Did the Austin Police Department Shut Down an Investigation of Its Own Cops?
Austin Police Department officer Stan Farris sits in his lawyer's office and unzips the shirt of his starched navy blue uniform, just enough to adjust his Kevlar vest. He pushes it up a little, moves it to the right a bit, and scratches his sternum before zipping up again. Farris has the rough-hewn features and street-smart gaze of a man who has seen more than his share of "real good crooks" during his 28-year tenure on the force. He's worked the meaner streets of East Austin, busted junkies and speed freaks while working undercover, been shot at and stabbed more than once. The job hasn't all been in the trenches -- Farris spent last year as the lead APD driver for Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign motorcade. "Yeah," he says wryly. "I was driving Mr. Daisy."
Inside the department, Farris is known as a cop's cop. He talks straight and doesn't take any shit, fellow officers say. "He doesn't mess around. He's one of the straightest officers I know," said one APD source. "He doesn't mince words, not for anyone."
It is Farris' reputation for honesty and conviction -- and his determination to defend that reputation -- that currently has the APD under the gun. According to Farris, in the mid-Nineties the APD administration effectively shut down a major drug and corruption investigation -- at the very moment that investigation appeared to implicate several APD officers in potentially major criminal charges. All but two of the officers seriously implicated in the investigation remain on the force, some in high-ranking positions. And the charge that the investigation was prematurely shut down relies on more than just the word of Stan Farris: There are APD records, sworn testimony in lawsuits filed by several police officers, documents on file with the city's Civil Service Commission, as well as written reports and statements made by other APD officers, a U.S. Attorney, and other federal agents (who either cannot go public or have thus far declined to do so).
Much of this material suggests the apparent undermining of a major drug investigation, in which numerous APD officers were named as allegedly participating in serious criminal activities. (Because of federal confidentiality agreements, the federal agents assigned to the case have not been able to speak on the record about the investigation -- with the exception of their sworn depositions.)
Responding to a variety of allegations against its officers, the APD's official position has been that the charges are completely baseless and are strictly "rumors." APD administrators say they took the allegations against their officers seriously, but could find nothing to substantiate them. Their critics inside and outside the department say the APD brass has thus far refused to take a serious look at the charges, and instead has blamed the messengers: Farris and his colleagues.
The allegations of criminal activity by high-ranking APD officers began in the mid-Nineties, and resurfaced last month in the district court file of a recently settled whistleblower lawsuit against the city by former APD officer Capt. Cecil Huff -- one of at least three such lawsuits filed in 1997, after the unofficial close of a major undercover drug investigation, code-named Mala Sangre ("Bad Blood"). The accusations were originally made during this federally funded joint operation (officially launched in 1995) and Stan Farris was the APD's lead Mala Sangre investigator. The allegations are summarized in a 10-page document (the Mala Sangre "Summary of Allegations") prepared in the spring of 1999 by since-retired IRS agent Wayne Young and Farris, and attached as an exhibit to a court filing by Huff's lawyer. The charges range in scope from officers buying and using cocaine on duty, to accusations that officers appeared to be actually aiding the trafficking activities of the investigation's main target, Roger López, who is currently serving an eight-year federal prison sentence for drug trafficking.
Were it not for an unrelated court action filed by lawyer (and District 47 state Rep.) Terry Keel on behalf of another Austin police officer -- during which Keel was prepared to subpeona APD officers to testify about the Mala Sangre episode -- the allegations might have continued to gather dust in court records.
And Stan Farris has made it clear, that if it weren't for recent public statements by APD's top brass to the Austin American-Statesman -- claiming that the document itself was "unprofessional" and that its allegations relied only on "rumors" -- Farris wouldn't be sitting in this chair, tugging on his vest, talking to a reporter.
Much of the information in Young's Mala Sangre Summary came from sources Farris collected over the more than 10 years he worked in the department's narcotics division, especially during the two joint investigations he'd worked prior to the start of Mala Sangre. Farris said that Young prepared the document because "he wanted [Chief of Police Stan] Knee to realize, 'This is what we're hearing, this needs to be followed up on' ... The informants, some were officers, and the others had been credible in the past and had given good information. And some of them, that didn't even know each other, were giving the same information, which makes them even more credible and gives the information even more validity." Since the department brass has now effectively disparaged the credibility and integrity of both the officers assigned to the case, as well as the case itself, Farris has felt compelled to come forward. He hopes to defend his own reputation, he said, and perhaps to force the department to clean house.
