Review Of The Drug Enforcement Administration's Disciplinary System

Report Number I-2004-002
January 2004


While the DEA disciplinary system appears appropriately structured and the OPR investigations of employee misconduct are thorough and generally timely, deficiencies in certain areas hinder the effectiveness of the system.

We found that the penalties imposed by the DEA for confirmed misconduct were sometimes overly lenient. In our sample, we found 9 cases involving 13 subjects in which the facts of the case or comments made by Board members in the supporting documentation appeared to justify a stiffer penalty than was ultimately imposed by the Deciding Official. We identified several factors that appear to encourage the lenient penalties. The DEA's Schedule of Disciplinary Offenses and Penalties does not communicate DEA management's priorities. The defined offenses are generic and not DEA-specific, and the penalties - usually ranging from a Letter of Reprimand to Removal for each offense - are too broad to serve as effective guidance for the Board and Deciding Officials. We also found that the DEA continues to impose the same penalty even when increases in specific misconduct indicate that more stringent punishment is needed to provide an effective deterrent. Another factor that contributed to lenient penalties is that both the Board and the Deciding Officials apply mitigating factors in making their determinations. The result of this dual mitigation is that penalties can be reduced below the level that is appropriate for the offense.

In a sample of 70 closed disciplinary case files, we also found that Board members did not always document their independent reviews of a case. Written and oral statements provided by employees in response to the disciplinary proposal were often missing from the files or, in the case of oral statements, were not properly documented. Final decision letters sent to the employee generally did not sufficiently explain the reasons for increasing or decreasing proposed penalties, or dismissing charges. Because of the deficient documentation, we could not always determine whether the individual disciplinary decisions were reasonable.

In addition, we found excessive delays occurred during FY 2001 and FY 2002, primarily with the Board. The delays continued for almost 29 months because DEA management did not take action. At the time of our review, only OPR had established standards against which to measure timeliness, and the DEA did not have a centralized database to track cases as they progress through the entire disciplinary system. Nearly half of the DEA employees that we surveyed complained that discipline cases took too long to resolve, resulting in career disruptions.

Although some DEA employees perceive that special agents and higher-graded employees were disciplined inconsistently from non-agents and lower graded employees, we found insufficient evidence to conclude that a double standard of discipline exists.

We also found that the DEA's disciplinary system lacks any mechanism to review final decisions when there is a significant discrepancy between the findings of the investigation, the Board's proposed charges and penalties, and the Deciding Official's final determination. Although the decisions of both OPR and the Board undergo review, there is no accountability for the Deciding Officials.

We make eight recommendations to help the DEA ensure that its disciplinary decisions are reasonable, fair, free of inappropriate external influences, well documented, and timely. These recommendations include better guidance for the Board and Deciding Officials in making their disciplinary determinations, the establishment of standards to improve the timely processing of disciplinary cases, and more effective DEA management of the overall disciplinary process.