By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
You probably wouldn't understand the psychology of a reporter. Well, maybe if you think of a fisherman. His fish story is better if the line snapped the first time, then he hooked himself in the seat of his pants, then he fell out of the boat, cut his finger, there was blood, and finally he landed the fish. That proves he's a hero for having won a contest with one of nature's lower life forms. So that's why I've had one of the best two-week stretches of my life.
First, when I asked the Dallas Police Department for a copy of the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration's audit of the DPD's narcotics procedures, they told me it didn't exist. So next I filed a legal demand for it. The DPD then broke the law by not answering my request within the 10-day time limit set by state law.
DPD breaks law. I love it.
Some time after the legal deadline, the chief's office faxed me a year-old DPD press release about the DEA report with several portions "redacted" or removed so I couldn't see them. The main thing redacted was the part that talked about how the DPD accounts for and controls the money it pays to informants--a huge issue in the Dallas fake-drugs scandal and presumably a prime focus of the recently announced city panel to look into fake drugs.
Fake drugs is the scandal in 2001 in which dozens of innocent Mexican immigrants were imprisoned or deported on cocaine charges after someone connected with Dallas police planted big bags of ground-up billiard chalk on them. No one ever tested the stuff to see that it wasn't cocaine. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in "snitch fees" were channeled through narcotics detectives to confidential informants. Now no one seems to know who authorized the payments or who really signed the receipts or where the money went.
A two-year federal probe of fake drugs produced one indictment of a detective, who was recently acquitted. Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill two weeks ago set up an independent prosecutor to consider state criminal charges against participants in the scandal. A few days later the city announced its own panel to look at administrative and procedural issues within the police department to explain why fake drugs happened.
When the announcement was made, city council members told the panel they especially wanted to know what had happened to all the money in snitch and buy fees and what issues may exist in the accounting of such money in the future.
Somewhere along in here, Hill reminded me that former Chief Terrell Bolton had asked the DEA to come in and do an audit of these very questions a year ago. Hill said the DEA had produced an audit report and had delivered it to Bolton, but Hill said when he asked to see the report, Bolton would not release it.
Here was my thinking: If the city launches a probe of standard operating procedures in the police department regarding fake drugs and can't even figure out that the DEA just did the same thing, it means they are one of three things: 1) nuts, 2) stupid or 3) stupid nuts.
Which brings me back to fishing. I complained to the DPD that a year-old DPD press release with stuff taken out--especially the stuff about the money--is not a DEA report. Meanwhile, City Attorney Madeleine Johnson, who has been great about all this, caught wind of the issue and reviewed it and decided the DEA report was public and should be released in full.
The next day the DPD called me and told me to come downtown and pick up a document, which turned out to be the DPD press release with stuff put back in. I wrote a letter to Johnson complaining that a year-old DPD press release, even with stuff put back in, is not a DEA report.
She called me up and said she had been informed that I had been provided the "full universe" of the DEA report. "Maybe you have it, and you don't know that what you have is the document," she said.
The mature fisherman ponders: Is this a bite? A snag? Or an aneurism?
I said please look at what they gave me. She called me back and said she had looked at the document, and it was not the DEA report. She said that she would "get to the bottom of this." Eventually she called me back and said she had her hands on the DEA report, and she told me to come back downtown and get it.
I went downtown. She gave me the DEA report. Tragically, page four, dealing with the money, had apparently "fallen out" of it, but she said she would find page four for me soon. At this writing, I do not yet have page four, which is wonderful, because not having it gives me something to live for. I am confident that page four will turn up eventually, and when it does, I plan to take it to a taxidermist.
But enough of me and how I have to do my job. The real news here is that the report, what I have of it, is quite interesting.
The trick is in laying it all out on a table side by side--the press release with stuff taken out, the press release with stuff back in and the DEA report minus page four. What emerges is a picture of two things: 1) the issues found by the DEA, and 2) the issues the DPD has been seeking to keep out of the public eye.
Follow the money.
Even with page four missing, I can see some of what the DEA was telling the police department about its accounting practices. In the redacted press release, a section called "Guidelines for Informant Payments" says only that the DEA recommendation is "protected information."
Not confidentialor secretor withheld for police security reasons. Not exempt or sensitive.Just "protected," as in protecting their you-know-what.
The recommendation had nothing to do with any inside police information about investigative techniques. Instead, according to the report when I finally got my hands on it, the DEA was telling the DPD it needed to establish a firm system of permissions, sign-offs, authority and audit trails for cash taken out of the department and handed to street sources.
The DEA also tells the DPD in the report that "the largest single payment to any confidential informant" should be no more than $20,000. The DEA goes on to say the DPD should adopt a guideline that says, "The maximum sum paid to any confidential informant in any calendar year is $20,000."
The DEA recommends that the DPD adopt a formal amendment to its procedures manual stating that only the management persons authorized to sign off on payments can sign off on those payments: You can't claim the boss was out of the office, in other words, and then go shop for another signature or scratch something on the page yourself and say you can't remember who signed it.
Think about this. Think of a situation where you work, in which there was a cash drawer from which you could take amounts over $20,000, and the money was basically uncounted. I can see why the DPD would not want a lot of press scrutiny of its accounting practices.
In fact, I can see why no one anywhere at City Hall would welcome that focus. Robert W. Reynolds, a CPA who is basically being hounded out of his job with the city auditor's department, has talked to me in the past about the city's habit of not counting its money ("The Emperor's Checkbook," November 21, 2002). Reynolds points out that if you put a large pile of cash in front of people and then demonstrate over time it will not be counted, it will be stolen. Count on it.
The DEA report provides other keen insights, especially concerning corroboration of evidence. More on that soon.
By the way, I was not the only person pushing for this report, and I may not have been the most effective in forcing it out. I learned late in the game that Councilwoman Dr. Elba Garcia had also been looking for it.
She said on the phone: "I remember, Jim, the first time during one of the press conferences we had, you asked the chief if he had any information about the DEA that he had not revealed, and his answer was, 'Not that I can think of.'
"And I said, 'Wait a minute.' My brain started clicking at that point." Garcia, who remembered a briefing to the city council by former Chief Bolton on the DEA report, asked Acting Chief Randy Hampton to provide her with a copy. What she got initially was a version with major portions crossed out--apparently yet another edition that I haven't seen yet. Busy, busy, busy over there at the cop shop, getting ready for Christmas with the scissors and the Marks-a-Lots.
Garcia didn't give me a lot of particulars on what happened after that, but I suspect it was her inquiry that led to City Attorney Johnson's personal review, not mine.
Whatever it takes.
And by the way: I am quite confident at the moment of this writing that the full DEA report still has not found its way to the city's fake-drugs panel. Can't tell you why I know that. But the panel will soon ask for it.
So for now, guess what I want for Christmas? You think it's page four, right? No way. What I want to find under the tree is page four with certain paragraphs tragically eaten out of it by moths. Oh, that would make for such a joyous holiday season at my house. Jingle, jingle!