Alleged theft by FBI agent places prosecutions in jeopardy

The seal of the F.B.I. hangs in the Flag Room at the bureau's headquarters in Washington.

Story highlights

  • When former FBI agent Scott M. Bowman was charged in June, media accounts focused on his alleged theft of more than $100,000
  • But cases on which he worked could be in jeopardy

Los Angeles (CNN)For two years, investigators decoded text messages, conducted surveillance and leaned on informants to unravel a drug trafficking network that allegedly distributed heroin and methamphetamine in a city park and California prisons.

The painstaking work resulted in a sweeping federal indictment of 52 alleged members and associates of a Southern California street gang with ties to the Mexican Mafia. The bust generated press releases and headlines.
Today, however, it's the government's case against the gang that's under threat of unraveling. That's due to the arrest this summer of an FBI agent who was part of the investigation.
    When Scott M. Bowman was charged in June, media accounts focused on his alleged theft of more than $100,000 in drug money and an ensuing spending spree on sports cars, cosmetic surgery for his wife, and a Las Vegas getaway with his girlfriend.
    The former agent, a 10-year-veteran of the FBI, has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Antoine F. "Tony" Raphael, declined comment on the allegations.
    Raphael, a former federal prosecutor who once worked alongside Bowman, accused the Justice Department of "going out of its way to include inflammatory allegations in the indictment" in an effort to try the case in the media.
    Four months after Bowman's arrest, the agent's former colleagues are continuing to assess the impact of his alleged crimes. The prosecution of an FBI agent for on-duty criminal conduct is rare, and the fallout could be significant, with time-consuming, costly, multi-defendant cases at stake.
    David Bowdich, who oversees the FBI's Los Angeles field office, acknowledged that the allegations against the fired agent are serious.
    "We see this as a big deal and we are dealing with it as such," he said. "The public expects more from us."
    Bowdich declined to discuss any details of the pending criminal investigation.
    While the indictment against Bowman is limited to alleged crimes that occurred in 2014, a letter sent by prosecutors to defense attorneys representing clients whose cases may be tainted by the agent details potential misconduct dating back to 2009.
    One case against members of a Bloods street gang operating east of Los Angeles and involving the seizure of several pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine, along with 11 weapons, has already been dismissed. Money seized during the investigation may have been pocketed by Bowman, prosecutors disclosed in a letter to defense attorneys following the dismissal.
    In another case potentially tainted by the agent's involvement, Bowman is criminally charged with stealing more than $15,000 in drug money that was seized during the investigation.
    Also pending is the 52-defendant gang case in which
    the defendants allegedly smuggled heroin into various California prisons, dealt the drug in San Bernardino's La Plaza Park, and funneled some of the proceeds to members of the Mexican Mafia.
    Prosecutors have turned over thousand of pages of discovery related both to Bowman's role in the investigation and his alleged criminal acts. Those documents are subject to a protective order barring participants in the case from sharing them.
    Several sources familiar with the case said Bowman played a key role, including conducting surveillance and taking part in the seizure of a large quantity of methamphetamine linked to the primary defendant, Michael Bustamante.
    "He was instrumental," said one source who, like the others, sought anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the ongoing investigation.
    Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, addressed the two pending cases in an email, writing: "At this time, the government has not moved to dismiss any portion of either case." He said prosecutors have sought to comply with rules requiring them to disclose relevant information to the defense "since first learning that former agent Bowman was under investigation."
    DOJ attorneys prosecuting Bowman declined comment.
    Bowman was assigned to a task force of local, state and federal agents called the Gang Impact Team. Agencies with officers on the team include the San Bernardino Police Department, San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol.
    According to the indictment, Bowman stole more than $15,000 in cash seized by investigators on two separate occasions in June 2014 while investigating the methamphetamine distribution case. In August of that year he went into an FBI evidence safe containing hundreds of thousands of dollars in seized drug money and "withdrew a substantial amount."
    He then wrote false reports "to conceal his actions," the indictment states.
    It also accuses Bowman of writing an email to a fellow task force officer, identified in the indictment as "Detective A," in which he provides the officer with a cover story to tell in case anyone asked about missing money. Bowman had earlier given the same detective $2,000, the indictment alleges. The indictment does not explain the source of the money or why it was given. The detective has not been charged with a crime.
    In the letter sent to defense attorneys earlier this year, prosecutors disclosed that Bowman might have made false statements to a telecommunications company in an "exigent circumstances request" in 2009. Such request are made by law enforcement when agents require immediate access to records for reasons including someone's life being in danger or the monitoring of conspiratorial activity such as organized crime. The letter said Bowman might have submitted the request "for personal reasons and not related to a case."
    That allegation is not contained in the indictment against Bowman, which is limited to conduct occurring in 2014. If true, it could significantly turn back the clock on the period in which defense attorneys seek to question the integrity of his work on cases.
    The letter also noted that Bowman might have improperly left seized drugs and guns lying around the task force office as opposed to securing them in an evidence locker.
    Bowman's attorney declined to discuss information contained in the letter.
    Lt. Rich Lawhead of the San Bernardino police department, supervised two officers who worked on the task force alongside Bowman.
    Lawhead recalled the day he and fellow officers were told of Bowman's arrest. Before that moment, he said, he thought of the agent as "well respected" and "on the up and up."
    "We were in shock," Lawhead said. "Nobody knew anything."
    Lawhead said he's been told that his department has been given "a clean bill of health" and that federal investigators have determined "we had no idea anything was going on."
    He said that applies to "Detective A" in the indictment, who works for the San Bernardino Police Department.
    Dave Thomas, an attorney who represents defendants in multiple cases in which Bowman was an investigator, did not have such a fond recollection of the agent.
    "He's very cocky -- loose with the facts to say the least," Thomas said.
    The lawyer said he found it hard to believe that his misconduct went unnoticed by everyone around him.
    "There's no way he did it all himself," Thomas said.
    Bowdich, the FBI's top agent in L.A., said the Bureau took immediate action once learning of Bowman's alleged misconduct and that he was unaware of any evidence pointing to systemic problems.
    "Unfortunately, it did happen. We cannot rewrite history, Bowdich said. "What we're working on now is: How can we do better to make sure this never happens again."