Last fall, a four-year long federal undercover investigation aimed at cracking down on illegal prescription drug dealing at a Boeing plant producing American military hardware came to dramatic end.
Federal authorities arrested more than three dozen people on Sept. 29, most of them at the Boeing facility in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia; some for alleged distribution of prescription painkillers like Oxycontin and fentanyl, and some for attempted purchase.
A total of 36 defendants are facing a combined maximum of 1,791 years in prison and $88.25 million in fines.
But it’s the alleged attempted purchasers, 14 in all charged with federal misdemeanor drug possession, facing a maximum one year in prison, that force unsettling questions about the case.Five months later, the pending federal charges have left many if not all of the misdemeanor defendants jobless, and TPM’s interviews and reviews of court records show several in the case have had to sell their homes or file for bankruptcy in order to stay afloat.
Federal prosecutions of the size and scope that took place at the Boeing plant, where the CH-47 Chinook is made, generally focus on individuals who illegally distribute, rather than illegally possess, prescription medication. Nationally, just 1,414 defendants faced a lead charge of misdemeanor drug possession on the federal level in 2009, the latest year in which data is available (in comparison, 28,798 individuals faced drug trafficking charges).
A review of the court filings also shows the undercover investigation unfolded in precisely the opposite way as most undercover drug stings; the feds in this case flipping the dealers on the purchasers, rather than the other way around. In the Boeing sting, DEA and FBI agents investigating the case apparently worked with prosecutors to secretly indict the biggest suppliers of illegal prescription medications very early in the investigation. The charges against additional defendants in the Boeing sting got less serious as the federal probe investigation dragged on.
Originally, five defendants were indicted under seal in December of 2009, charged with distributing large quantities of prescription drugs dating back to 2008. John D’Agostino, 64, for instance, allegedly distributed hundreds of Oxycontin 80mg tablets over a period of just a few months and is facing one of the largest penalties among the defendants.
Contrast the hefty allegations against D’Agostino with the case of Vincent Demsky, who the feds slapped with a misdemeanor drug possession charge for allegedly trying to purchase two Oxycontin tablets on Sept. 22, 2011. Demsky actually had a legal prescription from his doctor for the pain-killer because of what his lawyer described as major back problems. Prosecutors are standing by their decision to indict Demsky on the federal level, with assistant U.S. attorney Faithe Moore Taylor writing in a court filing that he “attempted to possess Oxycontin outside the parameters of any valid prescription he may have had.”
Unlike many of the other defendants in the investigation, Demsky wouldn’t qualify for a provision of federal law which allows first-time offenders to have charges dismissed after a period of probation. Prosecutors noted that the 49-year-old Demsky had a 1980 conviction for possession of narcotics equipment in Wildwood, NJ, a 1981 conviction for possession of narcotics equipment and possession of amphetamines in Cape May, NJ and a 1988 arrest for possession of a controlled substance in Delaware County.
John and Margaret Mozzani, a husband and wife busted in the Boeing sting, have been forced to file for bankruptcy since their arrests. While they have been charged with the more serious charge of distribution, the extent of their alleged behavior seems to indicate they were selling their left-over prescription pills rather than supplying their co-workers with prescription drugs en masse. John was charged with distributing 20 Endocet tablets each month over the course of three months while Margaret was charged with distributing 10 Endocet tablets at a time four times over the course of three months.
Another worker who allegedly tried to buy some painkillers is now out of work, can’t find any other employment with a federal indictment hanging over his head, has cashed in his 401K and is preparing to sell his house, his fiance told TPM.
“He’s pretty much shutting down right now, he’s so stunned and upset,” the fiance, who didn’t want her future husband’s name mentioned for fear of it affecting his case, told TPM. She described him as a “minnow in a huge pond” in a workplace where pain-killers were part of what many acknowledged was a drug culture.
“These people have worked their butts off everyday to feed their kids and put their kids through school,” she said. “It wasn’t a drug scam, it’s not an international incident. Just people trying to help each other out so they can get through the day.”
Supporters of the defendants also expressed their anger that Boeing set off the investigation by reaching out to the feds after an internal investigation pointed to a prescription drug abuse problem at the facility (a Boeing spokesman did not respond to TPM’s request for comment). A lawyer for one of the defendants told TPM that federal prosecutors assured him that Boeing did not fund the federal investigation.
So why use federal resources to prosecute relatively low-level users this time around? The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia declined to provide anyone for an interview for this story, citing a DOJ policy against speaking about ongoing prosecutions. Federal law enforcement sources not involved in the case told TPM that investigations don’t always go where you expect them to and said the federal government just can’t ignore illegal conduct it uncovers in the course of an investigation. Still, they acknowledged what the Justice Department’s data indicates: that misdemeanor drug charges on the federal level aren’t an everyday occurrence.
U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania offered a sort of preemptive defense of the prosecution, when he announced the indictments in the fall. Memeger raised the specter of national security, saying the investigation “focused not only on the sellers, but also on the users because of the critical role that these employees play in the manufacturing of military aircraft.”
Federal prosecutors said when they announced the bust that there were no known aircraft defects they believe slipped through due to drug use and Boeing said they had extensive procedures in place to prevent mistakes.
“We would encourage companies and unions — whose employees are subject to drug testing — to work together in order to address the issue of illegal prescription drug abuse in the workplace,” Memeger said.
Ironically, the prosecution of the Boeing case — especially in their decision to federally prosecute misdemeanor drug possession cases — stands in stark contrast to the direction Attorney General Eric Holder has said he would like law enforcement to take.
“One specific area where I think we can do a much better job by looking beyond incarceration is in the way we deal with non-violent drug offenses,” Holder said in a 2009 speech.
Holder said that one “promising, viable solution” would be the implementation of more drug treatment courts, which can “provide an alternative to incarceration for non-violent offenders by focusing on treatment of their underlying addiction.”
Lawyers for several of the defendants in the case — many of them working at taxpayer expense because the ex-factory workers charged in the case couldn’t afford lawyers on their own — questioned the federal government’s approach to the Boeing sting and called it a misuse of federal resources.
“One of the things that prosecutors are telling me is this has to do with the military,” one lawyer told TPM. “Well what if they were just doing commercial airplanes? What if it affects just humble citizens?”
“We all wish they didn’t do what they did, we’re picking up the pieces now,” added another lawyer.
Additional reporting by Chris Hohmuth.