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National

DEA Chief Michele Leonhart To Retire

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is on her way out. Attorney General Eric Holder announced today that Michele Leonhart will step down next month. Last week, lawmakers expressed no confidence in her ability to overhaul the agency. The DEA has been on the ropes after watchdogs found that federal agents cavorted with prostitutes in Colombia in parties financed by drug cartels and U.S. taxpayers. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following this story and joins us now. And, Carrie, first, why don't you tell us a bit about who Michele Leonhart is and how she got into such trouble.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Melissa, she's a career law enforcement officer. She started out back in the day as a Baltimore police officer. She joined the DEA back in 1980. And she rose to the very top of the administration - the DEA - in 2007 during the George W. Bush years, but President Obama decided to keep her in place. And because she's been around so long, she inherited and owns a lot of the DEA's problems. For instance, this huge Colombian sex scandal where 10 DEA agents allegedly took part in sex parties with prostitutes that were paid for by drug cartels. It came out, Melissa, just last week those parties go all the way back to 2001 and that agents sometimes used taxpayer money to pay the escorts. Now, it's not just the sex parties. Officials say engaging in this kind of activity exposes DEA agents to blackmail and extortion and creates some big security problems, too.

BLOCK: Not just the sex parties - well, you can imagine that this led the DEA to run into a lot of trouble on Capitol Hill. There were two brutal hearings in the House of Representatives over the past few days.

JOHNSON: Absolutely, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee blasted the DEA for failing to discipline the agents involved in those incidents in Columbia. Those agents got 10 days suspension at most. Here's what Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz had to say about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONGRESSMAN JASON CHAFFETZ: It's embarrassing that we have to talk about this. It's an embarrassment that you don't fire that person. It's an embarrassment that you don't revoke his security clearance.

JOHNSON: Now, Melissa, it's not unusual for lawmakers to express that kind of anger. What is unusual at that - is that leading Democrats decided to pile on as well. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, accused Leonhart of protecting the wrongdoers in the DEA. And then Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, who's the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, asked her whether she thought she was the right person for the job. Ultimately, 13 Democrats on the panel and 19 Republicans said they had no confidence in her ability to change the good ol' boy culture. And there has been radio silence from the Justice Department and the White House ever since.

BLOCK: Well, I gather this is not the first time that the DEA leader has tangled with her bosses in the Obama administration either.

JOHNSON: Michele Leonhart famously got taken to the woodshed by the Attorney General, Eric Holder, after she declined to support his efforts to roll back long, mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. She, as a career DEA agent, thought that was the wrong thing to do. Clashing with your boss - not necessarily a good idea for her. And then last year, she also took issue with President Obama's comments in The New Yorker magazine that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. Leonhart criticized the president's remarks in a closed-door meeting with the Sheriffs' Association. The sheriffs, Melissa, gave her a standing ovation, but as you can imagine, the White House did not.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks.

JOHNSON: You're well.

BLOCK: And again, the news that the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele Leonhart, will be stepping down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.