"I came forward," Farris told the Chronicle, "because some of the things Assistant Chief [Rick] Coy has said are not true, and the fact that the chief [Knee] hasn't given this case much credibility. It was a good investigation and there is documentation to back up those reports." The real problem, Farris said, was that the APD shut down its arm of the investigation before allegations against the officers could be fully investigated, and the accused officers either cleared or convicted. In response, Chief Knee told the Chronicle that the department did everything it could to investigate the allegations (which refer almost entirely to incidents alleged to have taken place before Knee became chief in October of 1997), but that none could be substantiated. Moreover, Knee said the fact that no federal charges were filed against any APD officers means there was insufficient evidence to proceed against them.
Farris alleges that in 1997, after the main target of the investigation -- marijuana and cocaine trafficker López, who was moving more than 10,000-pound shipments of weed across the border -- was arrested, something odd happened. When all that was left to investigate were specific allegations that cops were buying, selling, and using drugs, and that some officers were apparently working directly for López and his cohorts, Farris says, APD drained the investigation of its manpower and ceased its participation in the operation. Farris believes that without the collaboration of the local police department, the feds had no choice but to pull out, and the investigation ended.
But although the federal agents and APD officers on the Mala Sangre case testified in sworn depositions that lack of manpower was the reason the Austin arm of the investigation was shut down, Chief Knee denies that claim. "The concept that anybody was removed from the task force in order to prevent police officers from being indicted is without basis," Knee said, in an extensive interview with the Chronicle last week. "You would have to believe that the federal government, which places a high priority on public corruption ... would back away from an investigation that alleges police misconduct simply because several officers were brought back to regular duty."
Nonetheless, the officers involved in the case said they first protested to their superiors, who took no action, and in frustration several officers contacted attorneys. In mid-1997, the whistleblower suits began hitting the courts, first from Huff -- who was the captain originally assigned to the investigation -- then from other investigators assigned to the case: officers Dennis Clark, David Gann, and Stan Farris. Those three officers ended up filing a joint lawsuit, charging that the officers had been reassigned in retaliation for the apparent results of their investigation.
The lawsuit was settled in the first weeks of 2001. Under the terms of the settlement, the officers received cash and recognition of their "dedicated investigative work"; the department agreed that transfer policy "was not equitably implemented in all cases"; and both sides agreed that new policies had "provided real improvement in encouraging and protecting officers who take enforcement action against other law enforcement personnel." But the settlement also reads, "the parties continue to disagree about what other investigative actions could have or should have been taken when transfers were made." And it goes on:
the Austin Police Department must move forward, and put these differences of professional opinion behind us;
any current investigative facts or leads involving Austin police officers in illegal activity are being fully and completely investigated.
Recent events suggest, to say the least, that the parties to the settlement continue to disagree over those two provisions.
U.S. Attorney Mark Marshall was the administrative head of the Mala Sangre operation. In a sworn deposition for the Farris, Clark, and Gann suit, Marshall said, "As an institution, APD, from what I could tell, just didn't give the personnel and support we needed to complete the investigation."
Three years after Mala Sangre, the accused officers remain on the force, and the APD is still facing the same pressing question: Why didn't the department pursue the allegations further, either to clear or convict its own? "That is a $64,000 question," Huff said in a sworn deposition conducted by Denton Lowell, a lawyer for the city. "I do not know the answer, but ... with people -- with this kind of a narcotics investigative experience, what kind of case this was, they had to have known what they were doing."
The Mala Sangre "Summary of Allegations" (see p.26) was prepared in April 1999 by now-retired IRS Criminal Investigation Division agent Wayne Young. The IRS was the lead federal agency pursuing the Mala Sangre investigation, and Young was its lead agent. The federal agents wanted to warn Chief Knee, in writing, that investigators had amassed numerous allegations against APD officers. In a sworn deposition, Young said he prepared the Summary at the behest of his division supervisor who, after an administrative meeting with Knee, wanted Young to "put something down that he could take to Chief Knee and share with him."
Sharing With Chief Knee
Young said he doesn't know if the document was ever given to Knee. He further testified, though, that he asked for Farris' help in compiling the document, because "he probably has as much knowledge about federal investigations as any state and local officer that I have met ... and he had -- in addition to that, he has a good recollection, good memory."
The Mala Sangre Summary is a wide-ranging list of potential evidential detail accumulated from surveillance or from informants during the course of the investigation. It makes many specific charges, most repeatedly against several current APD officers: that two officers were apparently protecting and even aiding Roger López's drug-trafficking operations; that another officer was providing off-duty security at Cocktails, an East Riverside Drive nightclub Farris says Roger López frequented and where informants said numerous on- and off-duty officers participated in drug and sex "orgies."
The owners of the former club told the Chronicle that allegations of criminal activities at Cocktails are completely without merit. They said that in all the years the club was open they ran a clean, tight ship, and they have no idea who the informants were or why anyone would claim that illegal activities ever took place at the club. "Let me stress something, we don't know what's true or what's not true [about the Summary allegations], we know our part is not true," one of the owners said. Indeed, the owners speculated that the allegations are the result of in-house APD squabbles. "I honestly think there is some internal problem with the officers [mentioned] in there, and now they're involving everyone and it's hurting our reputation."
