APD's White Settles: The End of Mala Sangre?
Unanswered questions leave a cloud over top brass
Earlier this month, a few weeks before trial, the city of Austin and APD Detective Jeff White reached an agreement that ends nearly three and a half years of legal wrangling over a whistle-blower lawsuit filed in connection with the decade-old undercover narcotic trafficking investigation code-named Mala Sangre (Bad Blood). The terms of the settlement are confidential. So, as has happened before, the case is settled without the attention and sunshine that an open-court trial would bring to some of the APD's darkest corners no doubt a relief to APD administration and city officials.
Nonetheless, questions continue to hang over the APD's Fifth Floor and City Hall and will, so long as the city refuses to concede that there was ever even a nugget of truth to any of the disturbing allegations of official corruption and criminal conduct leveled against those within APD's highest ranks.
White filed suit in May 2002, charging that former APD Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman had him transferred from a plum assignment in organized crime and narcotics and then blocked his assignment to a joint FBI task force, both actions in presumed retaliation for White's alleging that Chapman may have interfered with the Mala Sangre investigation. White's was the third such whistle-blower lawsuit filed over the undercover operation by APD officers who, in the course of investigating a drug-trafficking organization, amassed allegations against a handful of their fellow officers, including Chapman. The allegations against various officers included drug use, aiding the traffickers, and attempting to thwart the entire operation. In a 1997 suit, officers Stan Farris, Dennis Clark, and David Gann alleged they were transferred (and replaced solely by White) by APD brass in an effort to shut down the Mala Sangre probe before it could address the allegations of criminal acts by fellow officers.
Chapman resigned from the department in 2003, after an "inconclusive" finding by an independent investigator of allegations that he lied under oath during a deposition taken in connection with White's suit. Chapman has vociferously denied the Mala Sangre-related allegations a chorus joined by Chief Stan Knee and other officials, who have repeatedly told the Chronicle that the Mala Sangre charges were thoroughly investigated and are nothing more than inflammatory "rumors." (In 2002, City Manager Toby Futrell told us that pursuing Mala Sangre was like "chasing ghosts.")
While the city's official ghostbusters were dodging shadows, its attorneys' preparations for White's lawsuit appeared only to undermine the city's legal position. In deposition after deposition, witnesses called by the city contradicted one another in damaging ways. For example, Chapman said he was "shocked" by White's claim of retaliation, in part because he had no idea that White would be transferred; Detective Howard Staha subsequently testified that it was Chapman who'd told him about White's reassignment.
Even more disturbing were the revelations of witnesses Gary Fleming and Rick Cockman, former Internal Affairs detectives responsible for investigating the myriad Mala Sangre-related police corruption charges. In 2002, Fleming who had spent 18 years of his 31-year APD career in IA before retiring in 2001 testified that the lengthy list of Mala Sangre allegations was never fully investigated because APD brass had ordered the detectives to abandon their inquiry. IA was "not pulling the strings and controlling the investigation," he testified in September 2003.
And it wasn't just in the Mala Sangre case that the detectives was thwarted, Fleming said. Near the close of his career, Fleming said that all officer-related allegations were first sent to APD brass before IA was allowed to initiate any inquiry. The allegation "went to the assistant chief, Mike McDonald [now an assistant city manager], who made the decision whether it should go to the Officer-Involved unit, or anywhere else," he testified. "Some of the people in [IA] complained to Chief Knee [about the intrusion], and he did nothing about it. He allowed it to continue." That revelation confirmed by other former investigators directly contradicts Knee's long-standing mantra that the Mala Sangre accusations were deemed without merit after a complete internal inquiry. "We have investigated," Knee insisted during a 2001 interview with the Chronicle. "When information rose to the level that would allow us to open an investigation, we have investigated."
As it stands, White's legal engagement with the matter has come to an end. But while he's clearly done his part indeed, White pushed the corruption-allegation envelope further than any of his colleagues the questions linger: Is Mala Sangre a myth? Is it history? Have the APD and the city banished the bad apples and evolved beyond the institutional denials embodied by the handling of serious allegations of misconduct and official suppression suggested by the Mala Sangre accusations?
The official line is, well, predictably official: "The accusations and implications being made by [White] and his attorney, we don't believe were accurate," said Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza, "and not at all factually based."
To Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield, these matters remain unresolved, and have even touched Sheffield directly. In 2002, shortly after Sheffield called for a thorough investigation into the Mala Sangre operation, Knee transferred him away from full-time union duty and into a part-time assignment with APD's Sex Offender Apprehension and Registration Unit, citing manpower shortages. Yet Cathy Ellison, now an assistant chief, told Knee that if manpower was the concern, she knew of at least one recently promoted detective still awaiting an assignment. And then there's Sgt. Neil Neyens, whose 2003 complaint of an allegedly retaliatory action by Chapman over a separate incident has apparently never been addressed.
"I think that for Jeff White and his family, [the settlement] brings closure," Sheffield said. "But the settling of this case does not close, or answer, the questions that still hang over this department [and that are] still staring the department in the face: What happened?" he continued. "I guess we'll never know; and that's unfortunate."