In the fall of 1995, Kenneth Allen Coleman made the mistake of his life. Flush with cash from an insurance settlement, the 28-year-old parolee got mixed up with a flashy dope peddler named Andrew Chambers, who was eager to sell him a kilo of cocaine for $16,500. When Coleman showed up at an Aurora motel with the money, he was promptly arrested, even though he'd never even touched the dope he was supposedly buying.
Last week Coleman, who has two prior felony drug convictions, pleaded guilty in Arapahoe County District Court to one count of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. The plea will net him a prison sentence of twelve to fourteen years. If he'd risked a trial and been convicted on all the charges in the case, he would have faced from 24 to 48 years.
As for Chambers--a forty-year-old con artist with an arrest record in three states, a hefty income derived largely from drug money and a history of lying on the witness stand--he collected his share of the cash seized at the bust and headed off to parts unknown. Nothing bad, it seems, ever happens to Andrew Chambers. He works for the government.
A top informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chambers travels the country setting up people like Coleman. He's been involved in more than 150 federal drug cases in the past thirteen years, resulting in more than 300 arrests and the seizure of 500 kilograms of cocaine. His specialty, though, is the reverse undercover sting, in which he offers to sell drugs (usually "sham" crack or powder cocaine manufactured in a police lab) and police swoop in to arrest the suspects and seize their cash.
Chambers works on a percentage basis, collecting up to 25 percent of the take, and it's a highly lucrative arrangement. Since 1984 the DEA has paid him between $1 million and $1.5 million for his efforts. He has testified to making as much as $200,000 a year from his traveling narc show; one 1992 case netted him a reward check of $150,000.
Brought to Colorado in 1995 as the point man in a joint DEA-Aurora Police Department undercover investigation, Chambers was provided with a rental car, $500 a week in expenses, and enough fake cocaine to produce ten arrests, four federal drug cases and the seizure of more than $100,000 in cash. His share of the take was reportedly between $10,000 and $15,000--not bad for a few days' work.
But Chambers's visit wasn't entirely a happy one. Shortly after the operation in Aurora was completed, he wandered into a prostitution sting conducted by the Denver Police Department on East Colfax. According to the arrest report, he told an undercover police officer he wanted "some ass for $20," attempted to flee when confronted by the cops, then claimed to be a DEA agent. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of soliciting a prostitute and was fined $450; a charge of impersonating a police officer was dropped.
Truth has never been Chambers's strong suit. In previous cases he's testified that he's never been arrested or convicted, despite a 1985 arrest in Paducah, Kentucky, on a forgery charge (later dropped) and a 1978 conviction involving a fugitive warrant in St. Louis. In a Minnesota case, defense attorneys presented evidence that he not only had lied on the stand about previous arrests but had failed to file federal income-tax returns for six years while he was pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the DEA. Despite such revelations, a federal appeals court ruled that the informant's perjury (for which he's never been charged) wasn't sufficient proof of government misconduct to overturn the drug conviction of the defendant in the case.
"He's a horrible blight on the whole system," says Paul Grant, Kenneth Coleman's attorney. "The DEA doesn't test him for drugs. They don't care if he pays his taxes; they usually pay him small amounts of cash, under the threshold of [bank] reporting requirements. They don't care if he's a liar, either, unless it causes them a problem."
In affidavits filed as a result of the Aurora sting operation, law enforcement officers acknowledge that they're aware of Chambers's past misdeeds but say they have no reason to believe he behaved improperly in conducting the local drug deals. DEA spokesman Carl Hinds says that agency policy prevents him from discussing the particulars of Chambers's cases, but he defends the entire Aurora investigation, which resulted in the arrests of several felons with prior drug records, as a credible one.
"Is it DEA policy to bring liars in front of the court?" No, Hinds says. "We have to use our discretion about what we bring to a prosecutor. In this case, the rest of the criminal justice system agreed that the charges brought against these folks had merit."
Yet the cases arising from the sting have taken a curious path to court. Last year prosecutors abruptly dismissed the federal charges in all four cases Chambers had initiated, citing unspecified "new information" that had come to light. (Three of the cases, including Coleman's, were subsequently refiled in Arapahoe County.) Grant and other defense attorneys suggest the feds washed their hands of the affair after U.S. District Judge Edward Nottingham indicated he would grant the defendants wide latitude in exploring Chambers's conduct in previous cases, as well as his tax problems.
"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?)
Grant says Chambers was directed to solicit business in certain bars in Aurora and set up any takers. "How does this guy get started?" asks Grant. "Does he come up saying, 'Hey, I want to sell some jewelry,' or is it, 'I want to sell some drugs'? There's no record of that conversation, and most of the time, the defendant doesn't want to testify. So we're left with Chambers's version. Where are his witness statements? Why don't they have him write a report of what he did? They don't want us to have it, and they don't care what he did, as long as he gets people to show up with the money."
Grant says he was "dying" to put Chambers on the witness stand in the Coleman case, but he understands his client's decision to plead guilty. He describes Coleman as "a small-time guy with an insurance settlement" and no gang affiliation whatsoever.
"I think it's fraud for them to say they're going after black gangs," Grant adds. "They don't know who's coming to dinner until they show up. They don't know if they're drug dealers. They don't even know their names. They didn't know who my client was until he showed up at the motel on the day of the sting. Yet they identified him in their report as a major drug dealer."
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DEA spokesman Hinds says that reverse undercover operations aren't all that common in Colorado, but Moya suggests they have a powerful allure to law enforcement agencies, which get to divvy up any assets seized. "There is an economic boon from an undercover sting, especially a reverse," he notes. "It's a lot easier to keep the money somebody brings to a deal than to have to go find money that might have been made illegally over the years."
Grant says he recently learned that Chambers was "docked" $5,000 in pay from the Aurora stings, supposedly because of his erratic testimony in other cases. But his expertise at reverse stings makes Chambers a valuable commodity to the DEA, Grant figures--meaning he will probably remain on the agency's payroll for years to come.
"The war on drugs is doing its job," says Grant. "It's keeping these guys employed, it earns Andrew Chambers some money, and it keeps the jails full and the DA busy. But is it taking any dope off the street? You tell me.