BY AIMEE GREEN The Oregonian/OregonLive June 28, 2017 at 6:01 PM
The pursuit of criminal charges against an FBI agent for allegedly lying about firing his gun at Robert “LaVoy” Finicum in January 2016 is a rare occurrence.
Only a fraction of the FBI’s agents have ever faced prosecution for alleged malfeasance on the job. Currently, the FBI employs about 13,000 agents.
Among those convicted in the past few years are a Los Angeles-area agent who stole drug money to pay for cars and plastic surgery; an agent who fed his drug addiction by stealing heroin seized as evidence; and a high-ranking agent who perjured himself about his dealings with a Boston gangster.
On Wednesday, FBI agent W. Joseph Astarita, 40, made his first appearance in a federal courtroom in Portland to hear an indictment accusing him of making false statements and trying to obstruct justice after twice firing his rifle toward Finicum after Finicum crashed into a snowbank. Law enforcement officers had set up a roadblock as Finicum made his way from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge 100 miles north to John Day.
Louis Bertram, a former FBI agent who now works as a consultant in Salt Lake City, said embarrassment and fear of the career-damaging consequences might motivate an agent to lie about discharging a weapon — especially if the agent acted hastily and had bad aim.
In this case, investigators say Astarita struck the roof of Finicum’s car with one bullet and completely missed with another bullet.
“It happens, but you own up to it,” Bertram said.
Many details of the case have yet to come out, Bertram said, but he wonders about the possible role of Astarita’s colleagues. Sources have said that the five FBI agents assigned to the traffic stop told investigators that none of them fired at Finicum’s Dodge pickup after it crashed at the roadblock.
It would be astonishing to have multiple agents involved in a coverup, he said.
Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson, whose staff investigated the case, confirmed an ongoing inquiry, but authorities offered no other details.
Here’s a summary of some high-profile criminal cases pursued against FBI agents and employees:
- 2016: Former FBI agent Scott M. Bowman of Southern California was sentenced to three years in prison for pocketing more than $136,000 in drug money during FBI busts, falsifying documents and tampering with a witness. He used $15,000 of the money to pay for his wife’s plastic surgery and $60,000 of it to buy a sports car and outfit it with a premium sound system and other perks, investigators said.
- 2016: Robert Fitzpatrick, a high-ranking former agent in the FBI’s Boston office, was sentenced to probation for committing perjury and obstructing justice for inflating his personal credentials and claiming he’d tried to stop the agency’s corrupt relationship with gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.
- 2015: Former agent Matthew Lowry was sentenced to three years in prison for stealing heroin seized as evidence, then snorting it in his car, to feed his drug addiction over the course of a year.
- 2008: Former agent John J. Connolly Jr., the longtime handler of James “Whitey” Bulger, was convicted for his role in the 1982 murder of businessman John Callahan.
- 2003: Retired agent H. Paul Rico was indicted in 2003 on accusations of murder for his alleged role in planning the assassination of a millionaire with gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Rico died in 2004 before the case went to trial.
- 2001: Security analyst James Hill of the FBI’s Las Vegas office was charged with selling classified records and documents on criminal cases and grand jury investigations involving the mafia. He pleaded guilty.
- 1984: Richard W. Miller was the first FBI agent arrested for espionage. Miller was convicted in 1990 for passing classified documents to the Soviet Union. A federal judge reduced Miller’s sentence to 13 years and he was released from prison in 1994.