Police ignored drug problems, feds say
Jonathan Osborne, American-Statesman Staff
(AUSTIN, Texas) -- A mid-1990s federal investigation of an Austin-based drug network turned up reports that 10 Austin police officers may have been working with the smugglers or using cocaine on duty, court records show.
The investigation crumbled in 1997, however, when police administrators transferred Austin officers from the federal task force, depriving it of personnel needed to pursue the leads, according to an Internal Revenue Service agent and an assistant U.S. attorney who ran the investigation, code named Mala Sangre -- Spanish for Bad Blood.
Police supervisors appeared uninterested in investigating their own officers, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Marshall testified in a sworn deposition.
"It appeared to me that a lot of people just wanted to avoid that embarrassment," said Marshall, Mala Sangre's administrative supervisor. "There were a number of things we could have done if we would have had the manpower."
Austin Police Chief Stan Knee disagreed, saying the U.S. attorney's office was asked whether transferring the officers would cause a hardship.
"Every time the department made an inquiry into whether these people were necessary to the investigation, the information that was returned to us from the U.S. attorney's office was, no, they weren't," said Knee, who discussed the investigation with police supervisors after taking over the department in 1997, after Mala Sangre had wound down.
According to court documents that surfaced after two lawsuits against the City of Austin were recently settled, Mala Sangre began in 1995 and quickly turned up leads about wrongdoing by police officers.
The key document is a "summary of allegations." Drafted by Mala Sangre's lead investigators in 1999 to update their supervisors, the summary details information provided by 15 confidential informants, including at least three police officers.
Knee said the department did all it could to investigate wrongdoing turned up by Mala Sangre. But internal affairs investigators were hampered, Knee said, because the federal task force refused to identify the confidential informants, leaving police with allegations based on innuendo and unsubstantiated evidence.
"It's just hard to fight ghosts," Knee said.
Marshall, the assistant U.S. attorney, blamed the Austin Police Department for a lack of support.
The Police Department began pulling officers from the investigation about the time some officers were implicated in wrongdoing, Marshall said in a February 2000 deposition.
Marshall testified that a turning point came in the summer of 1996, after officer David Mattox was reported to be selling cocaine out of his patrol car and a civilian police photographer compromised a Mala Sangre investigation into a drug dealer.
"I sort of pin the lack of personnel and the lack of support to about the time that Mattox and those guys were having their difficulties," Marshall said in his deposition. "I couldn't get officers to come in and review (surveillance) tapes. . . . Granted, it's boring as hell, and I wouldn't want to do it either, but my God, we do it. And it wasn't happening."
Marshall declined to comment for this article, citing Department of Justice restrictions.
Mala Sangre claimed 20 arrests across the United States, including retired Austin narcotics officer Bob Black, sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for buying cocaine on Feb. 21, 1996. Robert Sanger, police chief in Premont, a town of 3,000 about 20 miles southwest of Kingsville, also was convicted for possession of almost a ton of marijuana.
No Austin police officers were charged with a crime as a result of Mala Sangre, although Mattox was fired from the department when he tested positive for cocaine use. Any drug-dealing charges would have had to come from the U.S. attorney's office, Assistant Police Chief Rick Coy said. No local charges were filed because Mattox was not found in possession of any narcotics, Coy said.
Of the 10 officers named in the summary as taking drugs, working with drug networks or tipping off drug dealers, eight remain on the force.
Behind two storefronts
The Mala Sangre task force of federal and local agencies began in October 1995 with surveillance on two businesses in the same East Austin shopping center: Angela's Furniture Store, owned by Roger Lopez, and Mike's Formal Wear, owned by Michael Borrero, who is serving time in federal prison.
Almost immediately, confidential informants began reporting that Austin police officers were using cocaine and protecting Lopez's narcotics network and other drug dealers, according to the summary of allegations and an accompanying chronology.
That summary was written in April 1999 by the lead Mala Sangre investigators -- now-retired IRS agent Wayne Young and Austin police officer Stan Farris -- to be given to the Austin Police Department and the FBI.
Testifying in a February 2000 deposition, Young said the report was his supervisor's idea. However, he said, it was not distributed because his supervisor retired.
Young, who lives in Austin, retired from the IRS in 1999. He did not return telephone calls Thursday and Friday.
The summary next surfaced in police Capt. Cecil Huff's whistle-blower lawsuit against the City of Austin. Huff supervised police officers working on Mala Sangre before his transfer in 1996. His lawsuit alleged that he was transferred after running afoul of a senior group of officers Huff claimed received preferential treatment and interfered with disciplinary and criminal investigations into its members.
Huff settled his lawsuit in early January for $6,000, just enough to cover his legal fees.
