How racy, vulgar texts hurt Justice Department sting operation

Feb 14, 2012

Racy text messages are hurting the Justice Department's largest sting operation targeting foreign bribery.

The messages show FBI agents and informants joked about sex, booty calls, prostitutes, cigars, the Village People, the informant's girlfriend.

[Get More: Read texts between FBI handlers, informants]

You can read the texts messages and the complete story, then read the transcript from Post reporter Del Quentin Wilber's live chat with readers.

Do you think we'll start seeing text messages used as evidence more in the court systems in general?  How will the FBI learn from this, and what kind of trouble will the texter get into?

I think we will start seeing defense lawyers -- like the ones in this case -- pushing to get all communications between informants and agents. Two lawyers in this case -- Steven McCool and Mike Madigan -- did a good job of using these messages to attack both the informant and the FBI agents. However,  I also think the bureau will ensure that these types of texts are not generated (either by using other technology or by making sure agents are aware that these things, like emails, are being preserved). I do not believe anyone will get in trouble for this because the agents testified they were texting this way out of operational necessity.

The texts are not especially racy or vulgar, at least not what I read. What is the problem? Are there rules for dealing with an informant that were broken? Were the agents played by the informant? Informants are a means to an end. Why is this even an issue?

I guess it depends on your standards. The agents joked about booty calls and objectified women. I did not print some of the more lewd ones. The texts made it look like the agents were pals with this informant, who was an admitted criminal with a very checkered past. That made it easier for defense lawyers to taint the entire investigation and not just limit their attacks to an informant.

I read the Post article and didn't see anything that even raised an eyebrow with respect to racy. And even if others see it differently, how could a jury not understand the argument that the FBI was just bonding with its informants? I completely don't get this.

That is what the prosecutors and agents argued. But jurors did not believe it. I think there are times where agents bond with informants. But we rarely see how that works. And, in this case, the texts showed that the agents seemed to like the informant and also shared his sense of humor. And that made them damaging. For example, the agent is on the stand and he seems like a complete and poised professional. Then the defense attorney starts hammering him about joking about getting married to a prostitute in Las Vegas, as the agent had joked about in a text message. And the agent says that such a text was operaitonally necessary. But then the defense lawyer starts asking whether the FBI takes sex-trafficking and prostitution seriously? Is that a topic worth joking about? The agent was aware that the informant had a long history of hiring prostitutes himself?

And why do agents have to bond with an informant? This guy has pleaded guilty to a serious crime and is working with the FBI to get what he hopes will be a lighter sentence. There are moments where the FBI agents probably needed to buck him up -- like some texts sent by one agent to the informant telling him to relax before the big sting meeting -- but the litany of these texts revealed agents who seemed to treat this guy as an equal. 

This informant also happens to have helped the FBI find targets to the investigation and the texts allowed the defense lawyers to really ask pointed questions about who was directing the sting.

Will this dirty up the FBI's image in the eyes of the American public?  After all, this probably isn't the only case of this happening...just the first case of someone getting caught in court for it.

I don't know if it's an isolated case or not.  I found it fascinating because I have been covering courts for years and have never seen real-time communications between an FBI agent and his informant. It was like having someone open a windowshade and you can actually see inside a room.

The question is - are the agents actually like that, or are they just playing a part in order to keep their informant happy. I'd guess it's the former. A lot of these texts are Bistrong saying something weird, and then the agents just responding.  - Post commenter marclips

That is true. But they are engaging in banter that bothered jurors and raised questions about their professionalism. In the old days, we never would have seen such communications and defense lawyers would never have known that agents were joking with an informant about a booty call or their own girlfriends.

Any chance we will see some text messages in the Roger Clemens upcoming trial? He had to text with Mcnamee.

Ah. Roger Clemens, a man who will dominate my life starting in mid-April when he goes on trial in the courthouse I cover. I don't think text messages will be an issue in that trial.  The feds have Clemens' DNA, though.

Everybody, thanks for your insightful quetions! This was fun.

In This Chat
Del Quentin Wilber
Del Quentin Wilber covers the federal courts and federal law enforcement. A graduate of Georgetown Prep and Northwestern University, he worked at the Baltimore Sun before joining the Washington Post in 2004. Wilber is also the author of the New York Times best-seller Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan.
Haley Crum
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