The Summary also alleges that now Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman and former FBI agent (now Williamson County Sheriff) John Maspero were apparently involved in thwarting investigators' efforts to pursue the case by halting surveillance efforts as well as by interfering with informants.
Farris believes there was sufficient evidence of the claims made in the Summary to warrant looking thoroughly into all of the charges. By the time Roger López was arrested in 1997, Farris believes, the investigators had enough evidence to conclude that two APD officers were facilitating López's drug operation. "Yes, definitely, and we had evidence to back up the [confidential informant] information on them," Farris said. "Not enough to indict, but enough to keep running with the investigation, and there's a good possibility we would've gotten that when we started making arrests and questioning, and debriefings, and people start giving up each other." But he also said he believes that every officer fingered by the confidential informants and other APD officers should've been thoroughly checked out. He says he still doesn't know why the investigation, on the part of APD, was discontinued. "You would think you'd be knocking down every door you could, getting as much information as you could, getting as many investigators as you could," he said. "You can be accused of incompetence and survive that. You get accused of being a crook ... that's career-ending."
However, Knee said that all attempts the department made to get information from the IRS -- names of confidential informants and other corroborating materials -- have been unsuccessful. "I asked if we would be provided at any time the names of those confidential informants. And I was told no," Knee said. "I was also told that the reports that were based on that were not necessarily criminal reports and I would not be provided those. And you're looking at this and no one will give you additional information, and you know the history of this -- what would your next response be?
"We have investigated," insists Knee. "When information rose to the level that would allow us to open an investigation, we have investigated."
Mala Sangre was not the first joint (federal-state-local) investigation joined by the Austin Police Department. During the Nineties there were at least two other such investigations in Austin, code named Caballo Negro ("Dark Horse") and Coco Loco ("Crazy Boogeyman"). The investigations were formed and funded as part of the so-called Organized Crime Direct Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), a program created by the U.S. Congress as a way to fund and man long-term investigations into major criminal activities.
The theory behind OCDETF was that while the federal government has the cash to fund such a costly operation, it doesn't have the manpower; and the state and local agencies, while they have the manpower, can't afford the operating costs. By entering into a contracted agreement, the federal government agrees to foot the bill while the state and/or local agencies agree to commit the other resources. "Congress created OCDETF because they know good and well that we don't have 800,000 federal agents," U.S. Attorney Marshall testified in his deposition. "They created it as a funding mechanism so that I and officers and federal agents could go out generally one at a time and get with local and state officers and say, look, you know, we don't have the personnel. We know [the cost] will drain you and you can't afford it and we don't want to burn your budget."
The cases are overseen by a U.S. attorney, and can include any number of other federal, state, and local groups. For Mala Sangre, the IRS was the lead investigating agency, but the Drug Enforcement Agency, along with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, also signed on. The FBI was also involved -- at least on paper -- with John Maspero as the agency's representative agent, yet, investigators said, for some reason he participated very little, except obstructively. "On paper [the FBI] had Maspero from day one," Farris told the Chronicle. "But he didn't participate, and when he did, he got in the way. That's right."
Farris said he found this especially "bizarre," considering the FBI is the agency that has jurisdiction over public corruption cases, and would've had the investigative "bells and whistles" to confirm the charges and convict -- or else ultimately clear -- the APD officers. The Texas Department of Public Safety helped with administrative tasks on the investigation, and the APD signed on as an investigative arm.
Maspero, for his part, told the Chronicle that he was never supposed to be involved in the Mala Sangre operation and that in fact, he had no role in it at all. In 1995, he said, he was assigned to another joint task force operation called Safe Streets, which was instrumental in busting numerous street gangs in Austin from 1995-1999 -- including the bust of the Texas Syndicate, which landed more than 30 people in jail. "I really knew nothing about that [Mala Sangre] investigation," he said in a recent phone interview. "We were far too busy with our own task force, which was extremely successful."
The Mala Sangre OCDETF officially began in 1995, with its prime target being Roger López, an East Austin businessman whose main trade, investigators believed, was trafficking in cocaine and marijuana. Unofficially, investigators had begun collecting intelligence on López in mid-1994. The Mala Sangre investigation was actually a spinoff of sorts from the Caballo Negro operation, where heroin trafficker R.G. López -- a former private investigator and Roger's father -- had been the prime target. "That was a good OCDETF. We got a lot of good crooks, seized a lot of money, land, cars -- got some neat cars out of that one -- a bunch of guns," Farris said. "It was a good deal."
