Naked City

So What's Going on?

In his Aug. 22 column, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert noted that the U.S. Dept. of Justice has issued conflicting statements on whether it's investigating possible criminal and civil rights violations related to the Tulia busts, perpetrated by one-man narco buster Tom Coleman. In a letter to American Bar Association President Robert Hirshorn, Lori Sharpe Day, an aide to Attorney General John Ashcroft, said the DOJ had ended its criminal investigation regarding Tulia. When Herbert followed up with the agency, a spokesperson told him the civil rights investigation remained open, but the criminal investigation was closed. Then Barbara Comstock, head of DOJ's public affairs office, told Herbert that both investigations are currently open; the previous accounts were simply wrong.

Confused? So was Plainview attorney Paul Holloway, who represented four Tulia defendants on a total of eight charges. Holloway believes the DOJ gave Herbert the runaround, and questions whether the feds are being forthright. He contacted the DOJ about Tulia in January 2000, just six months after the infamous early morning police raid. In a lengthy letter complete with supplementary information, Holloway drew a roadmap for DOJ investigators to explore possible civil rights and criminal activities. DOJ lawyer Rachel Harmon responded more than eight months later, stating that information Holloway had provided -- most notably, that Coleman had been indicted for theft and abuse of official capacity before becoming Swisher County's free-lance narc agent -- was not enough for the agency to take action. "I have determined that your complaint does not involve a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes," she wrote. "Accordingly, we are unable to assist you."

Why did the DOJ ignore Holloway's early warnings? Holloway says the DOJ is basing their current investigation (if it's actually under way) on info he provided in his January 2000 letter, but speculates he might not have "entered" the system at a high enough level -- or didn't have the political clout necessary to press the agency toward action. "Failing to enter their system at the proper level -- read, proper political level -- I got the dismissal letter," Holloway said. "Others better connected and more savvy than me have talked to the right people and have gotten more accomplished."

Another possible reason for the DOJ's outward ramblings, Holloway suggests, is that the agency might be hard-pressed to make a clear civil rights case. "If they are conducting an investigation to check on whether these cases were specifically racially motivated, they are going to continue to come up dry and conclude that they are not civil rights cases," Holloway said. "If they were to take a hard look at the propriety of the war on drugs, they might reach some of the right conclusions -- but they can't do that because both parties are outspoken proponents of the war on drugs." (For more, see "Tulia, Too Late," p.16.)

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