The FBI raided the offices of the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office and the Hammond Police Department on Thursday, seizing computers, cellphones and case files in simultaneous searches stemming from a broadening U.S. Justice Department investigation of a federal drug task force.

The daylong raids closed down two government buildings in Hammond as agents conducted interviews and carried out at least two search warrants related to a nearly year-old inquiry into a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force accused of stealing cash from drug dealers, selling confiscated narcotics and tampering with witnesses.

Two former members of the New Orleans-based task force — both of whom worked for the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office — are facing federal charges, and one pleaded guilty earlier this year to state drug conspiracy charges. 

 

Thursday's searches marked an escalation of the misconduct investigation, which has been steeped in secrecy for months as investigators dug into the background of several task force members, including Chad Scott, a longtime DEA agent who has been suspended indefinitely and stripped of his badge.

Non-essential personnel were sent home, law enforcement sources said, and visitors were steered away from the Sheriff's Office and Police Department buildings.

The materials taken included a computer from the office of Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards, said one law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the operation. Edwards is the brother of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

"They're basically treating these buildings like crime scenes," the official said, referring to the Sheriff's Office and Police Department. 

The FBI would not comment on the specifics of the raids, and the search warrants it obtained were filed under seal. But the bureau confirmed that agents were accompanied by members of the DEA's Office of Professional Responsibility and the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General, agencies that have been seeking to account for an alarming lack of oversight within the DEA's New Orleans field division.

The scandal has prompted a shakeup in leadership within the local division, including the appointment of a new special agent in charge.    

"The investigation is ongoing, with many more investigative actions to take place," Jeffrey Sallet, the special agent in charge of the FBI's New Orleans office, told reporters outside the Tangipahoa Sheriff's Office.

Sallet declined to take questions, but he encouraged anyone with concerns about the work of the two targeted agencies to contact the FBI.    

Daniel Edwards remained inside the Sheriff's Office for the first several hours of the search. After lunch, the sheriff climbed in his SUV and drove past a group of reporters without commenting. Calls to his cellphone were not returned.  

The FBI has been reviewing cases Scott investigated over more than a decade, interviewing prisoners and their family members about their dealings with an agent who called himself "the white devil."

The investigation is expected to have a significant impact on both federal and state cases involving the DEA task force, as defendants seek new trials in light of the claims of misconduct. Scott Perrilloux, the Tangipahoa Parish district attorney, said in a recent interview that his office has dismissed a number of cases involving the task force. 

The federal interest in the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office comes as little surprise. The two former task force members under federal indictment, Karl E. Newman and Johnny Domingue, both worked for that agency, as did Scott before he joined the DEA.

In fact, Scott helped to create a pipeline of task force officers who began their careers in Tangipahoa Parish, having recruited Domingue and others to join the narcotics team. Domingue, who has pleaded guilty in state court, has become the government's star witness and is said to be in hiding. 

Another DEA agent and former TPSO deputy, Justin Moran, was recently stripped of his badge and placed on "limited duty," a status that excludes him from participating in investigations. Moran's attorney has said he, too, is cooperating fully. 

It's less clear why the feds raided the Hammond Police Department, though the agency previously assigned representatives to the multi-jurisdictional DEA task force. Police Chief James Stewart acknowledged that agents searched his headquarters Thursday, but he refused to comment further, referring questions to the FBI.

Newman, a veteran DEA task force officer facing nine charges, including robbery and possession with intent to distribute cocaine and Oxycodone, worked for the Hammond Police Department as a young narcotics agent. 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.