Liar, Liar

A top DEA informant makes cases--and $200,000 a year--while breaking a few laws himself.

"There's no such thing as choirboy informants, probably, but this guy is in a league of his own," says attorney Frank Moya, who represented Coleman in the federal case. "He's a piece of work. It's unique in my experience to find someone who has this kind of track record and continues to be utilized."

Chambers, whose current whereabouts are unknown, did not respond to a request for an interview made through the local DEA office. Joseph Urbaniak, the federal prosecutor in charge of the drug task force of the U.S. Attorney's office, did not return calls seeking comment about the matter. Nor did Arapahoe County prosecutor John Franks. But defense attorneys who've encountered Chambers's handiwork in Colorado and elsewhere have raised a number of troubling questions about the potential for corruption and entrapment in drug deals in which the government's star witness has a brazen financial interest--not to mention the potential for tax fraud when informants are paid in untraceable cash.

DEA spokesman Hinds says it's the agency's policy to advise its informants of the need to report payoffs on their taxes, but Grant says he isn't satisfied that the DEA has sufficient reporting requirements. "I'm not sure anybody has accurate information on what [Chambers] has been paid or what tax returns he's filed," he says. "I don't have any proof, but I'll bet he's never paid any state taxes on the money he's received."

Last month a DEA supervisor in San Francisco was indicted on charges of embezzling more than $120,000 in government funds earmarked for drug buys and informant payments. The man's lawyer told reporters that the DEA "has no real system to keep track of money used for informants." If that's true, Grant asks, "what are the incentives for the handlers of Andrew Chambers to take some back when they pay him?"

Others have challenged Chambers's motives and methods in making his cases. While his reverse stings are often represented as targeting mid- or upper-level crack dealers with gang affiliations, most of those arrested in the Aurora sting have no gang history. Some have lengthy drug records, but others don't. What they do have in common is that they are mostly young black males, prompting defense attorneys to wonder if the DEA has any well-compensated informants going after white coke dealers as well.

Defendants have also claimed that Chambers has a habit of showing up with more dope than was contracted for, and that in some cases he has offered to "front" a substantial amount of crack to customers who were interested only in buying powder cocaine. Under federal sentencing guidelines, the penalties for crack are far more severe than those for powder.

Herbert Alexander, an attorney in Slidell, Louisiana, says that Chambers was working the Gulf Coast in 1994, driving a Mercedes-Benz and offering $500 to "destitute" locals if they could introduce him to a buyer. Alexander's client, who drove some friends to a coke buy and wasn't even present when the deal went down, got fifteen years.

"The clear understanding was that it was going to be half a kilo for $10,000," Alexander recalls. "When they got there, it was a kilo in the package. Chambers just gave them the whole thing and said, 'We agreed to front you that.' But there was never any conversation about anyone agreeing to front anything."

Chester Nicholson, who represented two other defendants in the same case, says Chambers "swore under oath he'd never even been arrested." Since the government had somehow neglected to inform the defense of their star's previous arrests, Nicholson couldn't impeach the witness; yet the question of whether the buyers had agreed to a kilo-sized deal hinged on Chambers's credibility. Nicholson's clients, who had no prior felony records, wound up with fifteen years each, too.

"These were nickel-and-dime guys," Nicholson says. "The street vernacular would cast them as 'clockers.' But they had them cold on videotape, with a kilo of cocaine."

Nicholson describes Chambers as a chameleon who can talk street slang with his targets "and then takes the witness stand and speaks standard English flawlessly to this all-white jury. He's very convincing, a talented guy. Amoral, too."

Denver attorney Moya speculates that Chambers might have his own reasons for showing up with more coke than his buyers expected. "If these guys catch a lot of time, he doesn't have to worry about them getting released real soon," he says. "And it makes him look good to his bosses. If they're putting guys away for twenty-year hits, that makes them very happy."

Yet establishing that Chambers has credibility problems "doesn't mean a slam-dunk for the defense," Moya adds. The deals are videotaped, and many defendants, particularly those with prior drug convictions, don't want to risk a maximum sentence. So they take a plea bargain, and Chambers walks away unscathed.

The government's case isn't always airtight, however. For instance, many of the crucial phone conversations leading up to the Aurora deals, which were recorded by Chambers, are barely intelligible and shrouded in code words and jargon; it's hard to say what business, if any, the suspects are talking about. The transcript of one such conversation features Chambers promising the target that he's "going to get your gloves out" and then asking the man if he's "going to fight nine rounds." If he is, then Chambers will bet five, and the next time his man fights, he'll bet ten. (Ten ounces? Ten thousand dollars? Ten bucks for a moment of bliss with an undercover cop on East Colfax?)

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