Farris worked undercover in the Caballo Negro operation, he said, and made a lot of the heroin buys that led to the dismantling of R.G. López's operation. The IRS headed that investigation as well, under Agent Young, and Farris and Young developed a good working relationship. "We seem to get along pretty well and we have worked together on two or three investigations," Young said in his deposition, "and I always trusted [Farris'] opinion, trusted his judgment." Since Farris had developed a good understanding of the López family and had developed extensive connections and informants that could prove useful in the Roger López investigation, it was natural that Farris would be assigned by APD to work the Mala Sangre case. "There were all the connections and the history of the family involved. And when you get involved in the narcotics world, on that level, you find the narcotics world is a really small -- at that level, kilos [of cocaine] and pounds [of marijuana]," Farris said.
At the beginning of the investigation, Young said, the APD had between eight and 10 officers assigned to the investigation, including Capt. Huff and Officers Clark, Gann, and Farris. By mid-1997, only Farris remained.
Assistant Chief Rick Coy disputes this account, and told the Chronicle that there were several officers reassigned to the investigation. "There were a half-dozen or more people," Coy said. "I can't name them all." But the testimony of federal agents, APD officers, and Stan Farris directly contradicts Coy's recollection. "That's a lie," Farris told the Chronicle. "APD pulled resources from that aspect of the investigation and Young could not continue without the manpower. That was the way it was."
By all accounts, during the early days of the investigation, everything was moving smoothly. Not long into the investigation, however, allegations began accumulating concerning Austin police officers being involved in criminal activities -- from using and buying coke on-duty to directly aiding López and his associates.
The sheer number of names and accusations, say officers assigned to the case, was unusual and disturbing. "In my experience it doesn't happen that often. I can think of maybe two or three instances [where this many officers are being named as being involved in criminal activities] prior to this work in 12, 13 years," Marshall said. Farris said he also found it odd that so many officers were being named by informants. In all, at least 27 officers' names came up over the two years APD was involved in the Mala Sangre investigation. Officers' names had come up in the past "to some extent, but never this much," Farris said. "That just sends up another flag, a red flag." Young similarly testified that the sheer number of accusations the investigators were accruing was causing some distress among the task force members. "I would be incensed, too, if ... all of these allegations were coming up about the people in my shop. And so ... there was a lot of talk about, you know, what to do, what not to do," Young said. "I think it disturbed them that ... these officers may even be involved in this activity."
As a result of the accumulating accusations, investigators set up video surveillance in 1995 -- first at Cocktails nightclub, one of López's regular hang-outs, where multiple informants were relating similar stories of cocaine and sex parties attended by both on- and off-duty APD officers. Later in 1995, surveillance was also set up at two other East Austin businesses -- Roger López's store, Angela's Furniture, and another business owned by López associate Mike Borrero -- where informants alleged numerous cops were socializing and buying cocaine.
However, both Huff and Marshall said that surveillance at the nightclub was halted abruptly, by now Asst. Chief (then Lieutenant) Jimmy Chapman and former FBI agent Maspero. The investigators, said Huff in his deposition, "were getting a lot more information and the parties were getting larger and more frequently [sic], and the cocaine use was getting larger and more frequent." Marshall testified that Chapman and Maspero stopped the surveillance. "Stan [Farris], Wayne [Young], and a couple of other people showed up to do the surveillance, and Chapman and [Maspero] announced that they weren't going to participate and then drove off somewhere," U.S. Attorney Marshall said in his deposition. "And, I mean, our guys are sitting on East Riverside trying to do a surveillance with no support. I found that odd. I wasn't sure why they did what they did."
Because of Chapman and Maspero's actions, investigators said, surveillance was suspended on that night, and was never subsequently resumed. Interestingly enough, that same night that surveillance was suspended, the Summary states, for the first time in weeks the after-hours party at the club was canceled at the last moment. "I didn't question it then, and I didn't push real hard because I thought we'd be able to come back to it," Farris said. "But we never came back to it."
When the Chronicle requested an interview with both Chief Knee and Asst. Chief Chapman present, APD spokeswoman Sally Muir said that "Chief Knee said Jimmy Chapman didn't need to be there because he is not involved in any of this." When the Chronicle again asked why Chapman couldn't respond to the charges against him, Muir said it was Knee's decision. Maspero told the Chronicle that he was never involved in Mala Sangre, and that the charge that he halted surveillance was completely false. "That never happened," he said. "I've been doing this job for 32 years, and I don't think I'd get to where I am today if I went around doing that sort of thing."
Meanwhile, though, the surveillance at Angela's Furniture and Borrero's business, both in the 4300 block of East Riverside Dr., proved more fruitful. Investigators got enough information to know, they said, that at least one APD officer, David Maddox, was buying and using cocaine obtained from Borrero's business. But task force leaders were still bewildered as to why the surveillance at Cocktails, where at least as many officers were said to be congregating, was shut down.
