A former supervisory agent in the Seattle office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was sentenced today to one year in prison for lying about money meant for informants that went missing.
James Contreras, 52, pleaded guilty in February to a single felony count of making a false statement in a plea deal in which 29 other false-statement charges and an embezzlement count that carried a 10-year penalty were dropped. He had faced up to five years in prison for the single false-statement charge.
Contreras resigned from ATF in 2012 when the agency opened an investigation into his relationship with a confidential informant who was arrested and sent to prison for sexually abusing a woman in Seattle.
According to a grand jury indictment, Contreras allegedly took $19,700 from an informant fund between March 2010 and April 2012, often falsifying the signatures of other agents. Money that was supposed to be paid to 12 informants was never given to them, according to the charges.
The charge to which Contreras pleaded guilty involved the forging of the name of another agent on a voucher for $700 to give to a confidential informant.
In sentencing documents filed by his attorney, Scott Terry said Contreras “readily admitted to the forgeries, explaining they were done for the purpose of expediting the investigation process. Not for the alleged purpose of misappropriating the funds to his own personal use.”
Contreras is a family man, married to a high-school mathematics teacher, and has been a “law abiding model citizen his entire life,” including 17 years with the El Paso Police Department before he joined the ATF in 1999. He has worked as a special agent and most recently as a supervisor with control of the informant fund.
Now, Terry said, Contreras is working at a $45,000-a-year job as a pest-control operator to support his family.
And, while acknowledging that Contreras was “deep in consumer debt during this period,” Terry said there are no cash deposits into his accounts that “directly correspond” to the forged vouchers. Terry asked U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman not to impose any prison time.
However, prosecutors say they cannot account for the $19,700 and that an investigation by the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General showed Contreras and his wife were more than $100,000 in debt at the time and that there were “numerous” cash deposits into their accounts.
“Thus, there is strong circumstantial evidence that the $19,700 went into Contreras’ pocket,” wrote U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag of the Northern District of California, which is handling the prosecution to avoid a conflict of interest for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle.
“Contreras abused the public trust, his oath to abide by the law, the trust conferred upon him by his superiors, and the trust of the agents under his supervision,” Haag wrote. She said actions “imperiled the integrity of cases prosecuted from his unit.”
She asked Pechman to send Contreras to prison for three months, and for three months of home detention followed by three years of supervised release.
Contreras came under scrutiny after a May 2012 Seattle Times story about the informant, Joshua Allan Jackson, who was hired despite a lengthy history of violence against women. While working for the ATF, Jackson engaged in criminal activity that included sexually assaulting a young woman in a Seattle motel room paid for by the agency.
While awaiting trial in that case, Jackson agreed to a December 2011 jailhouse interview with The Times in which he alleged Contreras was taking money from the agency.
Jackson was sentenced to 10 years in prison April 2012 after admitting he sexually abused the 18-year-old woman who was held against her will for days inside a Seattle motel, with ATF paying for the room. As part of his guilty plea in King County Superior Court, Jackson also admitted to criminal impersonation for telling several people — including the woman — he was a federal agent or a police officer.
The indictment identified one informant by the initials “JJ,” but it wasn’t clear whether that was Jackson or whether he cooperated with the investigation.
Contreras, of Maple Valley, had been with ATF since October 1999.