New lawsuit against the APD reopens the wounds of "Mala Sangre'
According to his attorney Jody Mask, Austin Police Department Detective Jeff White has an excellent record of service to the city. His disciplinary record is clean; on a departmental evaluation in September he was described by his supervisors as a "highly effective" officer; and as recently as Feb. 6, the 12-year department veteran received a flattering commendation from an Assistant U.S. Attorney -- high praise for White's "monumental work effort" on a joint drug-trafficking investigation that put several major dealers behind bars. That exemplary record makes White's recent transfer out of the APD's narcotics division -- for what Mask says White's supervisors now describe as "poor performance" -- very troubling to Mask and his client.
"He's so upset about it," Mask said. "It would be one thing if they said he'd been there a long time and they needed him [elsewhere], but for 'poor performance'? I've got officers wrapped around the courthouse saying he's one of the most hard-working officers they've seen." Accordingly, Mask and his client believe that behind White's transfer is more than meets the eye. Specifically, they charge that the APD is attempting to punish White for reporting alleged criminal activity on the part of other Austin police officers. On May 16, White filed a civil suit against the city in Travis County District Court, alleging that his transfer from the APD's narcotics and organized crime division earlier this year was the result of retaliation by Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman, after White had given a legal statement which recounted allegations of criminal activity by various Austin police officers -- including Chapman himself. The lawsuit also alleges that White's attempt to secure a position within the federal-state Joint Terrorism Task Force was blocked by Chapman, despite the fact that White was "recruited and supported by FBI personnel."
"It has become necessary to bring this suit," White's petition reads, "because of certain practices within APD wherein officers, including Plaintiff, have been, and continue to be subjected to retaliation in terms of assignments and discipline for investigating illegal practices within APD and reporting violations of law."
Unfortunately, White's charges are quite similar to ones that have been made before. His lawsuit has in effect resurrected allegations that formed the basis of a 1997 whistleblower lawsuit brought by APD officers Stan Farris, Dennis Clark, and David Gann. Those three officers alleged that department brass transferred them from assignments with a major joint (federal-state-local) Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force narcotics case -- code-named Mala Sangre ("Bad Blood") -- in an effort to suppress an investigation that was uncovering numerous allegations of criminal activities on the part of Austin police officers (see "Bad Blood," Feb. 16, 2001).
According to documents filed in the 1997 case, task force officers turned up the names of at least 27 Austin police officers and other personnel during the course of the two-year Mala Sangre investigation -- including officers who informants alleged were involved in a wide range of criminal activities, including buying and using cocaine while on-duty, or in some cases even aiding the drug-trafficking activities of the OCDETF's main target, former East Austin businessman Roger Lopez. Furthermore, the officers alleged, supervisors in the department and the task force operations -- specifically then-Lieutenant Chapman and then-FBI agent John Maspero (now Williamson County sheriff) -- persistently interfered with the officers' abilities to investigate the possibly dirty cops, by thwarting undercover surveillance operations that could either confirm or refute the informants' persistent accounts of criminal conduct by police officers.
Sheriff Maspero has not only denied any obstruction, but any involvement whatsoever in the investigation. Although the APD denied the charges on his behalf, Asst. Chief Chapman has never spoken publicly about the charges.
In 1998, the Mala Sangre operation successfully netted its major target: Roger Lopez was convicted of drug-trafficking charges and sentenced to seven years in federal prison. What remained to investigate were mounting allegations of criminal activities by APD officers. At that point, the 1997 complaint alleged, department brass transferred the investigators off the case, and transferred in a single officer -- Jeff White -- without giving him sufficient time or resources to wrap-up the 2-year-old case.
According to the petition filed in White's lawsuit, in 2000 he was named as a potential witness in the Farris, Clark, and Gann suit. As a consequence, he was called to Assistant Chief Chapman's office to provide a statement to attorney Lowell Denton, who handled the case for the city. "White communicated his reasonable belief that [Chapman] was suspected of interference in the investigation involving the APD officers," White's petition reads. "During the statement, White expressed concerns that the information he was providing would result in retaliation from various officers and supervisors, namely Chapman."
