Virginia police officials want grand jury report unsealed

(VINTON, Va.) -- Vinton officials want a sealed special grand jury report on the town's Police Department released to aid them in defending civil lawsuits filed by the former officers mentioned in the report.

A special grand jury was convened last year to investigate allegations that drugs, guns and money were mishandled by the Vinton Police Department under police Chief Ricky Foutz and Lt. Bill Brown.

The jury's report, completed in February, concluded there was insufficient evidence to indict the officers, but that they were "neither qualified nor suitable to hold the positions of authority."

Town officials asked Foutz and Brown to resign in the midst of the investigation.

The scathing 24-page report was released to citizens and the media for only three hours on Feb. 18 before a Roanoke County judge ordered it sealed. An attempt by The Roanoke Times to have the document permanently made public was unsuccessful.

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. They also found evidence of illegal conduct, but in some cases the statute of limitations had passed or the statute violated didn't provide for a penalty. Both Brown and Foutz said the handling of evidence was "a joke" - Brown admitted flushing drugs down the toilet and burning them in a barrel at his home.

The report - and the actions of town officials - prompted Foutz and Brown to file lawsuits in federal court against the town. Foutz, who claims Vinton officials slandered him, is seeking $10.4 million; Brown, who claims the town didn't follow legal procedure when reprimanding him, is seeking more than $1 million.

Last Wednesday, Town Attorney Buck Heartwell filed a motion in Roanoke County Circuit Court to have the report made public. The motion argues that Heartwell, one of the town officials named in the federal suits, needs the report in order to defend himself against civil litigation.

Judge Diane Strickland privately showed the report to Foutz, Brown, their lawyers and Heartwell before the three-hour release to the public. Heartwell's motion states that his advice to the town and his subsequent actions were premised in part upon briefings of the special grand jury proceedings.

Strickland later said she was "misguided" by involving Heartwell in the private showing of the report.

After Heartwell filed his motion, Jim Guynn, attorney for the town, Town Manager Clay Goodman and Town Council wrote a petition echoing Heartwell's request. By filing lawsuits, the petition states, "Foutz and Brown have placed the contents of the special grand jury report at issue and the petitioners will be prejudiced in their defense of those lawsuits without access to the special grand jury report."

Guynn said he mailed the petition to the court clerk's office Monday. It had not been filed by Tuesday.

According to Heartwell's motion, the entire report is "relevant and indispensable" to pending civil litigation because both federal lawsuits allude to and cite portions of the report.

"Foutz's repeated references to the report obviate the need for any further secrecy, and have made the report germane to the civil actions now pending," the motion states. "He cannot shield himself from full disclosure of this report by clinging to the veil of secrecy usually afforded to special grand jury investigations."

If the two former police officers didn't want the report released, they shouldn't have filed federal lawsuits, Guynn added.

Neither Philip Coulter, Foutz's lawyer, nor Ed Natt, Brown's counsel, returned phone calls Tuesday. Heartwell did not return a call seeking further comment on his motion.

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Jan. 22. Guynn said he hopes to have the town's petition heard the same day.

(iSyndicate; Roanoke Times & World News; Nov. 15, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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