WASHINGTON — The embattled head of the Drug Enforcement Administration said Tuesday that she plans to retire after three decades with the agency, an announcement that came amid mounting pressure for her resignation from members of Congress who questioned her handling of misconduct allegations against agents.
Michele Leonhart, a career drug agent who has led the agency since 2007 and was the second woman to hold the job, had been widely criticized for her response to a scathing government watchdog report detailing allegations that agents attended sex parties with prostitutes in a foreign country.
After Leonhart appeared last week before the House Oversight Committee to respond to an inspector general's allegations that the agents had received lenient punishments, most lawmakers on the panel announced that they had lost confidence in her. She also was criticized as being "woefully unable to change" the agency's culture.
The no-confidence statement was signed by 13 House Democrats and nine Republicans, including its chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and the committee's top Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland. Chaffetz went a step further, calling for Leonhart to resign or be fired. On Tuesday, the two lawmakers said they welcomed Leonhart's departure, calling it appropriate and an opportunity for new leadership.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated earlier Tuesday that the Obama administration had "concerns about the material that was presented in the (inspector general) report that raised legitimate and serious questions about the conduct of some DEA officers." He said Obama "maintains a very high standard for anybody who serves in his administration, particularly when it comes to law enforcement officials."
Leonhart will leave the agency in mid-May, Attorney General Eric Holder said in announcing her retirement.
"Michele has led this distinguished agency with honor, and I have been proud to call her my partner in the work of safeguarding our national security and protecting our citizens from crime, exploitation and abuse," Holder said, crediting her with helping dismantle violent drug trafficking organizations.
Leonhart canceled an appearance to receive an award Tuesday from sponsors of the Border Security Expo, a trade show in Phoenix for government contractors. Doug Coleman, the DEA's special agent in charge in Phoenix, accepted on her behalf.
Robert Bonner, a former DEA administrator and Customs and Border Protection commissioner, told the luncheon audience that Leonhart was being unfairly blamed for agents' misconduct. He said last week's House hearing presented a "jumbled and distorted" picture of the agency, much of it untrue.
"Sadly, what we're witnessing in Washington is 'gotcha' politics in action," he said.
Leonhart was the target of online petitions calling for her ouster after she distanced herself from the administration's stance on legalized marijuana, seen as a hands-off approach that lets states legalize marijuana so long as it is state-regulated. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law and is classified by the DEA as a Schedule 1 drug, along with drugs such as heroin and peyote.
Leonhart also declined to fully endorse sentencing reform efforts supported by the Justice Department, and the agency has been criticized by privacy advocates for its use of a sweeping database of phone calls made from the United States to multiple foreign countries. The agency acknowledged that database in a court filing involving a man accused of conspiring to illegally export goods and technology to Iran, but said it was no longer in use.
During Leonhart's tenure the agency was responsible for a variety of notable criminal cases, including assisting in the 2014 capture of Mexico's Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, long considered one of the most powerful drug traffickers in the world.
There were also scandals, including the case of a California college student who was left alone in a holding cell for five days without food or water. The April 2012 incident left Daniel Chong in grave physical health and led to a $4.1 million settlement and nationwide changes in the agency's detention policies.
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in Phoenix contributed to this report