The DA Speaks

District Attorney Bill Hill says his office knew early on there was a problem with fake drug cases.
Mark Graham

As anyone who has watched the grave, opening sequence to Law & Order knows, police and prosecutors work hand in glove gathering criminal evidence and presenting it in court. If the heads of those agencies are on the outs, it's akin to a bad business partnership, or maybe a bad marriage. Something isn't right.

And something is definitely wrong in Dallas law enforcement.

In an interview last week--his first with the Dallas Observer since it began reporting last year on problems in the Dallas Police Department--Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill counted himself among those who question the leadership of police Chief Terrell Bolton. (See "Dallas' Chief Problem," by Thomas Korosec, January 16.)

While Hill refrained from knocking Bolton directly, he discussed several issues demonstrating his deep disappointment in the chief, who is in his fourth rocky year at the head of the 3,000-officer department. Try as he might to not embarrass his law-and-order partner, it was impossible for Hill not to reveal the mistrust he has of Bolton, and confirm accounts from sources close to Hill that he is among others in local law enforcement who doubt the chief's credibility.

Hill's opinions appear to have solidified about 15 months ago, when the infamous fake-drug scandal began to break. In that well-covered episode, a Dallas police informant and several associates set up more than a dozen unsuspecting people--all Hispanics--with fake cocaine.

Hill says Bolton's initial remarks to the public about the case on New Year's Eve 2001 were key. "When Chief Bolton came out and did that press conference, I was convinced somebody else needed to be investigating this besides the police department," says Hill, who in January 2002 asked the FBI and federal prosecutors to begin an independent probe.

Hill says his office knew in late 2001 that the narcotics unit was out of control, but he did not know that Bolton was about to lead the public in the wrong direction. "I had no idea that was coming," Hill says of Bolton's public comments.

Bolton told reporters Dallas had been beset with a rash of drug dealers selling fake cocaine as a result of tightened U.S. borders and the September 11 terror attacks. The chief expressed confidence in a police informant who was making the cases, as well as several Dallas narcotics officers who were working with the informant and his associates.

Hill says he knew otherwise.

"We'd seen enough cases that we were very suspicious," says Hill, adding that there were six in which police reports could not possibly have been right. "Something was wrong, and it was either the police officers or the informants or both. We knew it wasn't fake drugs being distributed to unsuspecting users. It was how they were making these cases in the first place."

In early January, the district attorney's office gained possession of a police file on the confidential informants that provided something of a smoking gun, Hill says. "The file had the payment schedules, who they paid each time they made one of these cases, the amounts, who signed off or who didn't sign off. It was the most hodgepodge operation I'd ever seen in terms of keeping track of this money, how much they were giving these informants, who was signing off on it.

"Some of the signatures looked like they had been forged. There were places where two or three signatures were needed to authorize the payments and that hadn't been done.

"We figured out there's a bunch of people over there [in the police department] who have absolutely no idea what they're doing, or they don't care, or they're involved in it. So that's when we really said we've got a problem in the police department."

DPD's narcotics unit paid the informants approximately $210,000 as rewards, some in $50,000 increments. Bolton has told Dallas City Council he knew nothing about the payments or anything else about the scandal until late December 2001, about three months after the first batch of fake drugs was uncovered.

Hill says his office did not recognize a pattern of bad cases as quickly as it should have in fall 2001, but once he became convinced there was a problem, he had five prosecutors "working almost around the clock to try to figure out who all was involved and what we could do on identifying the victims and freeing them from jail."

His office needed help from DPD, he says, because police reports in the cases did not identify the confidential informants. "It wasn't as easy for us to get our hands around the cases as you might think," Hill says.

"There were times I felt that information was not being gathered [by DPD] in a timely manner, but they might have had their reasons," Hill says. "I certainly got the feeling early on that the police department felt it wasn't as big a problem as I felt it was."

Early last year, as the scandal began to unfold and became national news, Bolton continued to urge Hill--whose office had been prosecuting the innocent victims of the scandal--not to bring in the FBI. Hill finally made the request himself, and Bolton went along grudgingly. As Bolton receded from public view, Hill was left to explain to the public what went wrong and how he was going to fix it.

Hill says his office has nothing to hide, and it took its lumps in the press and in public opinion for allowing drug suspects to be prosecuted without the narcotics in evidence being subject to full lab tests.

"It's a policy I inherited and, quite frankly, something I never thought about," he says of the practice of relying on rudimentary police field tests unless defendants requested full lab tests. "That's the way it was done for 20 years."

He says he is as certain as he can be that changes he instituted in testing and other reforms, many put in to protect citizens from bad police practices, would make a repeat of the scandal impossible.

Today, he says, his office wants to know as much as it can about police drug informants, down to how much they were paid for their assistance. "Most of the ones we see now are paid, maybe, $100," Hill says.

Meanwhile, until the FBI acts and the air is cleared, Hill's office has opted out of participating in a "blue ribbon" panel on drug policy organized by Bolton and headed by some of the chief's staunchest supporters. Hill says his office isn't participating because it has a conflict of interest with the police department while the fake-drug criminal investigation is pending.

It's safe to say the conflict goes far deeper than that.

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