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These questions go unanswered

September 13, 1999

To complete Our Life of Police Commissioner Howard Safir, from the depths of Anne Arundel County, Md.'s district court and the lawsuit filed against him by writer Dan Moldea, we take you to the last page of Safir's deposition and the four questions he refused to answer.

They were: 1) Can you identify the Monterey Park Ski Club? 2) Were you ever a member of the Monterey Park Ski Club? 3) What is the DeFeo report? 4) Was your name mentioned in the DeFeo report? Notwithstanding Safir's threat of a lawsuit against your humble servant conveyed Friday by his spokeswoman, Marilyn Mode, we will in the interest of full disclosure attempt to provide some answers.

Those four unanswered questions refer to Safir's salad days in Los Angeles 25 years ago with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), an agency that, as we shall see, appeared to be slightly nutso. (The BNDD was the precursor of today's Drug Enforcement Administration.) Let's begin with the Monterey Park Ski Club. According to a Justice Department memorandum obtained by Newsday, dated March 26, 1976, from Special Assistant to the Attorney General Mark L. Wolf to Peter Bensinger, administrator of the DEA, the Monterey Park Ski Club was "a ruling clique" of agents within the L.A.

office "that ran roughshod over the rest of the office ... Members of this clique were said to receive preferential treatment from the BNCC'S deputy regional director ... and to cover for one another when one of their members was in difficulties." An assistant U.S. attorney, Wolf's memorandum continues, was "said to have been close to this group and on several occasions to have provided alibis for agents when they had automobile accidents in government-owned vehicles during non-business hours." According to Wolf's memorandum and other sources contacted by Newsday, the group became the focus in the early 1970s of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which was probing international narcotics trafficking.

At the heart of the probe was BNDD's "Operation Silver Dollar," in which, according to Wolf's memorandum, Safir played a role and in which agents of the Monterey Park group infiltrated purported drug trafficking rings at the Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas and at the Howard Hughes-owned Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.

According to Wolf's memorandum, Safir "became aware of this drug trafficking investigation and discussed the possibility of forming a task force with Philip Smith, then chief of special projects, and as a result of these discussions, Operation Silver Dollar was created."

Now here is where things become crazy. "Smith stated that he received a call from Safir in February 1973, concerning the possibility of using BNDD funds for gambling to facilitate the penetration of the Las Vegas narcotics operation," Wolf's memorandum continues.

Because the bureau's "budgetary language" prohibited this, the memorandum says Smith arranged for $20,000 to be funneled from the Summa Corp., a Hughes subsidiary, to the BNDD "for gambling purposes." If that wasn't bizarre enough, Wolf's memorandum says the money was funneled to BNDD through Intertel, a private investigative agency formed by ex-BNDD agents, which was itself under investigation by the BNDD for possible drug trafficking.

"A review of the files," the memorandum states, "does not disclose where this report about the Intertel investigation was filed nor if anyone connected with Operation Silver Dollar was aware of it." A key undercover agent sent to infiltrate the Paradise Island resort was Sante Bario, one of the Monterey Park group. Bario, described in a 1978 Washington Post account as having infiltrated "large drug-trafficking circles that embraced Belgium, France and Mexico," was arrested that year for bribery and jailed in San Antonio, Texas, where he choked on a peanut butter sandwich and went into a coma from which he never recovered consciousness.

According to a June 2, 1975, letter obtained by Newsday to then-U.S. Attorney General Edward Levy from the Senate subcommittee, Bario, Smith and Safir were scheduled to testify before it on June 23, 1975. According to Wolf's memorandum, Bario was also questioned by Michael DeFeo, who was conducting an internal Justice Department investigation. Neither the results of DeFeo's nor the Senate's investigation were ever made public.

Mode said last week that DeFeo had never interviewed Safir, and that contrary to assertions by sources contacted by Newsday that he had refused to testify before the Senate subcommittee, "Commissioner Safir answered all questions and if you say he didn't he says he will happily sue you." Mode refused to say whether Safir belonged to the Monterey Park Ski Club.

Michael Dorman contributed to this column.

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© 1999 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.