. government's largest investigation of alleged FCPA violations has been reduced to smoke and ash.
Whether the fallout from the Operation Landslide debacle harms other investigations remains unclear, but it can't help the government's credibility as it moves forward to enforce the FCPA.
"It's very disappointing to see Department of Justice officials characterize a case at its inception so as to erode the presumption of innocence, particularly when the investigators on the ground have engaged in what best can be described as unprofessional behavior with a criminal informant," defense attorney and former federal prosecutor Steven McCool said Tuesday.
No one realistically expects informants of Bistrong's caliber to be Boy Scouts. Their sleaziness helps them work both sides of the street. But the public does imagine federal agents will bring a more professional approach to their duties. Obviously, important and expensive investigations depend on it.
As federal officials are unlikely to rush out and call a news conference this time, I'll reduce the message to a shorthand certain players involved should understand:
"OMG, FBI. WTF?"
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.