August 310, 2000
The Dominican Connection, Part Two: Shafted, page 3
Four angry narcotics agents are suing to prove that Uncle Sam is the ultimate pusher man.
by Noel Weyrich
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As the summer of 1996 wore on, Philadelphias small community of criminal defense attorneys smelled blood in the water when it came to getting old BNI cases overturned. In a frenzy of filings, one motion followed another in rapid succession, each requesting that a past conviction be thrown out and a prisoner released because the individuals arrest had been tainted by the mere presence of BNI personnel at the scene.
When the District Attorneys Office did not contest the motions, the convicts went free. Before it was all over, by McLaughlins estimation, 85 defendants had been let go, people from whom BNI had confiscated a total of $1.2 million worth of heroin, crack and cocaine, not to mention dozens of illegal firearms and motor vehicles.
Another attorney who has frequently handled drug cases, Louis Savino, showed remarkable candor about the situation when he told the Inquirer, "It made my job easier. I dont know about the general public. Theyre just letting people skate. These are allegations of significant amounts of drugs." Most other defense attorneys were more sanctimonious, making public claims about their clients innocence, even when their court motions merely claimed they had been caught improperly.
The scandal hit at a time when the Pennsylvania Attorney Generals Office was already in a state of general turmoil. The elected AG, Ernie Preate, had gone to prison for campaign finance corruption. The acting AG, Thomas Corbett, was a lame duck, a mere seat warmer who would be replaced in early 1997 by the winner of the November 1996 election.
Nonetheless, soon after the prosecutors started dumping BNI cases, Corbett appointed his deputy attorney general Eric Noonan to review the cases and file a report on fixing the problems with the Philadelphia BNI office.
Noonans report was never made public, but a draft has been obtained by City Paper. In it, Noonans exasperation is evident as he lays out the inability of the prosecutors to articulate just what they found so offensive about McLaughlin and his crew. This is where he accused the prosecutors of failing to provide any specifics beyond "a general gut feeling of discomfort" with BNI cases.
As best as Noonan could tell, the prosecutors had three very general criticisms of the arrests made by McLaughlin, Micewski, McKeefery and Eggles: The BNI agents often entered houses without warrants, they reported seeing drugs in plain view with a frequency that defied credibility and the "recurring fact patterns" in their cases, as claimed by Guy Sciolla, raised suspicions that they were making stuff up.
As head of the Drug Strike Force Legal Services section, Noonan was already well versed in search and seizure law. After reviewing hundreds of BNI files, however, he concluded that while the bureau could sharpen up some of its procedures, he could find nothing about its work that was improper or not credible.
For one thing, law officers can enter a house without a warrant if they reasonably suspect contraband may be in danger of being destroyed. The allowable procedure is to "secure" the property first and then request a warrant to actually search the building. Noonan found BNI agents had always given their explicit reasons for such "prior entries" in their search warrant requests, and had never tried to conceal them.
To test the credibility of the "plain view" arrests that the prosecutors complained about, Noonan took a tour of the Dominican-controlled drug corners where the BNI agents had done so much of their work. "During slightly more than an hour of driving through the various neighborhoods, our vehicle was approached no fewer than three times by street corner dealers who readily displayed various types of drugs to the driver." Noonan witnessed five other drug transactions, some within view of uniformed police officers who "had very little impact on these street dealers temerity. [B]ased on the foregoing, it appears their recurring ability for such plain view observations is quite believable."
Finally, on the matter of Sciollas "recurring fact patterns," Noonan wrote that he found no such patterns that were "incredible due to their frequency." Forced to state the obvious, Noonan wrote that some recurring patterns are "not unforeseeable" with drug arrests, given the organized and routine nature of narcotics dealing and trafficking.
Although Noonans report made some suggestions about how BNI agents and supervisors could improve their reporting methods, he found nothing that would warrant the treatment that McLaughlin, Micewski, McKeefery and Eggles received at the hands of the prosecutors.
The report, completed in July 1996, would have given Philadelphias BNI crew some much-needed moral support, but no portion of it was ever made public.
Instead, acting AG Tom Corbett continued to make occasional disparaging remarks about the agents, perhaps attempting to put the bureaus past behind it. McLaughlin, Micewski, McKeefery and Eggles were pulled from the streets for good, and a new supervisor was assigned. On May 17, 1996, with the four agents no longer permitted to make arrests, the District Attorneys Office announced it would start handling BNI cases once again.
On July 1, 1996, Dr. Jose Francisco Pena Gomez lost the runoff election for the Dominican presidency. But he and his Dominican Revolutionary Party didnt have to worry about drug investigations any more. Soon after Pena Gomezs fundraising visit to New York several months earlier, the DEA had shut down its investigation.
And Pena Gomezs supporters kept active in politics. In October 1996, prominent members of Dominican drug trafficking organizations people assigned special DEA identity numbers attended a fundraiser for the New York Democratic Party at an Upper West Side tavern.
The guest of honor that night was Vice President Al Gore.
In the fall of 1997, when they filed their federal civil rights lawsuit, the careers of McLaughlin, McKeefery, Micewski and Eggles were mere shadows of what they had been 18 months earlier.
For more than a year McLaughlin had been reassigned to a desk job, while McKeefery worked in the motor pool, signing out vehicles. Micewski was reassigned to do paperwork in a BNI office in northeastern Pennsylvania, while Eggles took an extended leave, eventually deciding to retire.
All were still officially under investigation by the FBI.
