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US reprimands agents after man forgotten in San Diego cell

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued reprimands and suspensions of up to seven days to agents involved in detaining a college student who was handcuffed and forgotten in a cell for five days — punishments that drew criticism from the Justice Department and others for being too light.

The Justice Department, which oversees the DEA, said it was concerned the penalties might be inadequate and underscored the need for a broad review of the DEA's disciplinary practices.

A Justice Department inspector general report last year found several DEA employees saw or heard Daniel Chong in his cell at the agency's San Diego office in April 2012 but did nothing because they assumed someone else was responsible.

Chong, then a 23-year-old student at University of California, San Diego, survived without food or water, drinking his urine, defecating in his cell and carving a farewell message to his mother on his arm with broken glass.

News of the discipline came two weeks after the DEA's embattled chief, Michele Leonhart, announced plans to retire amid pressure from members of Congress who questioned her handling of misconduct allegations against agents.

Chong, who was detained during a drug raid and never charged, won a $4.1 million settlement from the government and his ordeal led to nationwide changes in DEA detention policies.

The DEA completed its disciplinary review in March by punishing six agents, Peter Kadzik, an assistant attorney general, wrote last week to U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has strongly criticized the DEA's handling of the case. Grassley's office released Kadzik's letter Tuesday.

Four agents were reprimanded, one was suspended five days without pay, and one was suspended seven days without pay.

"What happened to Mr. Chong is unacceptable," Kadzik wrote. "While DEA leadership took immediate steps following the incident to implement protocols and procedures with regard to monitoring holding cells and detainees, given the significant misconduct at issue, the (Justice) Department has serious concerns about the adequacy of the discipline that DEA imposed on these employees."

Matt Barden, a DEA spokesman, said the punishments adhered to civil service protection guidelines.

"At DEA, we take policing ourselves very seriously and we are welcome and open to any recommendations ... that would enhance our disciplinary process," he said.

Others echoed the Justice Department's criticism. Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, thanked the Justice Department for "candor about the Drug Enforcement Administration's very inadequate disciplinary procedures."

Eugene Iredale, an attorney for Chong, said, "One could suggest in a case in which someone almost died as a result of some inexcusable neglect that a sanction of more than a week on the beach is appropriately called for."

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