Northeast Times

Fair and balanced?

The leader of the city’s police union raises questions about a prize-winning series examining alleged cop corruption.

PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF METRO IM­AGES / WIKI­ME­DIA; GRAPH­IC BY MELISSA YERKOV

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. ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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