Marshall said he decided to go to the APD administrators to brief them on what the investigators were uncovering. But in a 1996 meeting with then-Chief Elizabeth Watson and Assistant Chief Michael McDonald, Marshall testified, he got the distinct impression that "APD administration didn't want to know" what was going on. Marshall said the two head officers asked some specific questions about what the investigators were uncovering, and he told them that in order to be told all the details the two would have to sign federal 6(e) forms -- necessary to be briefed on any and all information that would go before a grand jury. "And they didn't want to do that, and they really didn't want any more information," Marshall said. "I don't know why they call a meeting and attend a meeting and not want to know. That was odd to me."
We Don't Want to Know About It
Farris also attended the meeting, and he agrees it became clear that the department's administration didn't want to know much about what was going on. Chief Knee, however, told the Chronicle that 6(e) forms are confidentiality agreements, and would mean that the administrators could not act on any of the information they received. "What purpose does it serve to have her sign a 6(e)?" Knee asked. "I would not have signed it either."
Nevertheless, it was agreed that Maddox's cocaine involvement could be addressed through the department's Internal Affairs division -- which has the power to address administrative violations, including using drugs on duty -- without jeopardizing the objectives of the Mala Sangre OCDETF investigation, because Maddox was not one of the prime targets. Federal investigators did not want to do anything that might jeopardize their ability to bust the López ring, but the thinking was that busting Maddox wouldn't necessarily tip off López and his gang that their operations were being tracked.
But Farris said that he and Marshall and Young told Watson that there were other officers that they were seriously looking into for their direct connections to López's trafficking operations. "At least two," Farris said he told Watson. "And she just threw up her hands, said she didn't even want to know who they were." (Watson left APD in 1997 and has been working as a consultant to police departments. She has moved away from Austin and could not be reached for comment.)
Subsequently, Maddox tested positive for cocaine use and was terminated.
Not long after Maddox was placed under suspicion in mid-1996, investigators said they began to feel that APD support for the investigation was slipping, and officers were beginning to be transferred from Mala Sangre without being replaced. As a result, the ability of the assigned officers to fully investigate all angles of the Mala Sangre operation was significantly inhibited. "I needed manpower and support. These officers ... were reassigned and no one took their place," Young testified in his deposition. "It's not my position to tell APD's management how to manage their officers, how to supervise their department or how to allocate their resources. But ... I had this investigation [and] had things or tasks that needed to get done, tasks that ... were repeatedly asked to be done and completed that didn't get completed, and officers that were reassigned and no one came to take their place, [that] gave me cause for concern."
The only reason supervisors gave for issuing the transfers, Mala Sangre investigators said, was the department's loosely enforced five-year cap on assignments to specialized units, like narcotics. "That was the only reason we were given, the five-year cap," Farris said. But by the time Farris was finally transferred, in the summer of 1997, he had been in the narcotics unit more than 10 years. Clark said in his sworn deposition that the transfers came "immediately" after the department's chief officers replaced the APD supervisors over the investigation in January 1997, replacing Lt. David Crowder with Lt. Don Bredl. "And we're all wondering, where's this coming from?" Clark said. "Why all of a sudden are they concerned about the five-year cap when we've been there [narcotics] almost 10 years?" According to the Mala Sangre investigators, they never received any other explanation for the transfers. By the early summer of 1997, according to Farris and the federal agents, he was the only remaining APD officer assigned to the case. He got the final word of his impending transfer in June 1997.
Assistant Chief Coy, however, said that the officers, as well as U.S. Attorney Marshall, were warned that the APD investigators were facing reassignment up to a year in advance of their transfers. In fact, Coy said, he informed Marshall of this at the mid-1996 meeting with Chief Watson. Again, Farris completely rejects Coy's version of that meeting. "I can assure you, that never happened. I was at that meeting, and there was no mention of the five-year cap."
Out in the field, Mala Sangre had been heating up during the early months of 1997. In February, associates of López were busted in South Texas while bringing 1,952 pounds of marijuana across the border, and an investigation was initiated by DEA agents in Corpus Christi. Farris said this was a turning point for the case against López (who was finally arrested and convicted of drug trafficking as a result of this South Texas bust). Corpus DEA agents contacted the Austin OCDETF agents, and the two groups formulated a plan: The South Texas investigators would process the possession charges while the Austin group would take care of putting together the conspiracy angle of the case, which would be essential to a successful conviction of López and his group. The investigators in Austin needed to put the rest of the pieces together, to show that López had been coordinating the drug shipments across the border and up to Austin, where they were stored and then later distributed. In the process, Farris said, he believed the investigators would be able to make the indictable connection between López's drug ring and at least two particular APD officers. "We were going to clone [the APD officers'] pagers during these arrests, during the time that we would hand out subpoenas. That's when they [the implicated officers] are going to panic and want to get their stories together," he said. "They're going to contact each other. We were looking for that, even more of an affirmative link between them [the officers] and the bad guys."
