Narcotics case angers Colombians
U.S. anti-drug official snared in racket faces 18-month term
BY TIM JOHNSON
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Some prominent Colombians are outraged that
Army colonel who helped his wife hide drug-trafficking profits last year while he
headed U.S. counter-drug operations in Colombia may get only a slap on the
wrist -- an 18-month jail term or less.
SHAME screamed the cover of a recent Semana news magazine. A lengthy
article inside lashed out at U.S. ``double standards'' on drug issues.
Colombia's top crime fighter, Prosecutor General Alfonso Gomez
accused Washington of hypocrisy.
``This would surely be a scandal for Colombia if a sentence of
were handed down for a crime of this nature,'' Gomez Mendez said.
Federal Judge Edward R. Korman told U.S. Army Col. James C. Hiett
hearing last week in New York City that he will follow federal sentencing rules and
give Hiett a 12- to 18-month prison term June 23.
Hiett was the senior military officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota
when U.S. prosecutors accused his wife, Laurie Anne Hiett, of using the U.S.
Embassy mail system to send six packages of cocaine and heroin to an accused
drug dealer in Brooklyn. The packages contained narcotics with a total street
value of $750,000.
At the time, U.S. military officials said Hiett told them he knew
nothing of his
But at a hearing last week, Hiett dropped the denials and admitted
to the federal
judge that his wife had given him ``in excess of $25,000'' in the spring of 1999
after making several quick trips to New York City and that he failed to tell
investigators about the cash.
``In April and May of 1999, I used approximately $14,000 of cash
to pay various
personal bills. The remaining $11,000 in cash remained in my possession in
Bogota,'' Hiett told the judge.
Hiett, 48, said he did not suspect the money was dirty until Army
told him in early June that his wife had sent drugs from Colombia to New York
Even so, Hiett told the judge, ``I then took steps to dissipate
this cash by paying
bills . . . and depositing some of the cash in our accounts.''
Hiett admitted to using some of the drug cash to pay hotel bills
in June in Boca
Raton and in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a Visa card bill and to buy several money
orders to deposit the funds in bank accounts in his name and his wife's.
At the hearing, Hiett pleaded guilty to a crime known as misprision
of a felony,
which is the criminal failure to tell authorities that his wife was laundering
drug-trafficking profits by carrying cash from the United States to Colombia.
Why Hiett was not charged with a more serious felony is not clear.
``I can't comment on what the charging options were,'' assistant
Lee G. Dunst said in a telephone interview from his New York City office.
Laurie Hiett faces sentencing May 5 on 13 counts of drug trafficking,
receive between seven and nine years in prison.
Over the past decade, Washington has often criticized Colombia
for sentences as
low as six years given to leaders of the Medellin and Cali cartels, although prison
terms were stiffened in 1997.
Gomez Mendez, the Colombian prosecutor, said he respects U.S.
giving prison terms to confessed felons but that the two nations should maintain
``a principle of reciprocity'' in jail terms.
``The case is disgraceful,'' wrote columnist Antonio Caballero,
who said he
believes Colombian authorities are biting their tongues in anger as they await
approval of a $1.3 billion proposed U.S. counter-narcotics package currently tied
up on Capitol Hill.
POLICE CHIEF ANGRY
National police chief Rosso Jose Serrano, praised by Washington
as a valiant
drug fighter, also lashed out at the sentence, describing it as discouraging.
Gen. Charles Wilhelm, head of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command,
declined to discuss the controversy Wednesday during a visit to Bogota.
``That's a matter between the Hietts and the civil courts,'' Wilhelm
said. ``I think
it's inappropriate for me to comment.''
A U.S. congressional staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity,
said he found
it embarrassing to respond to Colombian officials asking about the case during a
``I can certainly see where the Colombians would be mad,'' he
said. ``I'd be mad if
it were the other way around.''