Employees with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) may have a tough job, but the tougher job is trying to get rid of those bad apples when they are caught committing crimes or misconduct on the clock. 

Do you remember the salacious headlines earlier this year about DEA agents attending sex parties while on duty in Colombia? At worse the agents involved received suspensions of a couple of days to up to two work weeks. They weren’t fired and as we learned from the DEA administrator, unless they had murdered someone, that’s pretty much the only way they would’ve been fired. 

However sex parties aren’t the only things DEA agents have done wrong and gotten away with it. One college student won a $4.1 million settlement after six agents left him handcuffed in a holding cell for five days with no food or water. You would think that should earn an employee the boot. Not so. Two agents were suspended briefly and the other four received a finger-wagging letter of reprimand. Would it have taken the student’s death along with criminal charges for them to be fired?

DEA agents have also been recommended to be fired for selling drugs and misusing government vehicles – sometimes after drinking. They had their terminations downgraded to slaps on the wrist. 

Apparently, it’s a systemic problem. Since 2010, of the 50 employee recommended for dismissal following investigations into their misconduct, only 13 were actually terminated. And some of those terminations were overturned after a federal appeals board intervened.

This agency has long been under scrutiny for how little misconduct is ever dealt with. The Justice Department is so fed up, it’s been investigating whether the DEA is able to detect and punish wrongdoing by its agents. 

A big part of the problem appears to be bureaucratic protocol. USA Today reports on the sickening process that allows unscrupulous federal agents to stay in their jobs:

The DEA’s internal affairs log shows investigators review more than 200 cases each year and often clear the agents involved. When they do find wrongdoing, the most common outcome is a either a letter of caution — the lightest form of discipline the agency can impose — or a brief unpaid suspension.

In fewer than 6% of those cases did DEA managers recommend firing. In some of those cases, the agency allowed employees to quit. More often, it settled on a lesser punishment.

DEA spokesman Joseph Moses said that often happens because it's not until after the Board of Professional Conduct makes its recommendations that employees get to fully present their side of the story. That can prompt human resources officials ultimately to opt for lighter punishment.

"DEA agents should be held to a high standard, but not an unrealistically high standard," said Scott Ando, a former internal affairs investigator for the agency who now heads Chicago's Independent Police Review Authority. "You can't expect every agent to get fired for every transgression because they're people and they sometimes make mistakes."

Even when employees are fired, records show the punishment doesn’t always stick because the agents were reinstated by the federal Merit Systems Protection Board, the independent body that reviews federal disciplinary matters. 

Some agents actually have been fired and for extremely egregious behavior. What’s perplexing is that those involved didn’t see their behavior as such a big deal. As USAToday recounts, one agent was fired after he admitted to allowing civilians to use DEA-issued fully automatic weapons as part of his personal security training business. In addition, this agent established his own religion and persuaded “vulnerable and struggling women” to have sex with him claiming they would be healed. The miracle in this case was that he got the boot. Yet, he called the case against him “a witch hunt.” Unbelievable. 

If your stomach is churning or our blood boiling, join the club. Federal agents are public servants not public nuisances or public hazards. It’s unfortunate that bureaucratic red tape limits the ability to weed out the poisonous apples before they infect the entire bunch. A priority should be figuring out how to change the system so that punishments can be meted out swiftly and repeals are limited. 

The fear of losing their job should motivate them to operate with the greatest dignity and care. Right now, agents can and are acting recklessly knowing they can get away with murder – almost.