In September, a Housing Authority police officer named Harry Fernandez called McLaughlin to tell him he had FBI troubles of his own. Fernandez had worked frequently with McLaughlins BNI crew on drug investigations in the past. Now he was facing federal charges for lying about a search he did on a car in 1994. He had recovered more than three pounds of cocaine in what was said to be the largest street bust in city history, but he had falsified some details in the search and some fellow housing officers had given him up.
Fernandez told McLaughlin that the FBI was offering him immunity in exchange for information about the BNI. But it wasnt until Fernandezs 1998 trial, when he got a transcript of Fernandezs Sept. 23, 1997 FBI interview, that McLaughlin could see just how badly they wanted to nail the Bastard Squad.
FBI: Look, lets cut the shit. You know those guys at BNI are dirty. They planted drugs on people[,] stole their money. We want you to tell us about that.
Fernandez: Ill tell you whatever I know, but if youre looking for illegal shit that those guys did. I do not know anything about it
FBI: Why do you keep protecting these guys?
Fernandez: Im not protecting them but if I dont know anything illegal about them how can I say anything?
FBI: This is your only way out. Do you understand that anything you say here cant be used against you[?] No matter what illegal thing you did and tell us we cant use it against you. Thats a hell of a break.
Fernandez: I would tell you if I know. Id give up anybody in order to benefit me. But unless you want me to lie I dont know anything.
Fernandez was eventually acquitted of three of the four charges against him. He received a two-and-a-half-year sentence for lying to a federal officer.
The lawsuit filed on October 17, 1997, with all four Bastard Squad members as plaintiffs, listed 16 co-defendants including Stiles, Gordon, a State Department assistant secretary, three CIA employees, two FBI detectives, five members of the Attorney Generals chain of command, two New York drug traffickers and, finally, the candidate himself, Pena Gomez. Pena Gomez has since died, and several other defendants, including Arnold Gordon, have successfully sought to be dropped from the case via a summary judgment. Gordon was covered by prosecutorial immunity, which forbids people from suing prosecutors for their legal decisions. Stiles, however, has had his summary judgment request denied by a judge, partly because there is some evidence he encouraged the Attorney Generals Office to order all the Bastard Squad members removed from the Essington Avenue office.
(See Correction, August 10)
In 1998, Donald Bailey filed a second lawsuit on behalf of McLaughlin, McKeefery and Micewski, alleging that Attorney General officials had responded to the first lawsuit by retaliating with "harsh, uncompromising employment and travel burdens, all in order to punish the plaintiffs for using the civil rights laws to protect their rights and redress their grievances." (Eggles, having retired, was not a plaintiff in the second lawsuit.)
Not until October 1998 did Stiles inform the Attorney Generals Office that the FBI investigation of the Bastard Squad would not result in any indictments. He finally made the announcement that the FBI investigation was complete in February 1999, nearly three years after it started.
Although the number of convicted felons set free in the BNI scandal rivals that of the 39th District scandal, there remain some serious differences between the two affairs. In the 39th, the city eventually paid out $3.5 million in settlements to falsely arrested defendants. By contrast, none of the civil cases filed against the Bastard Squad was settled, and none ever made it to trial. Each was thrown out by an appellate judge, including one who noted tartly that "Plaintiff does not dispute the basic facts that he was driving an automobile which contained over 2,000 vials of crack cocaine."
And yet, just two weeks ago, another repeat offender drug dealer, one who was serving four to seven years in state prison, was granted a new trial simply because the arresting officer was Sparky McLaughlin. The District Attorneys Office immediately moved to nol-pros, and the man, who is still awaiting trial on two unrelated assault charges, went free.
McLaughlin, Micewski, McKeefery and Eggles remain possibly the only unindicted law officers anywhere to be essentially blackballed by the prosecutors they were obliged to work with. But they are no longer the only cops to have their investigative careers interrupted or destroyed under strange circumstances involving Dominican drug traffickers and their pricey private lawyers.
One highly effective Philadelphia Police narcotics squad was suddenly shut down and pulled off the streets in 1997. They were told death threats had been made against them. Only later did they learn the FBI was investigating them because lawyers for Dominican drug dealers were complaining the squad was making unconstitutional searches. After three years, the FBI had nothing to show for their trouble. But the narcotics squad, which had been arresting an average of 30 dealers a week, was dismantled. Some have filed formal grievances against the police department for unfairly reassigning them to desk jobs.
Two other cases in New York City follow a similar pattern in which successful teams of narcotics agents have been pulled from duty after drug lawyers made allegations of misconduct that inevitably proved groundless.
Could it be that the attorneys for Dominican drug traffickers have hit upon a reliable method of undermining the entire justice system by simply driving a wedge of suspicion between the cops and the prosecutors (two cultures which are prone to mutual mistrust in even the best of circumstances)?
Way back in April 1996, thats exactly what BNI supervisor Mike Lutz thought had happened to McLaughlin, McKeefery, Micewski and Eggles. That eloquent memorandum defending the men who would soon become the Bastard Squad contained this very well-reasoned paragraph:
"Is it not our agency alone that is making a consistent pattern of arrests, confiscating large amounts of drugs, money, cars and guns in these areas? How best to defeat the efforts of the Law Enforcement Agency that is wreaking havoc against this organized drug ring[?] Put the spotlight on them. Put them in retreat. Initiate an investigation. Make false and unfounded allegations. It will stop them in their tracks. And it did.
"The scheme worked, [the Dominican drug traffickers and their lawyers] paralyzed an entire Law Enforcement Agency and at the same time ruined [its] credibility. How in Gods name could their broad brush associate us with the 39th District scandal? They did."
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