Unfortunately, before Marshall, Young, and Farris had a chance to initiate their plan, Farris was given a firm date for his transfer, he said, and a direct order from his supervisor, Lt. Don Bredl, to shut down the investigation. "I said I'm not going to shut it down, we have too good of a case," he told the Chronicle, and he asked for six more months to complete the investigation. "I set that time frame because in my estimation that was a good, realistic time frame to get this thing wrapped up because of the way it was moving." Farris never got his six months.
Farris said he had been warned in general terms of his pending reassignment, but hadn't received a firm date when he was told by Bredl that one officer, Jeff White, was going to be transferred onto Mala Sangre. Farris was told to bring him up to speed so he could wrap the case, since Farris was facing an imminent transfer. Farris said he told his supervisors that White would not be able to carry out the assignment at such a late date. "It is unfair to expect Officer Jeff White to have gained enough information of an investigation of that magnitude in the amount of time he was given," Farris wrote in an official grievance letter to Capt. Rick Coy in Sept. 1997. "He reviewed as many records as possible. Officer White was not assigned to the OCDETF full time, he continued to carry a full case load in the narcotics unit with their daily case load that had nothing to do with the Mala Sangre OCDETF."
While the López case was reaching its apex in June, Farris says he again requested to be left in place with the investigation for six more months, but his request was again flatly denied.
On July 22, 1997, Farris said, he was paged to a meeting with Wayne Young, Mark Marshall, and agent Young's IRS supervisor Charlie Evans. At the 9am meeting, the federal investigators decided that the Mala Sangre case would be terminated in Austin, because of the lack of manpower. Farris addressed a memo to his supervisor that same day, outlining the reasons the federal agents decided to shut down the Austin portion of the case -- the key point being that Farris, who had the knowledge to be able to close the investigation in a timely fashion, was being transferred. "The APD shut down the aspect of the case that had to do with our police officers. They shut that down when they transferred me, because Wayne Young did not have time to do that himself," Farris said. In his July 22 memo to Bredl, Farris made this point clear: "It was agreed, that had I not been transferred, the Austin part of the case, involving the officers, would have continued," Farris wrote. "IRS usually does not investigate this type of case, but had done so in an attempt to assist APD [to] deal with some internal, criminal problems."
At that point, the police department's participation in the Mala Sangre investigation was officially discontinued, federal agents testified, and the investigation into the numerous allegations against APD officers was abandoned.
It wasn't long after the APD portion of the investigation was discontinued that Farris began hearing from other officers that his former APD supervisor over Mala Sangre, Lt. Bredl, was saying Farris was the reason the investigation was discontinued, even though he had submitted the July 22, 1997, memo clearly stating the reasons the investigation was being shut down. "That was ridiculous," Farris said. "After I heard that from several different people, I decided to file a grievance." Farris filed the first of two official complaints, through his chain of command, on August 8, 1997. "A great deal of work was put forth in order to deal with the internal, criminal behavior within the Austin Police Department," he wrote. "When I was transferred, without the opportunity to complete the investigation, it sends a clear message to members of the department and the community, that this sort of behavior is acceptable," he continued. "Several of my best sources of information in this case are other police officers and supervisors. These officers have contacted me, since my transfer, and wanted to know why I had to quit or failed to complete the investigation," he continued. "Some officers think the case was dropped because there was nothing of a substantive nature to continue with. That is simply not true and many officers and supervisors know this."
Blowing the Whistle
Farris says his direct supervisor, Lt. Bredl, responded to the grievance, but in substance failed to answer Farris' concerns. On Sept. 5, 1997, Farris sent off another grievance, headed up the chain of command to then-Capt. Rick Coy. "It was not until ... my transfer, that the investigation was abandoned," he wrote. "IRS responded to this action by closing down their portion of the investigation when the Austin Police Department no longer showed an interest in pursuing their own internal problems." Although department policy dictates that grievances require a response within 10 days, Farris says he didn't receive a response to his grievance until December 2000. Assistant Chief Coy insists he responded to Farris' grievance within the 10-day time period, and suggests that perhaps Huff -- who was in Farris' direct chain of command once he was transferred -- held onto the reply. And Farris insists Coy's account is untrue.
"They didn't respond to the grievance, and that's when I filed my [whistleblower] suit. I thought I'd take it to a forum they didn't control," he said. "I knew I did not stop that investigation. I wasn't going to have my reputation tarnished because of something I didn't have control over."
