More Bad Blood
Depositions in APD Lawsuit Reopen the Mala Sangre Wounds
On Aug. 28, Austin Police Chief Stan Knee announced the initiation of an independent investigation into whether APD Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman committed perjury in his sworn deposition testimony for a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by Detective Jeff White. According to an APD press release, Knee initiated the investigation "after receiving information from a police department employee" alleging that Chapman provided "inaccurate information" during his July 10 deposition. At a cost of $30,000, Knee has hired James McLaughlin, general counsel and executive director for the Texas Police Chiefs Association, to investigate the allegation.
McLaughlin might begin with a thorough comparison of the deposition testimony provided by Chapman and by Knee himself.
In July, Chapman, Knee, White, City Manager Toby Futrell, and city-hired San Antonio attorney Lowell Denton were each deposed in connection with the whistle-blower suit White filed in May 2002. White claims he was transferred from the department's narcotics and organized-crime division by Chapman in retaliation for allegations White made regarding the department's handling of the now infamous mid-Nineties joint drug task-force investigation, code-named Mala Sangre ("Bad Blood") -- including allegations of possible criminal activity by Chapman. White's is the third such suit filed in the aftermath of Mala Sangre. White also claims that Chapman retaliated against him by blocking his attempt to get a position with the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force, although FBI personnel had recruited White for the job.
In his deposition, Chapman says the allegations against him have come as a complete "shock," that he didn't know until the day before his deposition that White or anyone else had made any allegations against him, and that he had nothing to do with White's transfer or his inability to secure a job with the JTTF. "Nobody's made an allegation against me," Chapman testified. "That's the problem. No allegation has ever been made against me. I've never been investigated by Internal Affairs for any[thing related to Mala Sangre], ever. Ever."
Despite Chapman's protestations, the Mala Sangre case has haunted the entire department for nearly a decade. In a 1997 lawsuit, APD officers Stan Farris, Dennis Clark, and David Gann alleged that department brass transferred them from assignments with the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Mala Sangre narcotics case in an effort to end an investigation that was uncovering numerous allegations of criminal activities on the part of Austin officers. (See "Bad Blood," Feb. 15, 2001.) According to summary documents filed in that lawsuit, over the course of their investigation the task-force-assigned officers turned up the names of at least 27 APD officers against whom serious criminal allegations had been made. The investigators were told by numerous informants (including other cops) that some officers were believed to be involved in a wide range of criminal activities -- including buying and using cocaine while on duty and aiding the drug-trafficking activities of the investigation's primary target, former East Austin businessman Roger Lopez. The APD officers alleged that supervisors in the department and the task force -- specifically Chapman and then-FBI agent John Maspero (now Williamson Co. sheriff) -- interfered with their abilities to pursue the criminal charges against APD officers, by thwarting undercover surveillance operations and by warning suspects they were being watched. (The Farris et al. lawsuit was settled in late 2000.)
The Shadow of Mala Sangre
The Mala Sangre operation successfully netted prime target Lopez, convicted of drug-trafficking charges in 1998 and sentenced to seven years in federal prison. But Farris, Clark, and Gann alleged that rather than allow them to pursue the numerous allegations against Austin officers, APD brass transferred them from the case and replaced them with one officer: Jeff White.
White was named as a potential witness in the Farris, Clark, and Gann suit, and in 2000, he was interviewed by the city's attorney, Lowell Denton -- in Assistant Chief Chapman's office. White testified that during the interview Denton asked him where he should begin "to get to the bottom of this mess." White says he pointed directly to the nameplate on Chapman's desk and said, "Right there."
White says he told Denton he believed that Chapman "was somehow involved in ... shutting down ... that investigation," and that he had heard from "multiple [police officer] sources over time that had said that [Chapman] interferes in cases, that he compromises investigations." White says that shortly after his interview with Denton, Chapman's demeanor toward him changed dramatically -- from friendly and talkative to cold and hostile. On Friday, Jan. 11, 2002, White learned from his supervisors that he was being transferred out of organized crime the following Monday, allegedly for "poor performance" -- despite the fact that in his most recent evaluation he had been rated "highly effective."
White says he also learned that, although he had been recruited by the FBI for a spot on the local terrorism task force, his nomination had been blocked. He filed an internal grievance that was ultimately rejected by Chief Knee. On May 16, 2002, White filed suit in district court.