'Nobody Knows -- What's True'
White alleges that within three months of Chapman's being assigned to his chain of command last October, White was transferred from his narcotics assignment, and shortly afterward was blocked by Chapman from securing a position with the Terrorism Task Force. "This retaliatory action was taken against Plaintiff specifically because Plaintiff had exercised his freedom of speech and, indeed, followed through with his duties as an officer by reporting the violations and perceived violations to his superiors," White's petition reads.
The department's response to the new suit has been terse -- at least partially because of the pending litigation. In a May 21 press release, the APD responded that White's transfer was "lawful," and that the resurrected Mala Sangre allegations are baseless. "They have been independently reviewed by the United States Attorney's Office as well as by the Internal Affairs Division of the Austin Police Department," the APD statement reads. "As recently as February 7, 2000, Bill Blagg, the United States Attorney for the Western District, stated that no criminal violations were ever pursued due to a lack of credible and admissible evidence."
The Austin Police Association, the union that represents the majority of Austin's officers, had a quite different response to the renewed allegations. "I'm wanting Chief [of Police Stan] Knee to do an impartial administrative investigation that Iris Jones, in her position in the oversight process, will monitor and review," said APA President Mike Sheffield. Sheffield said that while he understands that Jones' position as monitor would not allow her to be privy to federal investigative documents, she would have the power to monitor and review any internal affairs investigation. To the APA, administration assurances that the allegations are baseless are unconvincing. If they were, Sheffield said, the allegations wouldn't keep resurfacing. "Nobody knows for sure what's true and what's not as it relates to the allegations out there."
Mala Sangre was not the first joint investigation in which the APD participated. During the Nineties there were at least two others, code-named Caballo Negro ("Dark Horse") and Coco Loco ("Crazy Boogeyman"). The investigations were formed and funded as part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), a program created by the U.S. Congress as a way to fund and staff long-term investigations into major criminal activities. The joint investigations work on the principle that the federal government has the cash to fund such operations but lacks sufficient local manpower to pursue them. State and local agencies have the staff numbers but insufficient financial resources -- hence the creation of "task forces," for which the feds supply money and oversight and local and/or state agencies supply investigative officers.
The Disappearing Task Force
The cases are supervised by a U.S. Attorney and can include any number of other federal, state, and local groups. For Mala Sangre, the Internal Revenue Service was the lead investigating agency, but the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms also signed on.
Mala Sangre officially began in 1995. Unofficially, investigators began collecting intelligence on Roger Lopez, an East Austin businessman, as the previous OCDETF operation, Caballo Negro, was winding down. In that operation, former Austin private investigator R.G. Lopez was the principal target, and he was eventually convicted for heroin trafficking. (R.G. Lopez is the father of Mala Sangre target Roger Lopez.)
According to depositions taken in the 1997 lawsuit, the investigators -- along with their federal partners in the IRS and the U.S. Attorney's Office -- said that when the Mala Sangre investigation began in 1995 there were between eight and 10 APD investigators assigned to the task force, but that by mid-1997 only APD Officer Stan Farris remained. Yet it wasn't long after the Mala Sangre operation officially began that the investigators said they received numerous reports from confidential informants -- some of them Austin police officers and supervisors -- that a number of APD officers appeared to be involved in the criminal activities connected to Roger Lopez and his associates.
The allegations against the APD officers (summarized by Farris and lead IRS agent Wayne Young in a 1999 memorandum attached as an exhibit to the 1997 lawsuit) were extensive. Among them were claims that officers were using and selling drugs while on duty; that they were involved in coke and "orgy" parties at an East Austin nightclub Lopez frequented; and that at least two officers were named as actually aiding Lopez's trafficking operations across the Mexican border and through South Texas to Austin, where the drugs were being sold.
Roger Lopez was arrested in South Texas in 1997, after he brought a load of marijuana across the border. APD and federal investigators testified that shortly thereafter, APD brass -- without resolving or otherwise pursuing the allegations against police officers -- began transferring officers off the investigation, leading to its effective dissolution. By the time Farris himself was finally reassigned, in July 1997, investigators said, only one officer had been assigned to wrap up two years worth of work: Officer Jeff White.