More than three years later, although administrators suggest otherwise, it appears that no further actions have been taken by the APD to investigate criminal allegations made against their officers during the Mala Sangre operation. And, by all accounts, the department may have lost its chance: At this point, Farris said, the information would probably be too difficult to confirm, and undoubtedly much of the activity -- especially that which orbited around the López case -- has probably ceased. López's operation was shut down, and in 1998 he was sentenced to eight years in federal prison. Nonetheless, Young's Summary of Allegations -- filed in Travis County District Court in 2000 as an exhibit to a court filing in Cecil Huff's lawsuit -- notes that information regarding criminal activities on the part of APD officers was still coming in to the IRS agent well into 1998. The Mala Sangre investigation was not officially closed by the U.S. Attorney's office until January 2000.
Of all the officers alleged to have participated in the illegal activities, all but two remain on the force.
So the question remains: Did the department pull back on an opportunity to police its own cops, and if so, why? "It was gross incompetence on their [APD's] part. At least I would like to hope it was just gross incompetence. Otherwise it's just damn suspicious," Farris said. "If you violate the [public] trust, and you don't clean up your own house, then you lose the [public] support you must have to do your job. And I felt at that time that the department wasn't doing that, and not only weren't they doing that, they were putting the blame back on me for supposedly stopping the investigation."
Other APD sources are more cynical. "They just don't pay attention unless there is a disaster -- and we're trying to avoid a disaster here," said one officer, who asked to remain anonymous. "I guess they don't want a corruption-free department. They don't care -- that's all I can surmise from their attitudes about this."
The "disaster" might have remained a simmering internal squabble, not a growing public relations nightmare, if not for the troublesome case of officer Sheldon Salisbury. Salisbury, a 20-year veteran of the force, has had more than one run-in with the Internal Affairs division and subsequently the Police Civil Service Commission, where he has -- more than once -- been suspended for sustained administrative violations. Notably, Salisbury was suspended for 45 days in 1994 for soliciting prostitution, and for five days in 1997 for sexual harassment of a female officer. One source familiar with Salisbury says, "He used to brag about how he would pull women over for tickets and then tell him he'd let them off if they gave him their phone number. ... And then I actually met a girl he tried to pull over. It's crazy."
The Last Straw
In April 2000, Salisbury was brought before the Civil Service Commission for the fourth time, after the department decided to terminate him for changing a speeding ticket that a rookie officer had written, so that the speeder would be eligible to take defensive driving. It was a piddling offense for which to fire him, especially considering his history, but the department administration had apparently had enough of Salisbury. At his Civil Service hearing, both the rookie officer and the citizen who received the ticket testified in his behalf. Nonetheless, the commission upheld Salisbury's termination.
Almost immediately, Salisbury's lawyer, former Travis County sheriff and current state Rep. Terry Keel, filed an appeal in Travis County District Court. As part of the suit, Keel sought to subpoena two officers -- one of whom is Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman -- to testify as to allegations contained in a document introduced by City Attorney Robin Sanders, seemingly for the purpose of showing that Salisbury (who is among the officers mentioned in the document) had a checkered past. That document, prepared by Officer Dennis Clark during the time that he worked in narcotics and on the Coco Loco and Mala Sangre investigations, was also marked as Exhibit 1 to Clark's deposition in the Farris, Clark, and Gann whistleblower lawsuit. The 17-page document (titled "With Liberty and Justice ...") levels serious allegations of criminal behavior and misconduct at many of the same officers fingered by officers and other confidential informants in Young's Summary of Allegations.
Many APD sources consider Clark's document (unlike Young's Summary) to be in large part something of a "rant." "You have to be very careful with [the] Clark [document]," Farris said. "He never had first-hand knowledge of some of that information." Farris said that some of the information in Clark's "Justice" document had been picked up from other investigators on the Mala Sangre case, and some in fact came from Farris' informants. Nonetheless, shortly after Keel threatened to subpoena Chapman and one other commander, APD's administration capitulated -- giving Salisbury his job back. The decision persuaded at least some officers that there must be more to the persistent allegations than simply "rumors."
"How could we actually get to the day where Sheldon Salisbury can blackmail the department into getting his job back? That, Sheldon, is central to this whole thing," said one APD source, who requested anonymity. "Until they gave his job back -- because of that [Clark] document -- they probably could've kept all the other stuff as simply 'allegations.' But the minute they gave Sheldon his job back, they as good as admitted everything a lot of us have known for a long, long time. It's sad. Really, really sad. And everyone will suffer as a result. We've never proved any of it until Sheldon. Then with Sheldon, he's the straw."
While the rehiring of Salisbury, in the judgment of the officers, effectively confirmed their suspicions that there must be substance to some of the Mala Sangre allegations, it wasn't until this month that the Salisbury deal was publicly exposed. On Feb. 2, Chief Knee acknowledged to the Austin American-Statesman that the decision to give Salisbury his job back was due, in part, to the allegations in the Clark document. Last week, Knee told the Chronicle that department administrators made the decision to reinstate Salisbury only in part because they were afraid the document would "create a cloud over that discipline ... and we ran the risk of having the discipline thrown out [of district court as a result]," he said. "But fear of the document," Knee insisted, "was not the overriding factor."
