Some high profile court cases are forcing the FBI to reconsider the way it uses confidential informants. These are the people who tip off agents to criminal activity. The informants are often able to do that because they are criminals themselves. Now some agents are rethinking their dealings with people on the other side of the law. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston continues her series this morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: This time last year, former FBI Agent Lin DeVecchio was in a Brooklyn courtroom charged with murder. His accuser was the long-time girlfriend of a mafia hit man named Greg "The Grim Reaper" Scarpa. She said DeVecchio had given Scarpa, one of his confidential informants, information he needed to kill four people. It was a mob girlfriend's word against DeVecchio's. Then something unusual happened.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: Former FBI Agent accused of helping the mob commit murders is vindicated tonight after the case against him was dismissed.

Unidentified Man: Former FBI Agent accused of helping the mob kill collapses.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Two journalists came forward with a key piece of information.

Mr. JERRY CAPECI (Mafia Expert): There was no way that that is what she told us back in 1997.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Mafia expert Jerry Capeci and Village Voice Reporter Tom Robbins had interviewed Scarpa's girlfriend, Linda Schiro, in 1997 for a book. And back then, she'd absolved DeVecchio of any involvement in the murders.

Mr. CAPECI: And, you know, we felt we had to at least explain that that's not the only story she told about those four killings.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They had her on tape.

Mr. CAPECI: We asked her specifically if Lin was involved in the killing and she said oh, no. Absolutely not. That was somebody else who did that, and there was a different reason for that completely.

TEMPLE-RASTON: DeVecchio, once one of the bureau's most admired agents on dealing with informants, was vindicated. But after a 19-month investigation, he was left with $600,000 in legal bills and a familiar lament.

Mr. LIN DEVECCHIO (Former FBI Agent): My question is, where do I go to get my reputation back?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Given how the story unfolded, it isn't surprising that agents are worried that their top informants may implicate them in their crimes or a victim will sue them for not preventing one. Jim Kossler was the FBI's coordinating supervisor for organized crime in New York, DeVecchio's boss. He says what happened to DeVecchio has become a cautionary tale for agents in the field.

Mr. JAMES KOSSLER (Former FBI Coordinating Supervisor for Organized Crime, New York City): I mean, this story is so unbelievable, and, of course, the fallout of it as it relates to how the Bureau does its business in the future, it's going to have a great impact.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Kossler says agents now are thinking about what they put at risk, personally, when they tap a criminal to get them inside information. Kossler says DeVecchio paid a heavy price for running an informant. Among other things, he lost his business.

Mr. KOSSLER: He had a pretty good investigative business, and he lost that whenever he got indicted. He couldn't work. You know, when you get indicted like that, it's a harrowing experience on - and he handled it very well. I don't know that I could handle it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Typically, when an agent is named in a lawsuit, they ask the justice department for representation. If the department determines that the suit relates their FBI work, it assigns counsel or pays some government hourly rate for the defense. FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni says that's how it worked in DeVecchio's case.

Ms. VALERIE CAPRONI (FBI General Counsel): The department determined that the charges arose out of his work as an FBI agent and therefore was prepared to pay for his defense, and in fact paid a substantial amount towards his criminal defense.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But DeVecchio was worried the department lawyers wouldn't be strong enough, so he hired his own. In case DeVecchio's case seems unique, consider former FBI supervisor Jim Ring. The last civil case brought against him related to confidential informants was finally dismissed earlier this year, 18 years after he retired.

Mr. JAMES RING (Former FBI Supervisor): It is a little Kafka-esque, where the legal system is now being used against you, and they know exactly what buttons to push. And there's nothing you can do about it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In one case against Ring, prosecuting attorneys tried to go after his assets and his house, all because he supervised a case with a confidential informant.

Mr. RING: If someone said to me, after this happened to you, I would never touch an informant.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Caproni says these cases are the exception, not the rule. She hasn't seen a fall-off in the number of confidential informants, but half a dozen active agents who discussed this with NPR said they are more cautious now than before the DeVecchio episode. There's a saying among agents: If your confidential informant doesn't get you in trouble, he's probably not a very good informant.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, we'll conclude our series on confidential informants with a look at a bill in Congress that could hold FBI agents responsible for the crimes of their informants.

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