So who ya gonna believe?
Will it be the alleged drug pushers and cash-carrying, paraphernalia-dealing bodega owners? Or the Philly narcotics cops who allegedly shook them down on trumped-up search warrants?
How about the dogged news reporters who fingered the rogue cops after unearthing dozens of alleged cases of official misconduct? Or perhaps the FOP boss who claims that the journos might have overstepped their own ethical standards and betrayed the public trust to get their Pulitzer-winning stories?
And what about the ex-Inquirer reporter-turned-blogger whose latest article about rivalry and infighting at the city’s two daily newspapers seemed to spark this latest salvo of public slime-slinging?
Last Wednesday, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 President John McNesby publicly called for an investigation into what he termed “credible information” that two Daily News reporters may have paid off a source or sources and “intentionally fabricated” details for their 2009 “Tainted Justice” series that led to the firing of one police officer and the suspension of four others.
“These are troubling accusations,” said Ralph Cipriano, the BigTrial.net contributor whose July 15 blog entry first reported the new questions regarding the prize-winning series authored by Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman. The same blog further detailed the Inquirer’s recent handling of an article examining why federal prosecutors did not charge the disgraced officers criminally. The “Inky” opted not to publish the story that might have “cast the two reporters … in a negative light,” Cipriano wrote, citing “several newsroom sources.”
“What drew me to the story was that the Inky editorial staff and the Daily News editorial staff are at a loggerheads over this and then I heard that [Gerry] Lenfest resolved it by killing the story,” Cipriano told the Northeast Times. “I don’t think it’s going away.”
Lenfest owns the company that publishes both papers, which share a headquarters and newsroom at Eighth and Market streets. Sources told Cipriano that Lenfest vetoed the article against objections by Inquirer Editor Bill Marimow.
Each paper reported McNesby’s claims in last Thursday’s editions. Laker, Ruderman and Daily News Editor Michael Days declined to comment, according to the Inquirer. The Daily News did not mention any attempt to seek comment from the reporters or editor. Both papers quoted a prepared statement by Lenfest that said, in part: “We stand behind the work of our reporters and have seen no ‘sound evidence’ that their work was anything but thorough, accurate and ethical.
“Our company does not take allegations of unethical behavior lightly, and I can assure Mr. McNesby that if such ‘sound evidence’ exists, we will pursue it.”
The work that Lenfest referenced was Laker and Ruderman’s 10-article series detailing alleged abuses of a rogue squad in the Philadelphia Police Department’s Narcotics Field Unit. The Daily News published the articles between Feb. 9 and Sept. 25, 2009. The writers won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
Laker and Ruderman subsequently wrote a book that the Harper publishing firm released earlier this year. In a July 10 promotional interview for New Hampshire Public Radio, the authors said that the project began when an ex-convict, drug abuser and longtime paid police informant walked into the newsroom essentially because he had nowhere else to turn.
Benny Martinez had helped police sting a high-level drug dealer whose attorney used a private investigator to determine the informant’s identity. The P.I. tracked Martinez to a rental home he shared with his common-law wife and their children, a home owned by a narcotics cop who also happened to be Martinez’ police handler. Not only was the informant’s cover blown, so was his inappropriate financial relationship with the narcotics cop. Martinez allegedly was paying rent to the officer with money that he had earned by helping the officer lock up alleged drug dealers.
With his identity known on the street, Martinez feared that drug dealers might come for him to silence him or to exact revenge, unless the jeopardized narcotics cop got to him first. Martinez told the FBI and police department’s Internal Affairs Bureau about his relationship with the officer. He also told the Daily News.
According to the paper’s initial report, the police misconduct went much deeper. Martinez disclosed that narcotics officers had repeatedly lied on court documents to obtain search warrants under false pretenses. The cops would claim that Martinez had bought drugs from a certain dealer at a certain location and time when he actually hadn’t.
The ensuing drug raids led to numerous arrests. For later installments in the series, the journalists interviewed alleged dealers and their relatives whose homes the narcotics cops had raided based on Martinez’ purported drug buys. Some claimed that the cops had planted evidence in their homes. Three women claimed that one cop had fondled each of them during raids.
During their investigation, the reporters began hearing from dozens of small grocery store (bodega) owners from across the city who claimed that the same narcotics squad raided their businesses, disabled surveillance cameras, ransacked the shops and stole their cash, along with goods from their shelves. Usually, police arrested the business owners for selling drug paraphernalia — specifically those tiny plastic baggies that drug dealers use as packaging for street-level sales. The police routinely and grossly underreported the amount of cash seized from the businesses, according to the articles. Presumably, the missing money ended up in officers’ pockets.
As a result of the allegations, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey asked the FBI to investigate. More than five years after the publication of the first Daily News article, Ramsey last April announced that the federal government had opted not to file criminal charges against any officers. The feds did not comment publicly. The Philadelphia District Attorney also declined to charge, although the city reportedly paid out $1.7 million in civil settlements in 33 cases filed in the aftermath of the series.
After Ramsey’s announcement, the Daily News ran the banner headline “PATHETIC JUSTICE!” on its front page, followed by the summary line, “No criminal charges for 5 rogue cops … yes, you should be ticked off.” The Inquirer played it more down the middle, reporting that sources close to the investigation had cited “weak witnesses and a lack of evidence” as factors in the decision not to prosecute.
Ramsey later sustained internal allegations of misconduct against the five officers and fired one. Four others were suspended, but have since returned to full duty, according to McNesby. In the FOP boss’ view, the officers are clean.
“After years of unsupported whispers and suspicions, all of the officers were cleared of any wrongdoing. They were absolved entirely,” McNesby said last Wednesday. “The claims made by Laker and Ruderman simply did not hold up. Unfortunately, nobody is going to return their reputations to these good officers.”
McNesby declined to reveal his source of information about the Daily News reporters’ own investigative methods. He stopped short of personally accusing Laker or Ruderman of ethical violations, instead describing himself as a third party to “a thorough investigation” of the case.
The probe “revealed not only that Laker and Ruderman’s claims are false … but they intentionally fabricated parts of their story,” McNesby said. “It is alleged that both have done a number of things that we have received information on as far as providing money, paying utility bills, providing diapers to those that accused our officers.”
He demanded that the Daily News, the Inquirer and perhaps the Pulitzer Prize organization investigate the allegations against Laker and Ruderman.
“We are asking that somebody pick up the ball and do an investigation the same way it was done on the five narcotics officers whose careers were tainted because of this travesty that these girls have put out,” McNesby said.
According to Cipriano’s blog entry, some folks may already be doing that. The Inquirer had planned to publish a story about it on July 13, wrote Cipriano, who left the paper in 1998 during a dispute with bosses over his coverage of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s church closings and financial dealings.
“In the story scheduled for [July 13], the Inquirer apparently was going to take it a step further, and somehow blame the Daily News reporters for supposedly being part of the reason why the cops couldn’t be prosecuted,” Cipriano wrote. “[Inquirer reporters] had several FBI statements summarizing interviews with witnesses … that supposedly had negative things to say about the two Daily News reporters who won the Pulitzer Prize.”
That article has yet to see the light of day. ••