WASHINGTON -- The embattled head of the Drug Enforcement Administration will resign next month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Tuesday.
DEA chief Michele Leonhart has long clashed with the Obama administration on drug policy and recently received bipartisan criticism for her handling of the discipline of DEA agents who participated in "sex parties" with prostitutes in Colombia. In a statement, Holder said that Leonhart had told him she would depart the agency in mid-May.
Holder praised Leonhart for her "extraordinary service to the DEA, to the Department of Justice and to the American people" and called DEA agents "some of the finest law enforcement officers in the world." He described Leonhart, a career drug warrior who has headed the agency since 2007, as a "good friend" and wished her "all the best as she embarks on this next chapter in what is a remarkable life.”
Lawmakers from both parties slammed Leonhart last week over the revelation that none of the DEA agents involved in so-called "sex parties" in Colombia were fired or even significantly punished. The Justice Department Inspector General found out about DEA agents stationed in Colombia hiring prostitutes during an investigation into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct within several law enforcement agencies. The report was released last month.
Leonhart has long seemed rhetorically out of step with the Obama administration on drug policy, and many longtime DOJ officials say they're surprised she's lasted as long as she has. Early on in the administration, the DEA clashed with DOJ officials over the best approach to states that had legalized medical marijuana. Last year, Leonhart had a discussion with Holder after she seemed to support mandatory minimum sentences the Obama administration was working to curtail. She had also been publicly critical of the Justice Department's decision not to sue Colorado and Washington for legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes and reportedly criticized President Barack Obama for saying that marijuana was no more harmful than alcohol.
One key question is who the Obama administration could nominate to take Leonhart's place as head of the agency who could pass muster both within the DEA and in the Republican-controlled Senate.
While Leonhart is not putting out a statement on her resignation, DEA officials have circulated a statement from former agency chief Peter Bensinger which said that the sexual misconduct allegations are not the reason for her departure.
"This is about her courage to enforce the law," Bensinger said in the statement. "It's about marijuana which is illegal in all 50 states under federal law, it's about our International Treaty obligations, it's about the Asset Forfeiture Law, and minimum sentencing for serious drug offenses. It’s about politics."
In an interview with HuffPost, Bensinger said he didn't discuss his statement with Leonhart, but said he believed the administration was using the sex parties scandal as an excuse to force her out.
"This was an incident that was used as a rallying point by the people who were opposed to her positions," Bensinger said. "You have an administration that has turned their back on federal law. ... People in this government and the White House and other places don't like her taking the position that her oath of office requires."
This story has been updated with Attorney General Eric Holder's official statement on Leonhart's resignation, as well as with comment from former DEA head Peter Bensinger.