In his deposition, Chapman expresses disbelief at the accusations against him, claiming he had no part in anything related to Mala Sangre, White's transfer, or the terrorism task force. He says it was "news" to him that White had been involved with the Mala Sangre case or that White had been interviewed by Denton in his fifth-floor office. "You know, any time anybody's made an allegation, I usually read about it in the Chronicle or something like that," he said. "So I don't know -- I really don't know. I mean, this whole thing has been a shock."
"This Whole Thing Has Been a Shock"
Chapman says that when he saw White's grievance and realized he was named in it, he "stepped away from it," because it would've been "inappropriate" for him to have any part in the process even though he was part of White's chain of command. Since then, he said, he hasn't "read anything" related to White's complaints. He says he was told by White's supervisors that the officer was being transferred for poor performance but that he had nothing to do with it and that he did not interfere with White's attempt to secure a position with the JTTF.
"Do you recall informing an agent at the FBI that Detective White ... should not be considered for a position with the ... terrorism task force?" White's attorney Donald Feare asked Chapman.
"Never had a conversation like that," Chapman said. "Didn't. Never did. Never had a conversation. Not one."
Chapman's version of these events is being challenged not only by White, but in effect by Chief Knee himself. That is, Knee's deposition testimony directly contradicts Chapman's. Chapman testified that he knew nothing about White's allegations and didn't understand why White would name him in a grievance -- yet Knee testified that it was Chapman who told him about White's allegations. "It was widely known that if ... White was transferred ... the potential was for a lawsuit," Knee said on July 11. Asked how he knew, Knee testified that Chapman told him so: "That ... White was going to connect his transfer to the assignment of ... Chapman as manager of the organized-crime unit, because [White] had had a conversation [with Denton] and some involvement with the Mala [Sangre] investigation."
Contradicting the Chief
Chapman also said that he never had any conversations about White being assigned to the JTTF; yet Knee testified that Chapman is the "coordinator" of the department's homeland security operations, which includes making decisions about who is assigned to the JTTF. Further, Knee said he "recalled a conversation" with Chapman and the other assistant chiefs in which a decision was made to assign another detective to the JTTF, although he added, "I don't think [Chapman] blocked [White's assignment]. I can say that another detective was selected for that position."
Knee could not explain why White would've been transferred for poor performance when his job evaluations described him as "highly effective." Knee said he was told that White was counseled about his performance and placed on a 30-day improvement plan, but that he never saw the paperwork standard in such a case. White says he was told that it wasn't until the day after he filed his grievance over the transfer that paperwork was created regarding his supposedly substandard performance. "It's my understanding," White testified, "that the day after the grievance was filed ... Chapman came to [the organized-crime division offices] and had closed-door meetings" with White's sergeant and lieutenant. Subsequently, he said, there was "a memo from each supervisor outlining substandard performance and the purpose for the transfer." White said that he has seen copies of the memos. (His attorney Donald Feare says that the officer's personnel file, provided in discovery, is incomplete and contains no documents from 2000 to the present. "It's as if he doesn't exist after 2000," Feare said.) Although Knee admitted that White's transfer for substandard performance seemingly contradicts his positive work evaluations, he was told that "Chapman had not been involved in the decision to transfer Detective White."
"Chief, do you ever believe your chain of command doesn't tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" Feare asked.
"I trust the people in ... White's chain of command," Knee replied.
It appears that Knee's trust is being put to the test. Feare said that he and Denton (who remains the city's attorney on the White case) are preparing to depose other officers they believe will be able to provide details about Chapman's alleged involvement in Mala Sangre as well as in White's transfer. Knee has long dismissed the lingering allegations surrounding the Mala Sangre investigation. "This cloud ... I want to say that this cloud [of Mala Sangre allegations] is almost mythical in nature," Knee told the Chronicle in February 2001. "You would have to believe that [former APD] Chief Watson ... and myself ignored police corruption, if you are to believe there is sufficient evidence to connect police officers to wrongdoing."
Conflict in Charge
Some officers say that Knee still isn't taking the situation seriously. In announcing the independent inquiry, for example, Knee also said he would allow Chapman to remain on active duty in his "current assignment," overseeing all of the department's major crime investigative details, including narcotics and organized crime. "Normally officers in sensitive positions within the department would be removed during an inquiry," notes Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield. "The rank and file would view this as inappropriate because, again, it's not in keeping with what officers have seen routinely done with others. Is there clearly a conflict [in keeping Chapman in charge]?" he asked. "Yes, that's why officers are put on leave. It's not about an indication of guilt, but a question of appropriateness."