Head of New Orleans DEA quietly recalled to Washington amid widening scandal

Johnny Domingue

A former narcotics officer pleaded guilty Thursday to federal drug charges, admitting he stole cash and cocaine while serving on a New Orleans-based U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force. 

The officer, Johnny J. Domingue, a former Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office deputy, has emerged as a key witness in a misconduct investigation that has roiled the DEA's New Orleans field division and affected dozens of state and local drug cases.

The U.S. Justice Department has accused several members of the DEA task force of shaking down witnesses, dealing drugs and swiping cash during federal raids. Four former members of the group, which operated largely along the Interstate 12 corridor, face federal charges.  

Domingue, 28, has been in custody for more than two years and is being held in Houston because of concern for his safety. He has implicated at least two of his former colleagues, including Chad Scott, the task force leader who before his indictment last year had been among the DEA's most active drug agents. 

"Johnny wants to move on with his life," defense attorney Sherman Mack said outside of U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon's courtroom. "He is ready to have this behind him." 

Fallon set a June 21 sentencing date, but Domingue likely will not be sentenced until federal prosecutors have wrapped up the case against Scott.

Karl Newman, another former Tangipahoa Parish deputy who served alongside Domingue on the DEA task force, pleaded guilty last summer to conspiracy and firearms charges and also is cooperating with the probe. 

Scott has pleaded not guilty to a raft of federal charges, including perjury and stealing thousands of dollars in drug money. He is scheduled to stand trial in October. 

The first of the lawmen to be arrested, Domingue had been selected by Scott to join the DEA task force, joining the group as a young and inexperienced deputy. He told investigators that misconduct was rampant on the task force when he joined it, according to court records. 

Domingue had not even been properly credentialed when he began investigating drug cases on Scott's team, according to federal law enforcement officials, and he also exploited lax DEA policies — since changed — that allowed evidence to be transferred to local agencies with minimal oversight. 

On Thursday, he pleaded guilty to stealing cocaine that had been seized by the DEA and that was supposed to be transferred to a local agency for state prosecution. Those drugs were instead distributed for profit, prosecutors said. 

He also admitted to stealing about $3,000 — a sum he split with Newman — during an October 2015 drug search.

Domingue previously pleaded guilty to a four-count state indictment in which he admitted using his badge to acquire cocaine, methamphetamine, prescription pills and marijuana. He withdrew his guilty plea in that case earlier this week. 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.