In the summary, an informant listed nine officers known to frequent Angela's Furniture Store and Cocktails Nightclub, an eastside bar where Lopez was a regular. Another informant named six officers seen buying cocaine from Borrero.
Drug task forces often rely on confidential informants to determine how to focus investigations. Because many are involved in the illegal activity, investigators typically need to corroborate their statements.
Other information in the summary includes:
* Two officers carried cocaine from South Texas to Austin for Lopez. They also supplied pagers, cell phones and information on investigations to Lopez's network, according to confidential informants identified only as CI-9 and CI-13.
* Seven confidential informants said on-duty and off-duty police officers regularly attended after-hours sex and drug parties at the former Cocktails Nightclub, 2003 E. Riverside Drive. Several officers also worked security at Cocktails -- off-duty jobs approved by the department -- and one informant was told not to worry about the security detail "because those officers knew what was going on."
* Three officers, named only as confidential informants, said a police lieutenant made frequent disparaging remarks about Young, one of the lead Mala Sangre investigators. The frequency and repetition of the remarks caused them to believe the lieutenant carried a "hidden and suspicious agenda," and two officers said they feared cooperating with Mala Sangre investigators could bring retaliation and threaten their careers.
* Two Austin police officers accompanied Lopez on all-expenses-paid trips to the 1994 Super Bowl. The officers took separate trips to the 1995 Super Bowl and a prize fight in Oklahoma -- also paid for by Lopez, who was convicted of drug trafficking in 1998 and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Assistant Police Chief Coy said there is no department policy prohibiting officers from associating with felons, including friends or family.
* After Lopez was arrested in August 1996, telephone records showed he was using a cell phone leased by an Austin police officer. Knee said the officer was investigated, but the allegations could not be proved.
Knee dismissed the summary, saying it contained little more than rumors, was written in an unprofessional way and relied on investigative notes that should never have been made public.
"Most of the allegations I found to be old," said Knee, who received a copy of the summary about one year ago. "Many of them I had been briefed on. I also, in reviewing that document, determined that it was not really a case summary of the investigation, but more investigators' investigative notes."
Mala Sangre was run by federal agents, but its muscle came from local law enforcement agencies such as the Austin Police Department.
Because there aren't enough federal agents to do an investigation's grunt work, the U.S. government pays for overtime, travel costs and other expenses incurred by local law enforcement. The relationship is formalized as an Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force.
The Mala Sangre task force was led by the IRS and included the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. attorney's office, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The Austin Police Department joined the investigation in 1995 by contributing eight to 10 officers. By March 1997, only lead investigator Farris remained, and he was transferred away four months later.
Farris and two other officers -- Dennis Clark and David Gann -- filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the City of Austin in October 1997, claiming they were transferred from Mala Sangre to shut down the investigation of fellow officers.
The department, then and now, maintains that the officers were transferred because of a five-year rotation that was required of all patrol officers. But in their settlement of the lawsuit, the city conceded that the five-year rule was selectively enforced. Clark, for example, had spent about eight years in special investigations before his transfer; Farris had been in narcotics for 5 1/2 years.
Clark, a 23-year veteran, said in a February 2000 deposition that the investigation needed just a little more time.
"We could have gotten to the end result very easily," Clark testified.
Clark and Farris, a 23-year officer, declined to be interviewed. Gann, an officer since 1986, was on vacation last week and could not be reached.
Coy said officers were assigned to other duties because the department believed the task force had closed its Austin case to concentrate on South Texas. The department was waiting for the task force to finish its investigation and present its allegations to Austin's internal affairs unit, he said.
No conclusions were turned over to the department, Coy said.
Young, in his deposition, said police supervisors were kept abreast of all developments during weekly task force meetings.
"If I have got a captain and lieutenant and sergeant sitting there, and they hear information, I shouldn't have to go over and berate them to do something," Young testified.
Farris, Clark and Gann settled their lawsuit in December for $80,000 -- $12,500 apiece and $42,000 to their lawyer, Derek Howard.
"Policy was not equally implemented," Knee said. "The settlement was appropriate."
Howard said the settlement amount did not reflect the strength of the officers' complaint. None wasere fired, he said. In fact, since filing the suit, Gann and Clark have been promoted to detective.
"There hasn't been any demonstration of loss of income," Howard said. "In cases where whistle-blowers are fired, you have much higher damage awards."
As a result of the lawsuit, the department has changed policy to require officers to report criminal misconduct by other officers. Knee said those who fear retaliation can bypass the chain of command and report misconduct directly to him or to internal affairs.
Knee couldn't say whether any officers named by Mala Sangre informants would be investigated further. New information could surface at any time, he said.
"We do in fact follow up on . . . every allegation of criminal misconduct," Knee said.
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