Wednesday, May 24, 2006

from the "i shit you not" file -- FBI spying on local government (Portland, OR)

Portland Mayor chastises FBI for trying to place informant at City Hall

Portland Mayor Tom Potter fired off an open letter online today to city residents, complaining that an agent with the FBI tried to convince a city employee to act as an informant for the agency.

Potter wrote that he was disturbed by a May 11 incident in which a special agent with the FBI stopped the employee and showed her his badge and identification. The agent, Potter alleges, asked the employee if she knew any City Council members and wondered if she would be interested in passing information on to the agent.

The employee told the woman he had other duties but was particularly interested in information relating to white-collar crime.

Potter’s letter didn’t name either the agent or the city employee. He wrote that he believes the FBI was trying to place an informant within City Hall.

Potter adamantly stated that there is no reason for the FBI to be investigating the city because no wrongdoing has occured.

“When there is no information to indicate any public corruption on the part of City Council members or employees, the FBI has no legitimate role in surreptitiously monitoring elected officials and city employees,” Potter wrote. “The actions of the FBI — even if they are the actions of one agent acting on his own — come at an uneasy time for many Americans. In the past few weeks, we have learned that our phone records are not private, and conversations are monitored without warrants. Journalists exposing these actions have been threatened with prosecution.

“Even if this incident is nothing more than the work of one overzealous agent, it represents an unacceptable mind-set within the agency.”

Moments after Potter’s office released a copy of the letter, the FBI sent out a response.

Beth Anne Steele, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Portland office, said such practices are common across the nation. She said the FBI “strongly” disagrees with Potter’s version of how significant the incident was.

“To be effective, (the FBI) relies on the assistance of those who also live and work in those communities,” Steele said. “It is entirely proper for an FBI agent to ask willing citizens to provide information when those citizens feel it is appropriate to do so regarding potential criminal conduct – whether that information involves a bank robbery, kidnapping, public corruption or other crime.”

Another FBI official -- Assistant Special Agent in Charge Daniel Nielsen -- confirmed today that an agent approached a city employee. But he had a different perspective on the conversation than the mayor.

"We do talk to people. We're supposed to talk to the public," Nielsen said. "The approach was probably more direct than anybody would have liked."

Steele said that in the last two years, FBI investigators have seen a 40 percent increase in the number of indictments of government employees allegedly involved in corruption.

Potter has clashed with the federal government before. City Council members, including Potter, voted in April 2005 to remove Portland police from a Joint Terrorism Task Force led by the FBI, a task force that has expanded to about 100 cities across the nation.

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