Ironically, it is unclear as to whether the judge hearing Salisbury's appeal would have allowed the subpoenaed testimony at all. Ordinarily, rules for appealing a Civil Service Commission decision to District Court require that the case be decided strictly on the established record -- no additional information is admissible. However, Sanders sought to include the document as evidence on appeal which, in turn, opened the door for Keel to subpoena those officers.
"The city attorney chose a poor legal strategy in concentrating on [Salisbury's] background," Keel said. "Focusing on the history was a strategic error. I didn't raise the issue of the document, the city did." But Keel doesn't exactly buy the conspiracy theory. In fact, he said, he is certain that if the subpoenaed officers had testified about the allegations in the document, they would've been able to show how "slanderous" the allegations really are. "Contrary to 'blackmail,' that testimony would've exonerated those officers," Keel said.
Keel also said that he believes all the controversy surrounding the task force operation is a result of intra-departmental rivalries. "The reason you're hearing these kinds of things is that in a department such as this one, there are plenty of officers that don't like each other ... and it serves some people's self-interests to tell [a reporter] that this will uncover corruption in the department," he said. "It's intriguing to think you're on to the Serpico of the new millennium -- that'd be exciting. But it's just not there. People get all excited, but talk is cheap."
But the ramifications of the Salisbury case, and the department's response to Keel's maneuver, are very disturbing. Why would the APD administration first try to discredit Young and Farris' allegations as "baseless" and entirely "rumors," while simultaneously rehiring Salisbury -- at least partly in reaction to yet another document that contains many of the same allegations? Chief Knee insists that administrators were satisfied that the agreed sanctions against Salisbury -- especially a 180-day unpaid suspension -- were sufficiently severe, and the APD did not want to risk losing on appeal.
Yet the Salisbury decision creates a potentially disastrous precedent, officers say, that has compromised the department's credibility and calls into question its ability to police itself. Knee insists that is not the case. "That [Clark] document has been around for quite a period of time," he said. "I mean, everybody's got it. I mean, fearing the document was not the overriding factor."
There is yet one more curious postscript to the story, involving the question of the U.S. Attorney's continuing interest in the case.
We Found No Evidence -- of Evidence
The Statesman reported on Jan. 31 -- apparently based upon APD administrative sources -- that the U.S. Attorney's office had said it was reviewing the circumstances surrounding the closing of the Mala Sangre case. U.S. Attorney spokesman Daryl Fields of the agency's San Antonio office, the arm of the U.S. Attorney that supervises the OCDETF investigations, hotly described that characterization as inaccurate. "I don't know where they got that, but not the right place, because that isn't quite how it works," he told the Chronicle. Fields said that a review of the case would only be done if the APD requested one, and forwarded its case files to the U.S. Attorney in San Antonio. "And then at that point we don't even really do the review," Fields said. "We will look it over and then send it onto the proper agency, depending on what needs the review." In this case, since police corruption is the major allegation, the case would actually be reviewed by the FBI. (Chief Knee, however, said he called the U.S. Attorney in San Antonio, and was told that the U.S. Attorney's Office was in the process of conducting a review.)
Despite those earlier denials that they were conducting a review of the Mala Sangre case, on Feb. 7 the U.S. Attorney's office issued a prepared statement saying that there was not enough evidence to indict police officers, and therefore they were not pursuing the investigation. And predictably, the statement was welcomed in the Statesman by APD brass. But curiously, the official statement did not address the central allegation made by Farris and the other transferred officers: that the original investigation was shut down prematurely. Asked by the Chronicle to comment on the fact that the officers say they were pulled from the investigation before they could provide the necessary evidence, U.S. Attorney spokesman Daryl Fields said, "Exactly."
In the meantime, sources inside the APD find the current situation bittersweet. "We always knew that if they didn't take care of this it would come back to haunt them," said one source. "And look at us now. That's how stupid they are."
As for Farris, there is little satisfaction in the outcome of his decision to speak up. "They're coming across the wrong guy on this one," he said. "I told them: Attack my credibility, and I'll stand tall until hell freezes over. I have told the truth about this the whole time, and I will continue to do so."
Back out on the streets of Austin, Farris is where he likes to be, doing a job he says he has always loved. With a deadpan look and a slightly sarcastic lilt in his deep voice, Farris said he hopes the department has learned something from all this. "I would just hope that, from this point on, better judgment will be used in handling how these cases go on," he said. "I firmly believe that this is an excellent department, with excellent officers. But, there clearly are problems up there that need to be dealt with."