CLEVELAND - We all know cops have partners. If the FBI itself had a partner, much like police officers do, that partner would be the U.S. Attorney's office.
The Cleveland FBI works hand in hand with the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, overseen by Steven Dettelbach.
Dettelbach and Special Agent in Charge of the Cleveland FBI, Stephen Anthony, feel that their two agencies probably have one of the best working relationships out of all the FBI branches and U.S. Attorney offices nationwide.
My colleagues and I had the chance to meet Dettelbach at the FBI Citizens' Academy, where he said most cases are cracked by good old police work.
"The use of informants and stings is a traditional law enforcement technique," he said.
Dettelbach said those tried and true methods lead to the arrest of the five men who are now charged with conspiring to bomb the Brecksville bridge.
My previous article about the FBI Citizens' Academy described the Emergency Command Center in the Cleveland FBI building. It's a room filled with computers, phones, TV screens, and – during FBI operations – special agents.
On the night of April 30, agents in the field were arresting those five suspects near the Brecksville bridge. At the same time, agents were monitoring the operation live from the Emergency Command Center. And Dettelbach was there, too.
"I was a fly on the wall in there," he said. "I was literally in awe by the smarts and professionalism on display there."
Dettelbach said that the use of stings and informants sometimes gets a bad rap in the media; some people try to paint the methods as a form of entrapment. The techniques have been fundamental to stop crime for decades, well before "Law & Order" made gathering evidence look so easy.
"These are incredibly effective ways to gather compelling evidence," he said.
These tactics also serve as important ways to prevent crimes under investigation from occurring and putting the public in danger.
But there is a fine line.
Dettelbach said his office and the FBI must be very considerate of risks. They have to balance the need to prevent dangerous acts with the necessity of gathering enough evidence.
Stings and informants help give investigators a hands-on approach with their cases, which works better than observational approaches. The current Fast and Furious scandal used an observational approach, and now thousands of illegal guns that should have been tracked could be anywhere in the U.S.
Also, the days of an enterprising young agent or detective, investigating on his own and hitting the streets on a hunch, are long gone. Today, every move the FBI or U.S. Attorneys office makes is discussed at length.
Besides following the Constitution and bearing in mind civil rights, there's something else they consider before making any moves.
"If we had to explain this to the Plain Dealer, would people understand us?"
Working for NewsChannel5, I understood his concern.
Stings and informants are effective tactics to gather evidence, but they aren't the only ones. Another is surveillance.
The FBI uses state of the art technology to collect evidence for counterterrorism, counterintelligence, cyber crime and criminal cases.
I met a couple special agents who do technical surveillance for the FBI. When describing the challenges they face to gather evidence, one told me that "CSI" made their jobs harder because now juries have unrealistic expectations.
There have been times these agents have had to setup hidden cameras at places where they knew a criminal meeting was going to take place. Where do they get their tech supplies? Well, you'll probably find a couple FBI expenditure receipts for Target.
I can't go into detail, but take my word for it, some of the cameras they came up with were pretty creative.
But the FBI can only use these tactics within strict legal limits, such as the CALEA law, and with warrants. In recent years, laws have been amended to keep up with technology; it's not just the good guys getting more tech savvy.
And, frankly, it's not just criminals getting more tech savvy. The agents said it is cell phone companies that set the tone with their fancy smart phones. Criminals exploit this technology and the FBI must keep up with it.
Surveillance can include warrant-issued wiretaps. Such evidence was used to convict former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora of corruption.
Public corruption is abuse of public office or a violation of ethics, and the FBI has a squad that specializes in it. Supervisory Special Agent Greg Curtis said what investigators look for is the quid pro quo: someone getting something for giving something.
That sounds innocent, and court records show Dimora did not believe he anything wrong, but "getting for giving" comes
down to very serious legal terms: bribery, fraud, extortion, embezzlement, nepotism, influence peddling, and conflicts of interest.
Curtis characterized it this way: if a county has a contract coming up for $1 million, an official bumps up that contract a little and takes $100,00 off the top, figuring no one will ever know.
Former Cuyahoga County auditor Frank Russo was involved in the corruption and took a plea deal, testifying against Dimora. Curtis said that Russo's tactic was to go in low on contracts, then pad it with change orders, and pocket the money.
That is just one of the patterns that the FBI looks for. They also look for employers using the same vendor again and again or social interaction between the employer and vendor.
Corruption can also bloom in public programs that are poorly conceived and managed, such as the unaccounted money in the TARP program or stimulus projects.
As for the Dimora wiretaps, Curtis had to listen to them all. "It took a few years off my life," he said.
Public corruption happens when people in the public eye commit crime, but the FBI also works to stop criminals on the street. Much effort goes into fighting organized crime, drug and gang activity.
Northeast Ohio has to deal with all three. Fortunately, our gang problem is not nearly as bad as other metropolitan areas. Special Agent Steve Sloan said Cleveland gangs are dangerous but tend to be loosely organized gangster wannabes. In contrast, gangs are highly-organized hierarchies in Los Angeles.
Illegal drugs continue to be a growing problem. Sloan said heroin is becoming alarmingly popular, especially among Northeast Ohio teenagers. These teens start experimenting with prescription drugs, but when those prove to be too expensive a habit to keep up, they turn to heroin.
Organized crime can be so far-reaching that the FBI needs some extra assistance. The St. Paul's Croatian Federal Credit Union investigation began in Eastlake and involved about millions of dollars. That's when the IRS had to step in and assist the FBI and Eastlake Police.
IRS Special Agent Frank Brown said the IRS never saw fraud so bad in a credit union as the one in Eastlake.
Eastlake's St. Paul's Croatian Federal Credit Union had nearly 5,400 members who trusted the organization with about $238 million dollars.
Brown said credit unions are primed for fraud because they are operated by a handful of people with little to no oversight who are trusted with a lot of money.
Authorities estimate the loss to St. Paul's Croatian Federal Credit Union insurance fund at about $170 million. The convicted criminals spent millions of dollars on themselves.
Brown said these people felt they did nothing wrong because the money was given to them. That is how a credit union works, after all.
[Look for Colin McDermott's next installment in his series about his experience with the FBI Citizens' Academy next week.]