Web site keeps track of informers and agents
It has exposed witnesses in the bay area.
By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published May 20, 2007
TAMPA - Security was so tight at the trial of Cali drug cartel leader Mario Valencia-Trujillo that no one could enter the courtroom without checking with a guard and passing through a metal detector.
But anyone who wanted to learn the identity of the men testifying against Valencia didn't need to enter the federal courthouse. The information was available with just a few keystrokes on a computer.
The witnesses' names - and copies of their plea agreements - were posted on Whosarat.com, which calls itself the country's largest database of informers and agents. Now, the 3-year-old Web site is causing major headaches for law enforcement officers and prosecutors who don't want the identities of informers revealed to protect the investigations and the informers' safety.
For a small fee, site visitors can peruse profiles of people believed to be cooperating with the government in criminal investigations, including several in the Tampa Bay region. Some profiles contain attachments to court pleadings, news stories and even pictures.
The site features "rats of the week" and message boards where members spout off about the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration.
"I have found out that there are several rats here in Tampa, " someone with the screen name chipper3 wrote in a post called Tampa Drug Trials. "They get arrested and flip on their friends and anyone they can think of."
A former DJ from Boston started Whosarat.com after he was arrested by federal authorities on marijuana trafficking charges.
The site has so alarmed some federal judges they ordered clerks to stop posting plea agreements on the federal judiciary's online public access systems.
But Whosarat administrators say they just provide a forum for information that's already public. They view their site as a much-needed service for overloaded defense attorneys struggling to represent clients in a system stacked against them.
"When federal prosecutors start building a case, they have endless resources and as much time as they need, " said Chris Brown, Whosarat's project manager. "Defense attorneys don't get that. We're just trying to correct the imbalance."
The site attracted law enforcement attention shortly after it began in 2004. The Homeland Security Department issued a memo warning its agents not to visit the site for fear of revealing government IP, or Internet protocol, addresses.
"Any Web site is capable of collecting IP address and search information from visitors, but this site is remarkable because it makes visitor information public, " the September 2004 memo stated. "This published information could be used by criminals or terrorists to hinder law enforcement efforts and endanger officers and informants."
Steve Cole, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa, said no one from his office would comment on the site.
Justice Department officials did not return several telephone calls.
Federal judges are taking the site seriously. In November, the Judicial Conference Committee sent a letter to all federal judges alerting them to the site and warning them to use caution when deciding which documents should be posted online.
"While it is important to maintain public access to the courts' case files, it is equally important to ensure that the information that is publicly accessible does not endanger any case participants, " the letter stated.
It went on to recommend judges consider sealing any documents containing sensitive information.
Judges in at least two regions took the advice and no longer post plea agreements online. In the Western District of Texas and the Southern District of Florida, which includes Miami and Fort Lauderdale, those who want to view a plea agreement must go to the courthouse and consult the case file.
But it's unlikely an attempt to shut down the site would stand up in court.
When prosecutors tried to close a similar site in 2004, a federal judge ruled it was protected by the First Amendment. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson of Alabama also said the site's operator, Leon Carmichael, was protected by the constitutional right to aid his own defense.
Tampa defense attorney John Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor, said he views sealing documents to protect informers as a dangerous trend.
"The world of confidential informants is a murky, shadowy area of the law, " Fitzgibbons said. "I would hope that some informants who may be truly evil people are not being unknowingly protected by federal judges and prosecutors."
Fitzgibbons said he has seen the good and bad side of informers. They can be vital to helping a prosecutor build a case. But they have been known to accuse innocent people of crimes to get a more lenient sentence or charge the government a higher fee, he said.
"There's nothing that can be more valuable and there's nothing that can be more dangerous than a confidential informant, " Fitzgibbons said.
A longtime heroin addict turned paid informer led to the arrest of Sean Bucci, the founder of Whosarat.com. The informer, who said he had been selling cocaine to Bucci for more than a decade, tipped off Drug Enforcement Administration agents, who set up video surveillance of Bucci's home.
Agents pulled him over after a suspected drug transaction and found 309 pounds of marijuana in his car, according to court documents.
Convicted of marijuana and money laundering charges in February, Bucci is asking for a new trial, saying prosecutors trumped up additional charges against him after he started his Web site.
Brown, a longtime friend of Bucci's who is now running the site, said Whosarat.com accepts profiles of informers only in nonviolent crimes. He said it has stopped accepting pictures of undercover government agents.
"We're not trying to generate or provide a hit list, " Brown said. "But there's a lot of corruption out there, and it's only going to get worse if it's left unchecked."
Brown said Whosarat has about 7, 000 subscribers and has posted more than 3, 400 profiles.
Subscriptions range from $7.99 for a week to $89.99 for a lifetime pass.
Testifying in Tampa
In addition to the witnesses in the Valencia-Trujillo trial, Whosarat.com features profiles from several other recent Tampa cases.
There are at least two people who testified at the trial of Herbert Ferrell Jr., convicted in August of creating indoor marijuana farms in some of Tampa Bay's nicest neighborhoods.
Also on the site is Willie Ben McCrary, who cooperated in the investigation of Hillsborough Deputy Charles Maye and his friend Leroy Collins. The two were convicted of illegally using law enforcement computers and lying to the FBI about it.
Valencia-Trujillo's attorney, Ronald Kurpiers, said there's nothing illegal about the site. He's surprised no one thought of the idea sooner.
"The Internet has become such a big animal, " Kurpiers said. "As long as it's public information, then God bless the guy who decides to be an entrepreneur and put this out there."
Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.