Informant linked to other probes Drug investigation led to leak of Justice files, four murder suspects

March 30, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF Staff writer Kris Antonelli contributed to this report.

The case against a U.S. attorney's office secretary who sold information from case files grew out of a broad investigation that has resulted in a flurry of drug indictments and the arrests of four suspects in a 1978 murder, according to court files and federal agents.

Patricia Ann Wheeler pleaded guilty yesterday to one count of bribery in federal court in Baltimore, admitting that she sold confidential information from criminal case files to an informant working for the FBI.

The informant was helping FBI agents investigate a drug trafficking ring in Maryland. He told the agents that Wheeler, a 22-year veteran with the federal government, was willing to sell information about pending criminal cases.

FBI agents set up a sting and caught Wheeler selling secret information for $1,000.

Agents say they are trying to determine whether Wheeler compromised any investigations or leaked information that jeopardized the safety of federal witnesses and informants.

So far, agents and prosecutors say the case seems to be confined to the information Wheeler sold to the informant. The leak of that information was closely monitored by investigators conducting the sting operation, agents say.

The FBI drug investigation also produced information that led to the arrests of three men and a woman on charges that they tossed a 22-year-old construction worker to his death from a railroad bridge over the Big Gunpowder Falls in Baltimore County 18 years ago.

The suspects in that case were indicted earlier this month. FBI agents and Baltimore County detectives declined to say what information was developed during the drug investigation, and how that information led to the arrests of the four murder suspects.

The drug probe that snared Wheeler and the murder suspects began last year, when FBI agents started to investigate a ring of cocaine peddlers and organized crime figures operating out of Baltimore and Ocean City.

Last fall, the informant met with FBI agents and federal prosecutors to tell them what he knew about the drug ring and other criminal enterprises in Maryland.

"The FBI agents start to ask him what he knew, and the witness said: 'I think we should talk about the leak in your office,' " said first assistant U.S. Attorney Gary P. Jordan. "We felt like throwing up."

The informant said Wheeler, 40, who worked for the U.S. attorney's office since 1986, hung around bars in Hampden and was friends with drug dealers and other questionable characters in the neighborhood.

"She hung out in places where some of these individuals hung out," said Timothy P. McNally, special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore field office. "She had personal relationships with some pretty unsavory characters."

Setting the snare

The informant told agents and prosecutors that Wheeler was offering confidential information from criminal files at the U.S. attorney's office as early as 1990. The informant agreed to help FBI agents catch the secretary.

"We wanted to find out if she was for sale," Mr. Jordan said.

On Dec. 16, 1995, the informant met with Wheeler and asked her if she could check internal federal files to determine whether he was the target of a criminal probe. FBI agents and federal prosecutors planted information in the U.S. attorney's office that was part truth, part fiction.

Five days later, Wheeler confirmed that he was a target, court records show.

The informant then asked Wheeler to check a case file relating to the FBI's undercover drug investigation. He asked her to look up a man named Frank Tamburello, 44, a target of the probe who was indicted on drug charges earlier this month.

Also indicted in the case: Constantine "Gussie" Alexander, 70, -- Michael Bush, 45, Dino Jay Matarozza, 35, and William Scott Schulte, 29. Federal agents and Baltimore detectives have been investigating some of the men for years.

"These people are formidable targets," said FBI agent Mel Fleming, who supervised the probe.

On Dec. 21 and Dec. 23, Wheeler confirmed that Mr. Tamburello was a target of the drug investigation. She also provided the informant with the names of potential witnesses and co-defendants in the case, according to court records.

Three days after Christmas 1995, the informant paid Wheeler $1,000 for the information.

On March 19, Justice Department prosecutor Robert Meyer charged Wheeler with one count of bribery, and she quietly resigned from her $32,000-a-year post. Yesterday, she pleaded guilty to the crime.

"Are you, indeed, guilty?" U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg asked her.

"Yes, sir," Wheeler said softly in the third-floor courtroom, crowded with her friends, family and former colleagues.

'Leave me alone'

Wheeler is scheduled to be sentenced May 24. Because she has no criminal past and is cooperating with prosecutors and FBI agents, Wheeler is expected to receive probation under federal sentencing guidelines.

Wheeler had nothing to say after yesterday's court hearing.

"Leave me alone," she said, trembling in the courtroom.

The case also has shaken the U.S. attorney's office.

Wheeler worked in the office's victim-witness unit, where employees have access to case files and something called the Prosecution Management Information System (PROMIS), which contains detailed information about pending criminal cases.

Every five years, employees like Wheeler undergo background checks. Co-workers say they were completely fooled by the kindly secretary with salt-and-pepper hair who had no signs of trouble in her past.

"The betrayal is so deep, so significant," U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said after the court hearing.

"We gave our trust to her. We worked with her every day. She jeopardized the safety of everyone in this office. It's hard for me to understand how anyone could make that choice."

Pub Date: 3/30/96

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