Friday, July 20, 2007

A Senate committee probing the prosecution of two U.S. Border Patrol agents who shot a fleeing drug-smuggling suspect may have damaged the government’s ability to bring new charges in an ongoing investigation, the Justice Department says.

In a letter this week to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chaired a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on the conviction of Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, the department said sensitive documents in an “active, ongoing investigation” may have been improperly released.

“It has come to our attention that certain committee members or their staffs may have come into possession of law-enforcement-sensitive documents regarding an active, ongoing investigation and may have provided those documents to others,” said Brian A. Benczkoski, principal deputy assistant attorney.

“We urgently request that those in possession of such sensitive law-enforcement materials not disclose them further or make them public,” he said, adding that the documents could “impact potential cooperating sources or even put witnesses in peril.”

The letter did not elaborate, although during the hearing, U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, whose office brought the charges, was asked about efforts to prosecute the wounded drug-smuggling suspect. He confirmed that Osbaldo Aldrete-Davila reportedly was involved in bringing a second load of marijuana into the United States, but declined to comment on it.

Scott Gerber, spokesman for Mrs. Feinstein, said the senator had received the Justice Department’s letter, noting that she has not and would not make any sensitive documents public and that they have not been included as a part of the record.

The Justice Department’s concerns appear to center on sealed U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) documents showing that Mr. Aldrete-Davila was suspected of stashing marijuana at a house in Texas eight months after he was shot by Ramos and Compean near Fabens, Texas.

Mr. Aldrete-Davila was identified by witnesses as the person who dropped off a marijuana-laden van in Clint, Texas, in October 2005 containing 752 pounds of marijuana. The incident is outlined in Border Patrol and DEA reports, copies of which have been obtained by The Washington Times.

A Nov. 16, 2005, DEA report said the home’s owner, Cipriano Ortiz-Hernandez, picked Mr. Aldrete-Davila from a photo display. It also said Ortiz-Hernandez’ brother, Jose, told agents Mr. Aldrete-Davila brought the marijuana from Juarez, Mexico, identifying him as “the person who was shot by Border Patrol agents about six months ago.”

On Wednesday, Mrs. Feinstein and Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican who attended the hearing, asked President Bush to commute the agents’ sentences.

Ramos, 37, and Compean, 28, were sentenced in October to 11- and 12-year prison terms, respectively, on charges of causing serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon, discharge of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence and a civil rights violation.

In a separate letter, Mr. Benczkoski told Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, there was no reason for Mr. Sutton to testify at a pending hearing on contacts he had with the Mexican government concerning the Ramos-Compean case.

Mr. Benczkoski said Mr. Sutton had no contacts with the Mexican government concerning the case, and warned without elaboration that if the committee intended to proceed with its hearing it also should be careful about releasing sensitive law-enforcement information that could compromise pending investigations.

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