Story by Tech. Sgt. Betty J. Squatrito-Martin, National Guard Bureau - Counterdrug, Public Affairs
Google it—using the Internet search engine to attain information. Click. Search. What’s this box? Hmm—ads. Click. Oh, it’s something for sale. It’s easy to get distracted by stimulating boxes that pop up on the screen. Result: surfing the net in a way not initially intended.
For some people, the search is intended. The advertisement is a means to an end. A quest to purchase things not found locally. Sometimes that quest is about prescription drugs.
For a Rhode Island National Guard Counterdrug criminal analyst, the search meant investigating Google Inc.’s connection with Canadian pharmacies and the unlawful importation of controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs into the United States.
The investigation was headed by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Andrew J. Reich and Richard B. Myrus of the District of Rhode Island, and the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Investigation.
A criminal analyst with over 16 years experience with the Rhode Island Counterdrug Program assigned to the Rhode Island Joint Task Force spent a couple of years investigating the link between Google and the illegal importation of controlled and non-controlled substances. The Guardsman worked on this investigation during 2008-2009. He then deployed. Upon his return from a year long deployment, he reengaged the investigation.
He provided the initial research that led to the epiphany of what Google was doing on the Internet, said Lt. Col. Gloria Berlanga, Rhode Island Counterdrug Coordinator. When everyone else was involved in the weeds, he was able to step back and look at the big picture, review some papers, connect the dots and show that it was an active attempt by Google to place the ads for the Canadian pharmaceutical companies.
The Rhode Island Joint Task Force’s work paid off. In August, Google Inc. settled the case with United States Attorney for the District of Rhode Island, Peter Neronha.
The Internet search engine, Google Inc. agreed to forfeit $500 million for allowing Canadian pharmacies to place advertisements through Google’s AdWords program, said U.S. Attorney Neronha, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole of the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office, and Kathleen Martin- Weis, Acting Director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations during the initial settlement announcement.
“This settlement ensures that Google will reform its improper advertising practices with regard to these pharmacies while paying one of the largest financial forfeiture penalties in history,” said Deputy Attorney General Cole during the settlement announcement in August.
Coinciding with the investigation, the Rhode Island Counterdrug program was working to attain recognition to share in the Asset Forfeiture Program.
The Asset Forfeiture Program is a nationwide Department of Justice Program encompassing the seizure and forfeiture of assets that represent the proceeds of, or were used to facilitate federal crimes. The mission is to use asset forfeiture consistently and strategically to disrupt and dismantle criminal enterprises, deprive wrongdoers of the fruits and instrumentalities of criminal activity, deter crime, and restore property to crime victims while protecting individual rights.
“It’s using the money that the drug guys use, right back at them,” said Col. Randall Davis, Texas, Counterdrug coordinator.
Legislation introduced by Rhode Island State Senator John J. Tassoni Jr. (D-Dist. 22, Smithfield, North Smithfield) allowing the Rhode Island National Guard to participate in the Asset Forfeiture Program passed in July.
With the passage of the Tassoni bill (2011-S0011aa) the Rhode Island National Guard is able to participate in the forfeiture of money and assets through counterdrug operations in which members of the National Guard support federal, state or municipal efforts.
This was something the Rhode Island Counterdrug program had been working on and off for since 1993, said Berlanga. It was just a matter of having the right people in the right place at the right time.
“I am incredibly proud of our Counterdrug professionals, and our legislative liaisons who were able to facilitate the passage of the asset forfeiture legislation,” said Maj. Gen. Kevin McBride, the Adjutant General of Rhode Island.
“The National Guard plays an important role, and expends its efforts and personnel in many ways for the good of our state,” said Senator Tassoni in a press release dated Aug. 16. “When the Guard takes part in joint counterdrug programs, it should take part in any benefits of those programs, including seized money or property.”
Senator Tassoni’s legislation and the accomplishments of the Rhode Island Counterdrug criminal analyst are enabling the Rhode Island Counterdrug program to share in the Google settlement.
The Rhode Island Counterdrug Program is anticipating getting nearly one percent of the $500 million Google agreed to forfeit.
As the story unfolds, the next step includes the spending of the asset forfeiture funds. What will the Rhode Island Counterdrug Program be able to purchase and share with the Rhode Island Law Enforcement Communities?
During tough economic times, training and equipment are the first things taken away, said Berlanga. The asset forfeiture will allow us to purchase new equipment.
In an effort to continue to foster and maintain the relationship with local law enforcement agencies, the Rhode Island Counterdrug personnel invited representatives from local law enforcement agencies to discuss the best possible expenditure of the asset forfeiture funds.
“Fostering partnerships and developing trust is huge,” said Berlanga.
“Support of local law enforcement is just one of the critical ways the National Guard contributes to the communities. It is a perfect example of us being a part of our communities, as opposed to being apart from our communities,” said McBride.
One of the items being discussed for purchase is an innovative computer system that will link all state and local law enforcement agencies.
“Information dissemination is critical,” said Berlanga. “The more our Law Enforcement Agencies are linked and have the same common operating picture of the drug threat, tactics techniques and procedures being used by drug dealers, the safer our citizens will be.”
Google it—using the Internet search engine to attain information. Sometimes the search contains a bombardment of ads, which may be part of illegal trade. Because of the work of a Rhode Island Counterdrug National Guardsman in conjunction with the Rhode Island Joint Task Force, Google will no longer be able to target U.S. consumers with ads from Canadian pharmacies resulting in the illegal importation of controlled and non-controlled substances. And the Rhode Island Counterdrug Program will be able to purchase much needed equipment to be shared by the law enforcement community of Rhode Island.