Witness protection program doles out new problems

Their faces and the memories they hold are the only traces of the identities that 12,000 Americans carry with them as they cover up telltale signs of their pasts.

As participants in the federal Witness Security Program, these persons come to government prosecutors from good homes as well as from prisons, from legitimate business offices as well as small-time crime operations. But all come as a last resort after testifying against organized crime figures.

The only protection from reprisal that the government can offer them, outside of a constant armed guard, is to give them and their families new identities and a new place to live. It is a proposition so attractive that it has become the most important tool in battling organized crime, according to Bud Mullen, executive assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

While protection in return for testimony is credited with providing the federal government with a foothold in a once-impenetrable underworld, the program does have shortcomings, according to administrators and participants who recently testified before a US Senate subcommittee.

Often, says Frank Noe, a retired witness inspector for the Marshals Service, a relocated family is ready to plunge into a new life, but the bureaucracy that can pave the way for a successful transition is two steps behind. And, once committed to the program, there is little a witness can do to circumvent the problems inherent in it, agreed others who testified before the subcommittee.

Program administrators who have relocated 3,500 witnesses and their 8,500 dependents in the past 10 years indicate that the major hurdle in a family's transition is documenting its new identity. This process is hobbled by a short-handed protection unit in the Marshals Service and a lack of cooperation from government agencies involved in providing the proper documentation for a name change (which includes new social security numbers, new drivers licenses, and military records).

This problem, says Howard Safir, program administrator for the US Marshals Service, is further complicated by the fact that agencies in at least 14 states will not provide help in redocumenting individuals because of the liability questions involved if a witness were to use the new identification to perpetrate a crime.

Other problems, according to administrators:

* A lack of "social work" training needed by witness inspectors who must play "priest, psychologist, and financier" to newly relocated families dependent on them.

* A need to cultivate more prospective employers for relocated witnesses. Employers sometimes are wary of hiring program participants, more than 90 percent of whom have some criminal background.

* Witnesses serving time in prison say they want administrative consolidation of their own protection and the protection and relocation of their families.

But After hearing last month's testimony, legislators -- pleased with the law-enforcement value of the service -- are expected to press for reorganization and increased federal funding of the program and to seek more support for its efforts from other agencies.

Mr. Noe, who for eight years helped relocate witnesses and their families, says the inadvertant witness to a crime or the criminal-turned-informant may find the prospect of a clean slate promising at first. But when the initial relief a family feels at being removed from danger is followed by the "trauma" of transition to a new identity "it's not as appealing anymore," he says.

It isn't as easy as getting new checks printed and packing the family off to a new part of the country, he explains. Every member of a witness's family must be documented legally with a new birth certificate, driver's license, social security number, and the like -- each of which requires application to a separate state or federal agency.

Noe and others who testified last month before a Senate investigations subcommittee, say documentation delays are the No. 1 problem for witnesses. A family could be "put on hold" for weeks at a time while its case- worker attempts to cut through the red tape that is irritating enough to average citizens but potentially life-threatening to a relocated witness, he says. Without proper identification, a witness is severely restricted in his travel, finances, and employment.

Witnesses serving time in prison pose different problems for the service.

Tommy Sperrazza, serving three consecutive life sentences in a witness protection unit for murders he committed in New England, claims terms of his protection and his family's relocation have fallen between the bureaucratic cracks.

While Sperrazza admits he never expected "red carpet treatment" for himself or his family, he says promises to keep him at a facility near his wife and daughter have not been kept. Under the protection of the US Bureau of Prisons, Sperrazza has been moved several times within the prison system but still is nearly 1,000 miles from his family. He claims the Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons have not compared notes on terms of his family's relocation.

The Bureau of Prisons, however, maintains that it never moves a prisoner without consulting the Marshals Service.

The program, administrators suggest, has been a victim of its own success. Drawing witnesses at a pace that outstripped the resources of the Marshals Service, the program has been under pressure from lawmakers to improve services since the mid-1970s.

Although the program still has problems, says Gerald Shur, associate director of the Office of Enforcement Operations in the Justice Department, "what was once a flood of complaints has now become a trickle."

Mr. Shur notes that at the height of the problems, the ratio of witnesses to Marshals Service personnel was 198 to 1. Today that ratio stands at 22 witnesses to 1 marshal, a figure that he contends indicates improved services.

Although Shur noted that witnesses receive better services today than during the last Senate hearings on the subject three years ago, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia has called for the drafting of legislation to improve the reputation of the program.

"[The program] should attract not just the low-level hoodlum, but it should be capable of assisting the businessman, or lawyer, or anyone else" who inadvertantly gets involved in organized crime, Senator Nunn says.

Besides considering a boost in funding, Nunn has called for a reorganization of the service to provide a shorter chain of authority from witness to top administrators. Similarly, he suggests that the Justice Department obtain written agreements from officials at other agencies needed to secure the proper documentation for witnesses.

Nunn also calls for the department to hire professionals with a broader background in social work to help witnesses as they sever ties to t he past.

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