For the past year, the U.S. Justice Department has grappled with the fallout from a New Orleans-based narcotics task force accused of peddling painkillers, threatening confidential informants and swiping cash during drug raids.
The scandal has upended a growing number of federal criminal cases and prompted felony charges against two members of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force, including a Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office deputy who quickly pleaded guilty to his role in a wide-ranging drug conspiracy.
The FBI continues to review a host of allegations — some too old to be prosecuted — against Chad Scott, a veteran DEA agent and former leader of the task force who has been stripped of his gun and badge.
But even as the full scope of the inquiry remains unclear, new questions are emerging regarding the oversight of the task force and a series of red flags that officials appear to have overlooked for years before launching a secretive investigation in early 2016.
Interviews with four current and former law enforcement officials and documents reviewed by The Advocate show the DEA had been warned more than a decade ago by its own agents, confidential informants and other sources of information that task force members, including Scott, were playing by their own rules, disregarding DEA policies and at times even profiting from an illicit drug trade.
One former colleague of Scott's said the embattled agent had enjoyed virtually free rein as the leader of the task force, and that because of the large number of drug cases he made, supervisors had been quick to defend him in the face of misconduct allegations.
"The DEA allowed it, if not promoted it," the official said, describing a "cowboy" culture that permeated the task force. Like the other officers interviewed for this article, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigation.
Shortly after former task force members Johnny Domingue and Karl E. Newman were taken into custody last year, the Justice Department quietly agreed to pay $200,000 to settle a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a veteran DEA agent who claimed that Scott, in a bid to boost his own arrest numbers, had allowed confidential informants to sell drugs and commit other crimes in exchange for intelligence, according to three sources familiar with the settlement. The veteran agent alleged he repeatedly faced retaliation after reporting Scott to the agency's higher-ups, the sources said.
Among other allegations, the whistleblower reported to the DEA in late 2003 that Scott had maintained a "stash room" at a hotel in Hammond that he used to store illegal drugs and cash, and that Scott had sold ecstasy in college, the law enforcement officials said.
The agent also expressed concern in 2004 that DEA management regularly allowed Scott to circumvent policy because of the volume of drug cases he generated, and that the DEA had been turning a blind eye to corrupt law enforcement in Tangipahoa Parish, according to internal documents reviewed by the newspaper.
That same year, one of Scott's longtime informants told the DEA he had been provided 100 pounds of marijuana and two kilograms of cocaine by another former DEA task force member and a Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office deputy, according to DEA records.
In an interview at the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans, the informant told the DEA he had been instructed to sell the drugs and return the proceeds to the deputy and task force member "or he would be arrested," the records show. He "stated that he was only doing as instructed by the 'authorities' because he feared for the safety of his family," a DEA account of the interview states.
About a month later, a woman in Washington Parish told a Louisiana State Police trooper that Scott had been "supplying narcotics" to an unnamed man, and that she "personally witnessed Scott take narcotics" from the man's home following an arrest, according to a separate DEA memorandum obtained by The Advocate.
"There were a series of complaints that went back years," said a law enforcement official familiar with the FBI inquiry. "This is a guy who probably shouldn't have been allowed to run his own task force."
It's unclear whether the DEA ever took any disciplinary action against Scott following the earlier complaints. He was suspended without pay last year and stripped of his security clearance after the Justice Department began its inquiry.
A DEA spokeswoman declined to comment on the years-old allegations or the whistleblower settlement.
"DEA takes very seriously any allegations of wrongdoing or misconduct and holds our employees to the highest possible standards," the spokeswoman, Special Agent Debbie Webber, wrote in an email.
"Due to this being an ongoing investigation and with respect to all parties involved, the DEA cannot and will not comment on personnel matters or inquiries related to this investigation," she added.
The older allegations closely resemble more recent claims leveled against Scott's task force, which focused its drug interdiction operations largely on the north shore parishes.
Many members of the task force, including Scott, Domingue and Newman, began their careers with the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office, and Scott had a close working relationship with Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards.
The Justice Department inquiry began last year shortly after the arrest of Domingue, a task force member who had been recruited by Scott.
In pleading guilty, Domingue signed a "factual basis" in which he admitted using his badge "to acquire quantities of cocaine hydrochloride and other Schedule II controlled dangerous substances, marijuana, methamphetamine, other prescription pills, cash from the sale of these drugs and cash seized from individuals who were arrested or 'shaken down' while acting under the color of law enforcement."
Domingue also admitted to stealing some 300 grams of cocaine from evidence bags stored at the DEA's New Orleans Field Division — drugs he decided to sell through a confidential informant.
Domingue has told investigators the misconduct on the task force "was a practice that was already in place when he came on board, and he inserted himself sort of in that circle," Douglas Bruce, an investigator with the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General, testified during a court hearing last year.
Newman faces similar allegations of swiping cash during drug raids and even using methamphetamine that had been seized by the authorities. He faces nine federal counts, including robbery and possession with intent to distribute cocaine and oxycodone.
It remains unclear whether Scott will face criminal charges. He was suspended by the DEA more than a year ago and remains at the center of the FBI's sprawling investigation, which has rippled out to colleagues, other law enforcement agencies, and even prompted a comment from the governor.
Last year, soon after the arrest of Domingue, DEA brass arrived at the New Orleans Field Division where they removed then-Special Agent in Charge Keith Brown.
In December, dozens of FBI agents descended on the offices of the Hammond Police Department and the Tangipahoa Sheriff's Office in a dramatic morning raid, shutting both offices down while they spent nearly 24 hours going through records and seizing electronic equipment.
Officials refused to comment on the search, saying only that the search warrants were being executed by the FBI, the Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General and the DEA Office of Professional Responsibility.
Edwards, the sheriff, said the next day that his office was cooperating with the probe.
The investigation also has sent waves through the federal courts, where prosecutors were removed from more than a dozen cases and replaced with assistant U.S. attorneys from other states.
Their review of Chad Scott's cases has brought some startling results. In one, the federal government dropped pending murder charges against three men in a 2015 killing in Tangipahoa Parish, including one who had already pleaded guilty. Those defendants were transferred to state custody and are expected to face state murder charges.
In another case, prosecutors allowed a defendant who had pleaded guilty to distributing methamphetamine and to gun charges to withdraw his plea in concert with prosecutors dropping charges. That man, Ryan Binner, was released from jail in February in what a former U.S. attorney called "a rarity of rarities."
A host of other cases remain in a holding pattern while the investigation progresses.