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A twelve-year veteran of the of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) pleaded not guilty Monday in federal court in Los Angeles to charges of illegally selling sensitive information about private citizens pulled from federal and state law enforcement computers.

DEA Special Agent Emilio Calatayud is charged in an eleven count indictment with wire fraud, bribery, and violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for allegedly selling "criminal history and law enforcement information" to private investigations firm Triple Check Investigative Services in Los Angeles. His trial is scheduled for 13 March.

According to prosecutors, the 34-year-old Calatayud peddled data for six years beginning in 1993, supplementing his government paycheck by anywhere from $1,080 to $8,500 in cash each year. The indictment charges that, in all, Calatayud earned at least $22,580 with his computer access, at a rate of between $60 and $80 per target.

By those figures, Calatayud would have run queries on approximately 300 - 400 people who were being investigated by Triple Check -- though presumably not all of those people had records to be found.

The purloined data allegedly came from three law enforcement computers to which Calatayud had otherwise lawful access: the FBI's National Crime Information Centre (NCIC), which maintains nationwide records on arrest histories, convictions and warrants; the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS), a state network that gives agents access to California motor vehicle records, rap sheets and fingerprints; and a DEA database called the Narcotics and Dangerous Drug Information System (NADDIS).

The NADDIS computer, located in Rockville, Maryland, is described by a Justice Department Web page as a repository of information on "subjects of interest" to the DEA, "consisting of over 3,500,000 individuals, businesses, vessels and selected airfields."

Calatayud has been suspended with pay since August 1999, when he fell under the joint DEA, FBI and Justice Department investigation that ultimately lead to his arrest earlier this month. He is now free on $100,000 bail, and his DEA salary has been suspended.

Triple Check's owner could not be reached for comment. The company was not charged in the indictment. Calatayud's attorney, Douglas E. McCann, did not immediately return a phone call Monday.

"The sale of confidential information by a member of a law enforcement agency jeopardizes the viability of criminal investigations, threatens the safety of members of the public and undermines the integrity of our entire law enforcement community," said United States Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas in a statement. "The proper response to such an abuse of the public trust is an aggressive prosecution."

If the indictment proves accurate, the case highlights the risks posed by the increasingly large number of government databases that house information on individuals, and are widely accessible with minimal security, says ACLU associate director Barry Steinhardt.

"There's corruption at all levels of government," says Steinhardt. "The more aggregate and searchable a database is, the greater the likelihood that it'll be used, both in authorized ways, and in unauthorized ways that may be criminal."

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