Louisiana prosecutor hints at much wider probe in case against DEA task force arrested on drug charges

Karl Newman

A veteran narcotics officer assigned to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force in New Orleans has been indicted on federal charges, according to two law enforcement officials familiar with a secretive Justice Department inquiry.  

The investigator, former Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office Deputy Karl E. Newman, has been implicated in a lengthy probe into officers suspected of stealing drugs and cash seized during narcotics investigations.

Newman, who was booked earlier this year on state counts, is the second member of the DEA task force to be charged criminally but the first to face federal prosecution.    

It's unclear exactly which charges Newman faces in U.S. District Court, for his indictment and all related court filings remain sealed weeks after he was taken into custody. He had been booked at the state level on counts that included conspiracy to distribute cocaine and abuse of office.

Newman’s defense attorney refused to comment on the case. But public records show the former lawman has remained in the St. Tammany Parish Jail since May 13 on what a jail spokesman described as a federal detainer.

The law enforcement officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the ongoing case, said the federal charges against Newman stemmed from an expansive investigation the Justice Department has launched into the DEA task force.

In addition to Newman and Johnny Domingue, a former Tangipahoa sheriff's deputy who has pleaded guilty to state drug counts, the misconduct inquiry has focused on Chad Scott, a longtime DEA agent who was suspended and stripped of his security clearance earlier this year. Domingue and Newman both worked closely with Scott, himself a former Tangipahoa deputy.

The secrecy surrounding Newman's proceedings is unusual for cases prosecuted in the Eastern District of Louisiana. Federal prosecutors routinely ask judges to seal search warrants, indictments and criminal complaints before an arrest has been made. But it's far less common for entire cases to remain under wraps after a defendant has been taken into custody.

"It's the exception and not the rule," said Matt Chester, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New Orleans who now works as a private attorney. "On the other hand, just because you have one person indicted and maybe even in custody, it doesn't mean the investigation is over. To the extent that person is cooperating -- or that court documents might reveal that person's cooperation -- there are legal grounds to keep the case sealed."

Former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg said it's "very unusual" for a case to remain under seal indefinitely, suggesting the government is trying to protect highly sensitive information. "It’s a rare, rare occurrence in criminal proceedings," he said, "because you have the public's right to know and the (defendant's) constitutional right to a public, fair trial that are sort of competing against the sealing aspect."

The federal indictment -- and the fact that Newman remains in custody, either denied bail or unable to post it -- could indicate that the Justice Department has ratcheted up the pressure on the former deputy to cooperate.

One of the law enforcement officials familiar with the inquiry said it does not appear the deputy has implicated Scott or any other members of the DEA task force. 

Domingue, by contrast, promised to cooperate with every aspect of the probe as part of his guilty plea, in which he acknowledged his role in a scheme to swipe narcotics and cash from “shaken-down” suspects and DEA evidence lockers. He has submitted to several hours of interrogation by state and federal investigators and is awaiting sentencing.  

The probe has reverberated through New Orleans’ federal law enforcement community and raised the specter of dozens of criminal defendants requesting new trials and more lenient sentences.

Internal investigators at the DEA are poring through countless cases handled by Scott. The FBI, meanwhile, appears to be interviewing federal prisoners whose cases involved the tainted task force.

Among other things, investigators are examining Scott's handling of confidential informants who worked for the DEA. One defense attorney recently filed court papers accusing Scott of stealing nearly $2,000 while raiding the home of a double-murder suspect. 

The inquiry has prompted the appointment of a special prosecutor, Diidri Robinson, and the recusal of U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite's office. Out-of-state Justice Department prosecutors have replaced Polite's assistants in at least a dozen cases Scott investigated.

In most of those pending cases, the Justice Department has asked federal judges in New Orleans to review investigators' findings privately to determine whether the materials must be turned over to defense attorneys as potentially favorable evidence for their clients.

The so-called protective orders come with strict requests for secrecy, including a limitation on who may view the materials and a stipulation that all filings related to the materials must be made under seal.

The investigation has been several months in the making. In February, a few weeks after Domingue was arrested, DEA brass in Washington, D.C., recalled Keith Brown, the special agent in charge of the agency's New Orleans field division.

It was not until May that the Justice Department acknowledged, in court filings, that the FBI, the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General, the DEA’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the Justice Department's Fraud Section were investigating the allegations of misconduct. 


Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.