U.S. Colonel To Plead Guilty In Colombia Drug Probe
Officer Said to Help Wife Hide Money Laundering
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
The former commander of the U.S. Army's anti-drug operation in
Colombia--whose wife pleaded guilty in January to smuggling drugs into
the United States while he was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in
Bogota--has agreed to plead guilty to failing to turn her in for money
laundering, according to court documents filed yesterday.
Sources close to the case said Col. James C. Hiett has dropped his earlier
denials and admitted storing in his apartment and embassy office safe as
much as $45,000 given to him by his wife. After her arrest last summer and
his return to the United States, he deposited the money in small amounts in
U.S. banks and purchased money orders with it, apparently in an attempt
to evade currency reporting requirements.
According to government documents filed in federal court for the Eastern
District of New York in Brooklyn, Hiett will plead guilty on April 17 to a
crime called misprision of a felony--that is, not telling authorities what he
knew of his wife's illegal activities.
Both Hietts have insisted that he told his wife he did not want to know
where the money came from, and James Hiett--who earlier had been
cleared by Army investigators of any involvement in his wife's crimes--is
not charged with drug smuggling. But his admission of wrongdoing in the
case adds another level of embarrassment to the Clinton administration,
and particularly the Pentagon, at a time when they are asking Congress to
approve a major aid package to fight drug trafficking in Colombia.
U.S. officials estimate that as much as 80 percent of all cocaine and a
significant percentage of heroin entering this country comes from
Colombia. The administration has asked for $1.6 billion in aid, most of it in
emergency supplemental funds to be spent on equipment and U.S. training
for the Colombian military.
Laurie Hiett pleaded guilty on Jan. 27 to planning to smuggle $700,000
worth of heroin into the United States, largely by mailing drug-filled
packages from Colombia and traveling to New York to collect the profits.
"I never told him what I was doing," she said, speaking of her husband
reporters after pleading guilty on Aug. 5. She told the judge she had been
treated for drug addiction and expressed remorse that her activities had
undercut U.S. anti-drug efforts.
At the time she was smuggling, Hiett was in charge of the estimated 200
U.S. troops in Colombia who train security forces for counter-drug
operations and protect three large radar bases used primarily to track
aircraft carrying drugs. He asked to be reassigned after his wife's arrest
and was transferred to the Army's Training and Doctrine Command at Fort
Monroe, Va., where he remains on active duty. He is scheduled to retire in
James Hiett declined to comment yesterday through a spokesman at Fort
Monroe. The Army and the U.S. Attorney's office in New York said they
would issue no comment.
Although Hiett had been cleared by the Army's Criminal Investigative
Division, the U.S. Customs Service continued investigating the case. In a
statement last night, Customs Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said,
"Customs agents have suspected for some time that U.S. Army Col. James
Hiett had knowledge of his wife's actions and may have even had some
Hiett's involvement, Kelly said, "will be further amplified on April 17,
2000, when the colonel is scheduled to appear in court."
Despite her denial of his involvement in January, sources close to the
said it was Laurie Hiett who implicated her husband and that he
acknowledged his role in November. At the time of her court appearance,
Laurie Hiett told reporters: "At one point, he may have asked me why I
was going to New York. I just told him, 'Don't ask me.' "
The two reportedly discussed how to transfer large amounts of cash to the
United States without generating legally mandated currency reports. As
Army CID agents prepared to search their apartment after her arrest, the
sources said, Hiett moved the money to his embassy safe. Once in the
United States, they deposited small sums in various banks to avoid
Federal sentencing guidelines set the penalty for knowledge and
concealment of a felony at no more than three years in prison and a
possible fine of up to $500. Sources said the plea agreement with Hiett
would likely lead to a sentence of no more than 18 months, to be served
Laurie Hiett is due to be sentenced April 28. Disclosure of the charges
against her husband and his upcoming guilty plea came in a brief court
document filed by the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn, informing Judge
Edward R. Korman that the two cases "implicate some of the same factual
issues." Assigning both cases to Korman, the filing said, "will result in the
substantial savings of judicial resources."
According to the initial charges against Laurie Hiett, the investigation
set off by what was described as a "routine search" of a package in Miami,
initially thought to contain cocaine but later proven to contain heroin, and
bearing her return address. The scheme allegedly involved mailing six
packages to New York.
Two other people were charged in the case: Hernan Arcila, who was
arrested in New York and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import drugs,
and Jorge Alfonso Ayala, who was arrested in Colombia in February. The
United States has requested his extradition.