August 310, 2000
The Dominican Connection, Part Two: Shafted, page 2
photo: Shoshanna Wiesner
by Noel Weyrich
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But its also fair to ask why, when faced with two tried-and-true options for addressing their worries about BNIs credibility, the District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia independently chose to take all of the pending BNI cases and, as the cops might say, "shit-can" them. It was a unique, scorched-earth approach that was also, the BNI agents claim, the only prosecutorial measure that would ensure a quick and permanent demise for BNIs investigation of Dominican narco-politics.
Neither Stiles nor Gordon would comment for this story. Both, however, have given accounts of their actions under oath, either through sworn depositions or in criminal hearings.
Arnold Gordon, however, had a history of being dissatisfied with certain BNI cases, one that pre-dated the bureaus problems with the CIA and Pena Gomez. Gordon had complained about BNI arrests to Attorney General officials on at least two occasions in early 1995, raising questions about the facts concerning a total of eight separate cases. In April of 1995, McLaughlins diary records that Gordon had asked for disciplinary charges against McKeefery, alleging he had admitted in open court to searching two drug houses without a warrant. The subsequent internal investigation cleared McKeefery.
Then, in May 1995, Gordon sent a letter to the then-acting Attorney General, requesting a review of seven cases that prosecutors for both his office and the U.S. Attorneys office found troubling. Five of the cases directly involved McLaughlin, McKeefery, Micewski and Eggles.
In one case, Eggles and McLaughlin had arrested a man caught running with a kilo of cocaine, and the assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case expressed fears that the arrest had been too simple and, therefore, not credible. Another case had been thrown out because the judge found no probable cause for searching a property where drugs were found.
Although the May 1995 letter would later be used by defense attorneys as evidence that the BNI agents lacked credibility, Gordon has never invoked the cases mentioned in that letter as a reason for his April 1996 decision to nol-pros every case involving McLaughlin and McKeefery.
At a preliminary hearing in November 1996, after he agreed to drop 53 BNI-related cases, Gordon explained to a judge "the reason for nol-prossing these fifty-three cases was because Officer McLaughlin did something which one could characterize as lying in a search warrant. We chose not [to put McLaughlin on the stand] solely because of what had occurred with regard to that one search warrant."
A month later, before a different judge, Gordon claimed he was only using "his best prosecutorial judgment" in deciding to drop all of McLaughlins and McKeeferys cases. "Although Ive taken this action, I may be wrong and they may be right. In other words, I dont know that those officers lied in a search warrant. In fact, I may be unfairly stigmatizing them, by the action Ive taken in these cases."
In February 1995, just a few months before Gordons first complaint against McKeefery, a federal grand jury had indicted five Philadelphia police officers, charging them with planting drugs on defendants and stealing from them. Less then a month later, the Philadelphia District Attorneys Office started dropping charges against people convicted on the five officers testimony. The 39th District scandal, which ended up freeing more than 100 defendants, was supremely embarrassing to the District Attorneys Office. Then, in the spring of 1996, just weeks before Gordon announced his decision to stop taking BNI cases, the five police officers were all convicted and received prison sentences up to 13 years.
News of the district attorneys dumping of BNI cases broke on KYW-TV Channel 3 on April 23, 1996, followed by a front-page Inquirer story the day after. Both reports, as well as follow-up news accounts, were quick to draw lines of similarities between BNI and the 39th District scandal. It was an unfair comparison, which became increasingly obvious as the months went by, since the BNI agents had never been charged with anything.
Just the week before, five rogue police officers from North Philadelphias 39th District had been given sentences of up to 13 years for offenses that included framing suspects, beating them and extorting money from them. More than 100 cases involving the five officers had already been overturned but only after they had been indicted and charged with crimes. Reporters focusing on the similarities of the tossed-out cases could just as easily have pointed out the district attorneys sudden interest in not prosecuting cases of officers who hadnt been charged with anything.
Instead, the newspapers quoted unnamed law enforcement sources as stating that the joint city-FBI corruption probe that caught the 39th District police was now expanding to include the Bureau of Narcotics Investigation. By May 16, the head of BNIs Philadelphia office was replaced and McLaughlin, Micewski, McKeefery and Eggles were all reassigned to desk jobs.
