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The witness protection program seems loosely controlled, say many who are in the program or working with it. Many witnesses say little, if anything, is ever in writing.

Many months and many bureaucrats later, deals are forgotten or changed with no records.Peggy and William Giglia are examples. They agreed to testify against members of the mob, believing they had a deal to be protected. But after their testimony, they were released to their home with no protection.

The deal was made orally, Peggy says. Federal authorities deny it. There is no record.

Hilmer Sandini, a drug dealer who agreed to work in a government sting operation and who eventually corrupted the federal agent assigned to work with him, had told friends and family for years that he had been in the witness protection program. He used aliases which he told criminal compatriots had come from the federal government.

A prosecutor who believed Sandini's boasts went looking for the written record. He found none. Sandini's official federal file, pulled five years after he died, had no mention of protection.

One result of such confusion is that deals are hard to nail down. Some witnesses get and keep very good deals; others are abandoned.

Those in the program are subject to the massive - and splintered - bureaucracy. From the moment they are arrested, criminals who have information to trade for reduced sentences and protection, begin to deal with a dizzying parade of law enforcement agents.

At the outset, the potential informant meets with a street agent from the FBI, DEA, ATF, Secret Service, IRS or local or state investigators. Usually, federal agents get advice from a U.S. attorney before offering admission into the witness program. Top Justice officials in Washington are supposed to sign off on the arrangement.

For the duration of the witness' work with the government, the most important person is the sponsor, usually an assistant U.S. attorney. Janet Reno, now attorney general, sponsored protected witnesses when she was an assistant in Florida.

The sponsor handles all chores leading up to the witness' testimony, cuts the sentencing deal, questions the witness on the stand, and argues any sentence reduction pleas in court. The sponsor is ultimately responsible for ensuring that all deals are honored.

But, after testimony, protected witnesses are handed off to other bureaucrats. If witnesses are sentenced to prison, they will be sent to one of five protected witness units in federal penitentiaries. If they are released, two other departments take charge.

The Justice Department Office of Enforcement Operations takes responsibility for setting up their new lives by providing relocation services and establishing fake identities. The OEO is supposed to do psychological profiles and other studies to help ex-convicts assimilate into lawful society.

The U.S. Marshals Service is responsible for moving them and providing continuing security.

The duties of the OEO and the marshals overlap, and the resulting confusion has been the basis of complaints dating back to an audit in 1982, which suggested the need for a clear chain of command.

By the time the marshals get involved, the sponsors officially charged with making certain the details of the original deal are carried out, are often out of the process, sometimes half a country away and immersed in new prosecutions. Some have moved on to private practice.

Protected witness James Basile could get only a deputy marshal on the phone during his last contact with the program.

Basile, who had testified against the Chicago mob, believed his security in a Western state was compromised when he learned a mob associate lived near him. He was desperate to move.

For weeks, numerous officials ignored his calls. Finally, he made contact with the deputy marshal.

Basile's original deal promised protection, but the deputy marshal told him he would have to stay where he was if he wanted to continue in the program.

When Basile, in fear for his life, said he would have to move with or without help, three deputy marshals showed up at his doorstep with papers for him to sign out of the program. He has been on his own since, moving constantly so he won't be discovered by those he fingered.

Basile believes he was victimized by broken promises, bad record-keeping, and officials who keep secrets even from each other.

"What is this?" he asks. "A comedy?"

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)