Farris told the Chronicle that White tried hard to get up to speed on the Mala Sangre operation, but it was a nearly impossible job, especially since White had to continue with his other regularly assigned narcotics division duties. As a result, investigators said, allegations against the Austin cops were never resolved.
In an interview last year, Assistant Chief Rick Coy told the Chronicle that the rendition of events by Farris and the other investigators was untrue. "There were a half-dozen or more people [still assigned to the investigation]," he said. "I can't name them all." But the testimony of the federal agents, the Austin officers who sued, and other court records directly contradict Coy's account, reflecting that indeed, only Jeff White remained assigned to the case.
The contradictions in the various accounts have never been resolved. Farris, Clark, and Gann settled their suit with the city in early 2001 -- but Farris contends that the settlement did not resolve the lingering allegations of internal APD corruption. In mid-February of 2001, the department distributed a brief statement by the U.S. Attorney's office in San Antonio that said no federal indictments of Austin officers had been handed down due to a lack of credible and admissible evidence. But significantly, the official statement did not address whether the allegations had been fully investigated in order to provide or exclude such evidence.
Now, White's lawsuit has returned the allegations to the APD's public consideration. According to White's attorney Mask, aside from the statements White had made to the city's attorney regarding obstructive actions he believed were taken by Chapman during the Mala Sangre investigation, there is little evidence of other possible reasons for White's reassignment shortly after Chapman entered his chain of command. Although White's lawsuit alleges White was officially transferred for "poor performance," Mask said that he has objective information demonstrating that the opposite is true -- that in fact White was far outperforming at least several other members of the narcotics division. "And then in October, when Jimmy Chapman enters his chain of command, and now suddenly [White's] a sub-performer?" Mask asked.
White has been forced to take his claims to court, Mask says, because his options for relief within the department -- namely, taking his grievance about Chapman's actions up the chain of command to Chief Knee -- were exhausted, and his transfer upheld. "He tried to get relief with internal grievances," Mask said. "You know, these officers sacrifice and put their lives on the line for each other and for the public. But when they try to stand up within the agency, they're hammered."
White may find he has an unlikely ally in his claims against the APD -- in the person of convicted heroin trafficker R.G. Lopez. In an interview last April at the Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Lopez, the target of Mala Sangre precursor Caballo Negro, told the Chronicle that the administration's assurances that the Mala Sangre allegations are baseless is hogwash. (R.G. Lopez is 67 years old and suffers from Parkinson's disease.) "The absence of evidence," he said, "is not that the evidence is absent." Lopez said that by the time he'd read just part of the 2001 press accounts regarding the Farris, Clark, Gann lawsuit and the lingering Mala Sangre allegations, he could provide "nine ways to prove this." However, he admitted he was loath to give further details because he feared for the safety of his son Roger, whose life, he said, had already been threatened.
'The Absence of Evidence'
APD administrators "lied to you knowing [they] lied to you," R.G. Lopez said. "And it should be very easy to prove [they] lied to you." Lopez has more than one ax to grind with the department, but Farris said he would not be too quick to discount the import of Lopez's assertions. "He would be in a position to know," Farris said. Farris added that Lopez has known all along that if he comes forward he may implicate his son. "The only redeeming value he has," Farris said, "is his loyalty to his family."
Whether or not R.G. Lopez knows the truth, the immediate consequences of White's new charges are clear: The swirl of controversy and speculation around the original allegations has not disappeared. "To this point it's never, publicly, been shown one way or another, and so it is all left up to perception," said APA President Sheffield. "Perception is key. Perception that the department prematurely closes investigations; perception that officers are treated differently depending on position or rank within the department; perception that it could be possible to consort with known felons without any consequences -- or, again, based upon position or rank within the department."
And whether or not APD Chief Stan Knee orders an "administrative investigation," as Sheffield has requested, the answers to these open questions may finally be heard -- in the courtroom. Mask said he expects the city will respond to White's petition within 50 days.