A federal drug agent who directed a wide-ranging crack cocaine investigation is going on trial on charges of helping to frame 17 people in undercover sales made by a rogue informant.
The case against Lee Lucas, an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for 19 years, could influence the way agents handle informants and how defense attorneys challenge their confidential work.
Lucas, whose work included a stint in Bolivia fighting drug traffickers, faces 18 charges: seven counts of obstruction of justice, one count of making a false statement, seven counts of perjury and three counts of violating civil rights. Jury selection was to begin Wednesday.
If convicted at trial, Lucas, 41, could face more than five years in prison.
Lucas, who has pleaded not guilty, has turned aside interview requests. He was placed on administrative leave.
The legal fallout from the case has cascaded through the courts over the past two years, with the government dropping charges that came from tips provided by Lucas' informant. Before that, one person had been convicted and served about 16 months of a 10-year sentence.
Last year, three convicted drug dealers whose cases were handled by Lucas asked for new trials. The U.S. Department of Justice ordered an internal investigation, and the sensitive case was taken out of the hands of federal prosecutors in northern Ohio who had worked with Lucas and was turned over to a prosecutor in Pittsburgh.
The case could have more ramifications. Any time a law enforcement officer goes on trial on corruption charges, it can affect other officers and their credibility, according to Macon County, N.C., Sheriff's Lt. Brian Leopard, who has worked with DEA agents on investigations.
Leopard, who was unfamiliar with the Lucas case, said corruption in the drug enforcement ranks can prompt more demanding oversight and hinder investigations.
"It helps the criminal out and hurts us," he said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
Lucas' informant, Jerrell Bray, a small-time drug dealer whose record includes a manslaughter conviction, is expected to testify against his former handler.
The street-wise Bray, 37, has admitted lying to polish his informant credentials and keep suspects flowing through the court system. He's serving 15 years for perjury and civil rights violations against those targeted in his role as an informant.
Bray was enlisted in 2005 as an informant for a drug sting in Mansfield, a blue-collar city of about 50,000 residents in north-central Ohio. The indictment against Lucas says he manufactured incriminating evidence against suspects fingered by Bray, covered up evidence that might have cleared them and lied about surveillance.
Lucas claims the investigation was handled by local authorities and the DEA played a secondary, backup role. He contended in a court filing that any mistakes in his trial testimony or DEA reports were innocent and not intended to frame anyone.
Those caught in Bray's dragnet included a man who had never met him and a mother convicted of being a drug courier. Many of them had earlier brushes with the law, including drug charges.