Justice Dept. worker accused of selling data Investigations by U.S. attorney's office here allegedly revealed

March 29, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Marcia Myers contributed to this article.

A veteran secretary with access to sensitive records inside the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore has been charged with funneling confidential details from criminal files to a friend in exchange for $1,000 cash, according to court records and interviews.

Patricia Ann Wheeler, 40, who has spent the past 22 years working for the federal government, is expected to plead guilty this morning in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to one count of bribery, her defense attorney said.

It's not clear if any investigations have been compromised, or if any government witnesses or informants were placed in jeopardy by the disclosures.

Ms. Wheeler has been at the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore for the past eight years and was a trusted worker. At one point, she helped the U.S. attorney's office coordinate secret grand jury panels in the federal courthouse on Lombard Street.

FBI agents and prosecutors refused to disclose details of the investigation, citing the pending plea agreement in the case.

"We can't say anything," FBI spokesman Larry K. Foust said yesterday.

"I just can't talk about it," said U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, Ms. Wheeler's boss.

Ms. Wheeler's lawyer, M. Gordon Tayback, said he believes his client disclosed information from a case that never really existed. He said the case may have been created by FBI agents for the sole purpose of snaring the secretary in a sting operation. "She did a favor for a friend who happened to be a government informant, and he set her up for his own benefit," Mr. Tayback said. "When she was confronted by FBI agents, she did the right thing. She cooperated, and she resigned from her position."

After the confrontation with the FBI agents in the U.S. attorney's office earlier this month, prosecutors referred the case to Justice Department lawyers in Washington. They quietly charged her on March 19 with taking the bribe in exchange for providing information from the case files, according to court records and interviews.

Ms. Wheeler was too distraught to talk yesterday. "I've lost everything I had," she said, covering her face with her hands while huddling on a couch in her darkened Baltimore home, the blinds and drapes drawn tight. "I just wish this would all go away."

In her most recent position, Ms. Wheeler was a secretary in the TC victim-witness unit of the prosecutor's office. Workers in the unit had access to the Prosecutor's Management Information System (PROMIS), which contains detailed information about criminal cases.

According to court files and interviews, a man Ms. Wheeler knew outside of work approached her last December, asking her if she could check federal files to determine whether he was a target of a criminal investigation.

Mr. Tayback said the man was a friend and informant who tricked his client into a sting.

"The contact was initiated by the informant," the defense attorney said. "He wanted to know if there were any investigations pending against him."

The man, who was not identified in public court files, first made the request on Dec. 16, 1995. Five days later, Ms. Wheeler allegedly told the man that he was, in fact, the target of a federal investigation, according to Mr. Tayback.

On Dec. 23, 1995, the man met Ms. Wheeler again, this time asking her if she could determine whether one of his friends was the target of federal investigation, Mr. Tayback said.

Ms. Wheeler allegedly confirmed the existence of that investigation as well. Three days after Christmas, on Dec. 28, 1995, the man provided Ms. Wheeler $1,000 cash, according to court files and interviews.

Ms. Wheeler is scheduled to plead guilty at 10: 30 a.m. today before U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg. According to her lawyer, prosecutors plan to recommend that Ms. Wheeler be given probation when sentenced. The secretary has never been in trouble with the law before.

The case stunned Ms. Wheeler's co-workers. They said they never thought the secretary with the sweet smile would ever trade sensitive government files for cash. A review of bankruptcy and lien records shows no sign of money troubles in Ms. Wheeler's life.

"It's very upsetting, very unfortunate," one colleague said yesterday. "Everyone's pretty traumatized."

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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