Kimberly O'Brien The Roanoke Times World News Copyright 2001 The Roanoke Times & World News Roanoke Times & World News January 23, 2001, Tuesday, Metro Edition
(ROANOKE COUNTY, Va) -- The decision to release a sealed special grand jury report that details evidence of drug, gun and money mishandling by the Vinton Police Department should come from a federal judge, a circuit court judge said Monday.
Roanoke County Judge Diane Strickland's ruling came after a nearly two-hour hearing prompted by motions filed in November by Vinton Town Attorney Buck Heartwell and other town officials. The motions asked that the report be made public to help town officials defend themselves against civil lawsuits.
The motions are the latest chapter in a saga that began in fall 1999 when a special grand jury was convened to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in the Vinton Police Department under police Chief Ricky Foutz and Lt. Bill Brown. It was the first time authorities could remember a special grand jury being convened in Roanoke County.
The jury's report, completed the following February, concluded there was insufficient evidence to indict the officers, but that they were "neither qualified nor suitable to hold the positions of authority." Although the grand jury said it found evidence of illegal conduct, in some cases the statute of limitations had passed or the statute violated didn't provide for a penalty.
Among the things the special grand jury found during its three-month investigation was a lieutenant who ruled by "fear, intimidation and retribution" and a chief who ignored the problems. Town officials asked Foutz and Brown to resign in the midst of the jury's investigation.
The scathing 24-page report was released to residents and the media for only three hours on Feb. 18 before Strickland ordered it sealed. An attempt by The Roanoke Times to have the document permanently made public was unsuccessful. Foutz has since asked the Virginia Supreme Court to expunge the report entirely.
But because of civil lawsuits filed by Foutz and Brown, the special grand jury's report has become an issue again. The former officers separately filed lawsuits in federal court last year against the town. Foutz is seeking $10.4 million; Brown is asking for more than $1 million.
Although attorneys for Foutz and Brown disagree, lawyers representing Heartwell, Town Manager Clay Goodman and members of Town Council - who are named in the civil suits - claim the grand jury report is relevant because the two federal lawsuits either allude to or cite portions of it.
"There is no secrecy anymore," said Mary Beth Nash, who represents Heartwell. "The door's been opened."
Jim Guynn, one of the two attorneys representing the town, said arguments in the civil cases will center on why the two officers were fired. Town officials based their actions on what they knew of the grand jury's findings, he said, and the report would shed some light on what officials were told.
Nash also asked Monday whether Strickland, even if she decided to not make the report public, could at least make the report available to the attorneys for purposes of defense. The report could help point them in the direction of potential witnesses, she said.
"I'd like to know what Mr. Guynn and I are trying to defend," added Agnis Chakravorty, who also represents the town. "Those lawsuits would not have been filed if it hadn't been for the grand jury."
Attorneys for Foutz and Brown, however, said the report is flawed and went beyond the scope of the special grand jury. Philip Coulter, who represents Foutz, has repeatedly called the report one-sided and inflammatory.
Strickland said Monday it was important for the court to balance the need for whether town officials would be served by access to the report with the need for secrecy and the protection of future special grand juries. But in the end, she said that decision would be better left up to the federal judge who will be hearing the civil suits.
Strickland said she will send a copy of the report to U.S. District Court Judge James Turk and let him decide whether to release it, release it only to the attorneys involved or to direct the attorneys to use other means to gather information in preparing their cases.
Guynn said he plans to file a motion in federal court.