In late June, the State Senates Judiciary Committee rushed to Philadelphia for hearings that had promised to examine why so many drug arrests by a state agency were being nullified by federal and local prosecutors. However, by the scheduled date, June 21, it had already been well established that the FBI was looking into BNIs Philadelphia office. The prosecutors and the Attorney Generals Office begged off on attending the hearings, stating they were duty-bound not to discuss matters under criminal investigation.
Rather than shed light on the decisions of the District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney, the hearing became a one-sided affair in which defense attorneys complained vocally about the persistent problem of police "corruption," lumping together BNIs problems with the criminal behavior of the 39th District cops.
At the hearing, Miguel Torres gave teary-eyed testimony accusing McLaughlin of beating him and stealing cash. He did not, however, accuse McLaughlin of planting drugs on him.
State Sen. Vince Fumo grabbed that days headlines by imploring Torres to sue the state for McLaughlins alleged conduct. He was quoted as saying, "I hope you hit us for at least a couple million bucks."
(Years later, Torres would sue, but he would never get his day in court. Appeals courts denied he had grounds for a false arrest complaint and just this year the Supreme Court refused to hear his final appeal. McLaughlin had long since passed a polygraph test clearing him of Torres charges.)
Meanwhile, in the Dominican Republic, Jose Francisco Pena Gomez won the first round of elections on May 21. News reports considered him the leading candidate for the final runoff election on July 1.
Two very different kinds of lawyers represent narcotics defendants in the Philadelphia justice system.
Defendants with no money get public defenders assigned to them by the courts. On the other hand, defendants who can afford to pay for a defense hire counsel from among a small coterie of experienced local criminal lawyers. Among Dominican drug defendants, one of the top attorneys of choice is Guy Sciolla.
Guy Sciolla doesnt do TV ads. He has a tiny one-line entry in the Yellow Pages. If youve never heard of him, then youre probably not the type of person wholl ever need him.
Years ago Sciolla was on the other side of the fence, as a prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorneys Office. Back then he counted among his colleagues in the homicide unit the very two prosecutors who would shut down the BNI crew Michael P. Stiles and Arnold Gordon. The Philadelphia legal community is a very small place.
In the weeks and months before Stiles and Gordon decided to stop taking BNI cases, Guy Sciolla was working up a motion to spring a former BNI arrestee from federal prison.
Miguel Tapia had been caught by McLaughlin and Eggles with a brick of cocaine in his car. Tapia had been set up by one of BNIs informants, who told the agents to wait for Tapia to make a delivery at a corner store at Fourth and Annsbury Streets. Tapia drove up in an Oldsmobile, parked and entered, where McLaughlin was waiting for him. Eggles later testified that he, meanwhile, recovered a brick of cocaine from the floor of the car, after spotting it peeking out from under a newspaper. Tapia was arrested on the spot, though it would be some hours before it was revealed he had lied about his identity and that his real name was Anci Liriano.
Eggles was able to seize the cocaine without a warrant under the "plain view" provisions of search and seizure law, which allows police to take action when they see something they can "reasonably suspect" is a controlled substance. The informants tip was critical to the legality of the arrest since it provided the reasonable suspicion needed to look inside the car. A jury found Tapia/Liriano guilty and a judge gave him a 63-month federal prison sentence.
Sciollas legal brief on behalf of Tapia was filed just two weeks after news of the BNI scandal hit the papers. It made no claim that Tapia/Liriano was innocent of anything. It did not allege that the agents had planted the cocaine in his car.
If anything, Sciollas Tapia brief is a somewhat unique court document in that it drips with innuendo and sarcasm. It backhandedly doubted Eggles credibility by claiming that a series of past BNI arrest reports, few of which even involved Eggles, displayed "remarkable and repeated fact patterns." It went on to question the very existence of BNIs confidential informant.
Years later, in a sworn deposition, U.S. Attorney Michael Stiles would recall the Tapia case as one of the main reasons he determined the entire Bureau of Narcotics Investigation was unfit for future federal prosecutions. In recounting the facts of the Tapia case, Stiles version was similar to Sciollas, in which doubt was cast on whether McLaughlin and Eggles informant had ever existed and little connection was found between Tapia and the Oldsmobile. But other investigative agencies, including the DEA, had long ago confirmed they were using the same individual as an informant, and a civilian witness in the store had testified for the prosecution that Tapia tried to throw away the keys to the car.
(Tapia was set free in July 1996. Seven months later, Delaware State Police records show he was stopped for speeding on I-95 and that $31,000 was found hidden in his cars false-bottomed gas tank. The car and the money were seized, but Tapia was let go.)
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