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FBI's standards on intervening during wiretap investigations involve threat to life

Justice SystemDrug TraffickingFBI

When FBI agents heard on a wiretap that a Baltimore police detective was preparing to make a drug arrest based on false information, according to court documents, they decided not to intervene.

The arrest of Brenda Brown went forward, and so did the federal case against Kendell Richburg. Richburg pleaded guilty last month to armed drug conspiracy charges after prosecutors said he protected a drug-peddling informant in exchange for information he needed to make arrests.

Four more officers have been suspended in connection with the investigation, sources told The Baltimore Sun last week.

The FBI decides on a case-by-case basis whether to intervene during wiretap investigations, according to agency guidelines and federal prosecutors. Such decisions weigh the risk of the threats overheard against the risk of interrupting a covert investigation or jeopardizing a major criminal case.

In Brown's case, investigators allowed her arrest, prosecution and subsequent guilty plea on a marijuana possession charge to go through — though they knew the case was based on Richburg's falsified police report.

U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said in an email that wiretaps of criminals usually result in recorded conversations about criminal plots. In fact, he said, in order to get a federal judge to sign off on a wiretap, investigators must convince the judge that those sort of discussions involving future crimes will be unveiled through electronic surveillance.

"Then we need to give the judge regular reports about ongoing criminal activity captured by the wiretap in order to get approval to keep it going," Rosenstein said.

In Brown's case, he said, FBI agents did not and do not believe Brown was innocent. She admitted to buying and possessing the marijuana and it was only after Richburg wrote up the police report about her arrest that FBI agents had definitive proof that Richburg lied about witnessing her buy drugs.

In another case, when FBI agents learned that Richburg planned to plant a gun on an innocent cab driver, Rosenstein said, a team of FBI agents were on standby to intervene because lives could be at risk.

According to the FBI's Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, "The FBI has a responsibility to notify persons of threats to their life or threats that may result in serious bodily injury and to notify other law enforcement agencies of such threats."

Rosenstein pointed out that Brown and "several other people" Richburg arrested on false pretenses would stay convicted if it were not for the wiretaps.

"I am confident that the FBI handled this case correctly," Rosenstein said.

Brown's case and others Richburg handled are now being reviewed by state prosecutors. Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said his office is continuing to sort through Richburg's casework and has not determined how many cases the detective might have falsified or tainted.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justingeorge

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