Citing an “egregious breach of the public trust,” a federal judge Friday sentenced a former supervisory agent in the Seattle office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to one year in prison for lying about money he lifted from an informant fund.
James Contreras, 52, pleaded guilty in February to a single felony count of making a false statement under a plea deal in which 29 other false-statement charges and an embezzlement count that carried a 10-year penalty were dropped.
U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman imposed the maximum term under a federal sentencing range of six to 12 months, saying she was “taken aback” by the prosecution’s recommendation of three months of imprisonment and three months of home detention with electronic monitoring. Contreras’ attorney asked for probation.
Pechman said besides putting cases and other agents at risk when he forged their names to obtain $19,700 from an informant fund, she remained “highly suspicious what happened to the money” despite Contreras’ insistence he personally gave it to informants and didn’t pocket it.
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Contreras, of Ravensdale, resigned from the ATF in 2012 after the agency opened an investigation into his ties to a confidential informant who was arrested and sent to prison for sexually abusing a woman in Seattle.
The investigation was triggered by a May 2012 story in The Seattle Times, which detailed the ATF’s relationship with the informant, Joshua Allan Jackson, who was hired despite a lengthy history of violence against women.
According to a grand-jury indictment, Contreras took the money from the informant fund between March 2010 and April 2012, often falsifying the signatures of other agents. Money that was supposed to be paid to 12 informants wasn’t given to them, according to the charges.
The charge Contreras pleaded guilty to involved the forging of the name of another agent on a voucher for $700 to give to a confidential informant.
Standing before Pechman, a contrite Contreras said he did not keep any of the money for his personal use. He said when there wasn’t enough money for informants, he cut corners to expedite payments to them for lodging, food and medical care.
“I threw away basically a 27-year, 28-year career by trying to fudge the paperwork,” he said, referring to his 13-year career with the ATF and his time before that with the El Paso Police Department in Texas.
“Obviously, this is totally alien for me being on this side of the bench,” Contreras said before telling Pechman he would accept any sanctions imposed on him.
Married to a math teacher and the father of three children, Contreras was a “law-abiding model citizen his entire life” before becoming entangled in the case, his attorney, Scott Terry, wrote in a pre-sentencing memorandum. His wife sat in the courtroom during the sentencing.
In urging probation, Terry told Pechman that his client’s loss of his career and recognition of his wrongdoing should be considered.
“He owned up to it, your honor,” Terry said.
Contreras now works a $45,000-a-year job as a pest-control operator to support his family, according to Terry’s memorandum.
Officials declined to disclose Contreras’ salary at the time he resigned, but as a supervisor he would have made between $128,961 and $167,647.
Federal prosecutors said in a sentencing memorandum that they cannot account for the $19,700 and that an investigation by the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General showed Contreras and his wife were more than $100,000 in debt at the time and that there were “numerous” cash deposits into their accounts.
“Thus, there is strong circumstantial evidence that the $19,700 went into Contreras’ pocket,” said the prosecutors from the Northern District of California, which is handling the prosecution to avoid a conflict of interest for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle.
“Contreras abused the public trust, his oath to abide by the law, the trust conferred upon him by his superiors, and the trust of the agents under his supervision,” they wrote. His actions also “imperiled the integrity of cases prosecuted from his unit,” according to their memorandum.
Pechman, in addition to imposing the prison term, ordered Contreras to pay a $10,000 fine and sentenced him to three years of supervised release. She said he could self-surrender to prison.
In a statement issued after the sentencing, Douglas Dawson, special agent in charge of the ATF field office in Seattle, said Contreras’ “actions should not reflect poorly on the men and women of the ATF who perform their jobs with honesty and integrity every day. Their tireless efforts to protect our communities, regularly in the face of great danger, is what we all should recognize and appreciate.”
Jackson, the informant whose case was documented in The Times story, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in April 2012 after admitting he sexually abused an 18-year-old woman who was held against her will for days inside a Seattle motel that was being paid for by the ATF.
As part of his guilty plea in King County Superior Court, Jackson also admitted to criminal impersonation for telling several people — including the woman — he was a federal agent or a police officer.
The indictment against Contreras identified one informant by the initials “JJ,” but it wasn’t clear whether that was Jackson or whether he cooperated with the investigation.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @stevemiletich