DEA chief grilled over probe into no-bid contracts, hiring

Lawmakers grilled U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Anne Milgram over millions of dollars in no-bid contracts that are the subject of a watchdog probe into whether the agency improperly hired some of her past associates

Joshua Goodman,Jim Mustian
Thursday 27 April 2023 17:38 BST

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Louise Thomas

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Lawmakers grilled U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Anne Milgram on Thursday over millions of dollars in no-bid contracts that are the subject of a watchdog probe into whether the agency improperly hired some of her past associates.

Milgram faced a barrage of criticisms from mostly Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee over an Associated Press investigation that the DEA spent $4.7 million on “strategic planning and communication” and other no-bid contracts to hire people Milgram knew from her days as New Jersey’s attorney general and as a New York University law professor — at costs far exceeding pay for government officials.

“Everyone is afforded the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. But these reports are pretty strong," said Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia.

Added Rep. Mike Garcia of California: “To make the assertion that you’re doing this job well, or getting the job done, is frankly flagrant and offensive. I don’t think you’re doing a good job.”

Milgram said she welcomes the scrutiny from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General on some sole-source contracts signed since she took over the DEA nearly two years ago. But she refused to address the allegations in the AP report, or whether she was a target of the watchdog probe.

“The inspector general is conducting an administrative review into some DEA contracts, which I welcome, and I’m not going to step in front of the inspector general or speak more about it while that review is continuing,” she said.

“Does that mean you’re taking the Fifth?” replied Clyde.

“No sir,” she answered.

Among the contracts being scrutinized by the Inspector General is $1.4 million to a Washington law firm for a recent review of the DEA’s scandal-plagued foreign operations that was widely criticized for giving short shrift to agent misconduct and how to prevent it. That review was co-authored by Boyd Johnson, former right-hand man to one of Milgram’s closest friends, Preet Bharara, when he was U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. Bharara himself landed at the firm, WilmerHale, even as the review was being conducted.

Milgram, questioned by Clyde about “very disturbing” allegations that run counter to the DEA's mission, said she only met Johnson after being nominated by the White House to lead the DEA.

She also acknowledged working in New Jersey with Jose Cordero, who within three weeks of Milgram's confirmation by the Senate was awarded with what has become a nearly $400,000 no-bid contract to conduct data analysis of crime stats.

“Mr. Cordero worked with me previously on violence reduction," she said.

Milgram came to Capitol Hill seeking congressional support for a nearly 4% budget increase to tackle a worsening fentanyl crisis that led to more than 107,000 overdose deaths last year.

She faced criticism over the Biden administration’s refusal to confront China and Mexico over their role in the fentanyl crisis, as well as how she is handling a string of scandals by agents in the field.

Among the highest profile is the arrest of José Irizarry, a disgraced agent now serving a 12-year federal prison sentence after confessing to laundering money for Colombian drug cartels and skimming millions from asset seizures and informants to fund an international joyride of fine dining, parties and prostitutes.

Milgram said she has overseen a series of changes in the DEA's internal disciplinary process — a departure from past administrations.

“What I’m most interested in is, how do we build the correct piping moving forward?" she said. "How do we go from a system that we used to be tracking the use of money that we do for our money laundering investigations ... to where we have a real-time system that our entire inspections division can see every day?” ___

Goodman reported from Miami, Mustian reported from New York

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