By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's chief will step down within weeks, the Obama administration said on Tuesday, as a congressional panel planned to examine whether DEA agents divulged secrets at sex parties that Colombian drug lords may have staged.
Michele Leonhart will leave as DEA administrator in mid-May, said a statement from the Justice Department, which contains the DEA and other major law enforcement agencies.
"I want to express my appreciation to Michele, not only for her leadership of the DEA since 2007, but also for her 35 years of extraordinary service to the DEA," Attorney General Eric Holder said in the statement.
Leonhart was grilled in a congressional hearing last week about the parties attended by prostitutes, which took place in Colombia between 2001 and 2005. U.S. officials said the DEA did not investigate the parties until years later.
The Justice Department statement did not give a reason for Leonhart's decision to retire. A DEA spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
A spokeswoman for the Republican majority of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said the panel's leaks inquiry would also examine the culture and leadership of the DEA and other investigative agencies.
Leonhart's testimony at the hearing, supplemented by two U.S. government reports, raised concern among lawmakers that agents might have leaked secrets about their investigations that found their way to Colombian drug lords.
"It is incredibly concerning that, according to the DEA itself, there is a clear possibility that information was compromised as a result of these sex parties," Representative Elijah Cummings, the committee's top Democrat, told Reuters.
Leonhart told the panel there was "no evidence" that sensitive information had been leaked but also acknowledged it was "absolutely" possible that information had been compromised.
After the Justice Department announced her departure, Cummings and Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz called Leonhart's retirement appropriate in light of "the testimony we heard before our committee" and an earlier report from the Justice Department's inspector general.
The inspector general's office could not immediately be reached for comment.
CONFIDENTIAL DEA REPORT
Oversight Committee officials disclosed to Reuters excerpts from a once-confidential internal DEA report which quoted an agency informant alleging that U.S. agents who took part in the parties had compromised sensitive information.
One informant, identified by the committee as "Cooperator 2," was quoted in an excerpt from the DEA report alleging that he believed a second informant ("Cooperator 1") had "gained information from the U.S. agents by 'getting their guard down' through the use of prostitutes and paying for parties."
The report says Cooperator 1 "bragged about the parties with prostitutes and how he 'sold' the relationship/closeness with the agents" to Cooperator 2.
According to the report, Cooperator 1 also "stated he could easily get the agents to talk."
JUSTICE DEPARTMENT PROBE
Allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct at the DEA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also examined in a March report by the Justice Department's inspector general.
In a case study, the inspector general said DEA's internal affairs office in 2009 and 2010 received allegations from "former host-country police officers" that several DEA agents, including senior supervisors, had "solicited prostitutes and engaged in other serious misconduct" while stationed in the unnamed country. U.S. officials said the country was Colombia.
The report said that "sex parties" financed by "local drug cartels" took place over "several years" inside offices leased by the DEA. A DEA supervisor told the inspector general's office that it was "common for prostitutes to be present at business meetings involving cartel members and foreign officers."
The inspector general's report said "prostitutes in the agents' quarters could easily have had access to sensitive DEA equipment and information." It did not explicitly allege that such materials had been compromised.
The House Judiciary Committee said it too will continue investigating alleged misconduct at the DEA.
(Additional reporting by Julia Edwards and Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Howard Goller and Jonathan Oatis)