An Inside Look at a Texas Drug Task Force
(Also see sidebar “Padding the Books” at the end of this story.)
One afternoon last summer, a former undercover narc named Barbara Markham drove me through the piney backroads of Chambers and Liberty Counties, 3000 square miles of sparsely populated pasture and swampland between Houston and Beaumont. We were on a tour of crack dealing hot spots in the region, the areas Markham used to work when she was an officer for the Chambers County Narcotics Task Force (CCNTF), a federally funded, multi-jurisdictional outfit headed by the local district attorney. Her job had been to buy drugs, usually crack, from street-level dealers. As we drove, Markham pointed out now and again an empty shack where a dealer had been holed up or a trailer, separated from the road by a muddy ditch, where a task force snitch had until recently lived. In Chambers County, Markham explained, the task force has focused on the black side of Anahuac, known as “the Quarters,” and a small, mostly black rural community named Hankamer in the northern portion of the county. In Hankamer, we drove down a sunken and pitted blacktop road past a series of dilapidated frame houses and trailers. They were set close to the road in small lots carved out of the woods, many with piles of tires and rubbish or rusted-out cars in their yards. Several people stood on their stoops or leaned across car hoods to talk, stopping to stare as we passed. This neighborhood, known by the task force as one of the county’s “open-air drug markets,” is a favorite target, Markham said, for so-called “street sweeps,” in which a large contingent of cops will suddenly descend upon a popular hang-out, often someone’s front yard, and detain everybody, checking IDs, patting people down for drugs or weapons, looking for outstanding warrants.
In Liberty County, undercover officers cruise through the rural towns of Ames and Raywood, looking for street dealers. Larger towns like Cleveland, Dayton, and Liberty each have their streets known for crack dealing. In Dayton, we swung through the small public housing project, site of many previous undercover operations. Not far from there we stopped to talk to three young black men drinking beer in front of a small frame house. Between them, they’d had numerous run-ins with the task force. One had just gotten out after serving five years in prison for selling a few rocks of crack to a CCNTF undercover officer. None reported being asked to name his supplier. “They might get you with maybe $200 or $300 in your pocket, but you ain’t no big time dealer,” one said. “You’re just getting by, spending it on clothes and booze. And then here comes Mr. Goddamn Jump-Out Man.”
By all accounts, the task force has done a good job of rounding up street-level dealers. The problem, according to Markham, who left the task force in a cloud of controversy in the spring of 1997, is that Mr. Jump-Out Man has done little else, a fact that has made the task force’s presence in the area controversial. “It’s just too easy–they never go up the chain,” said Liberty defense attorney Walter Fontenot, who frequently represents poor black defendants with drug charges. “I have never understood the reason for their existence. It just seems to be a governmental bureaucracy that’s in existence for appearance only,” he said. “Crack buys is basically it. But I mean heck, you and I can do the same thing. Crack buys? Man, I can take you to about five crack places here in Liberty County and you and I can make the crack buys,” he said. Fontenot, who is black, said the drug war in Liberty County is caught in a vicious cycle. “If you dig into this stuff, you will find that most people are black, most people are poor, and they just cop out and get probation, and a couple of years later the probation is revoked, because they go back to the same thing because that’s all they know,” he said. It’s much the same in Chambers County, according to Anahuac defense attorney Ed Lieck. “It’s all about numbers,” said Lieck. “More number means more money. I’ve been doing this for ten years, and law enforcement is about money,” he said. “Anybody who tells you different is lying to you.”
The money in question comes from Washington. Task forces like the CCNTF are funded through federal grants that pass through the Texas Narcotics Control Program, a department of the governor’s criminal justice division. Across the country, the task force model of drug enforcement has come under increasing fire in recent years from judges, prosecutors, and civil liberties advocates. The amount of federal drug war money flowing to the states has not slackened, however, even as the public’s faith in the effort has steadily dwindled. Well into their second decade, federally funded drug task forces have become a whole new tier of law enforcement, one with very little accountability to any governing body. In Texas, there are currently some four dozen task forces in operation, mostly in rural areas, each one a little fiefdom with its own territorial and financial prerogatives to defend. As the objective of victory grows more remote, other, less ambitious objectives prevail. For those who have become addicted to the annual grants, keeping the program alive has become an end in itself.
Few have thrived in this system better than the Chambers County Narcotics Task Force. Currently headed by area District Attorney Mike Little, the CCNTF is one of the oldest continuously funded task forces in Texas. According to interviews with former CCNTF agents, prosecutors, snitches, defense attorneys, and local law enforcement officers, it has also developed a well-earned reputation for greed, sloth, inefficiency and corruption. Yet it consistently scores near the top in the all-important annual ranking of the task forces and has been blessed each year with a bigger and bigger grant. What is the secret to its success?
A close examination of the CCNTF reveals as much about the system itself, that is, the task force model of law enforcement, as it does about Mike Little’s outfit. Records obtained under the Texas Open Records Act–including internal case logs which list the name, race, and infraction for each and every case made by the task force–show conclusively what drug war critics have argued for years: that task forces like the CCNTF amass impressive stats by focusing the majority of their efforts on street-level dealers, which are the easiest cases to make, all but ignoring dealers higher up on the supply chain. The Texas Narcotics Control Program does not require the task forces to report the racial breakdown of their cases, but the internal case logs tell an unmistakable tale of disproportionate impact: Row after row and page after page of black defendants, most of them street-level crack dealers. And a careful examination of the case logs has revealed something else: regular and apparently fraudulent padding of the statistics reported by the task force to the TNCP every quarter, presumably in an effort to improve the task force’s annual ranking and its fortunes in the competition for federal funding. A three-month investigation has revealed much more: How the drive for stats compels the task force to bend rules in almost every aspect of its operations, from undercover work, to suspect identifications, to the seizure of currency and cars on the highway, which is the source of a large portion of the task force’s annual budget.
“I think that’s the key to this whole problem: It’s numbers by any means, and nobody is doing an assessment of the methods used,” said Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas chapter of the Amer-ican Civil Liberties Union. Statistics from small-time crack busts, income from highway stops: It’s a winning formula, one that Harrell and others say is all too common across the state. But who really wins?
Prior to the late 1980s, most serious Texas narcotics work outside of the big cities was handled by the Department of Public Safety, which has its own sizeable narcotics division. But Washington was looking for innovation. If the feds were losing the war on drugs in rural America, the answer, it was felt, was to get local authorities involved. In Texas, grant money began flowing from the U.S. Department of Justice straight to the Governor’s office, bypassing the DPS altogether. With millions in federal funds to disburse, the governor’s new Texas Narcotics Control Program encouraged local police departments, sheriff’s offices, and district attorneys to combine their efforts in regional task forces. Applicants had to promise to provide a 25-percent match for whatever funds they received from the grant program. Initially, the grants were envisioned as seed money; the funds would help set up the task forces, which would gradually become self-sustaining. Fourteen years later, Washington’s attention has long since turned to crop eradication in places like Colombia and Afghanistan and to interdiction along the nation’s borders. Yet the task force money has not stopped flowing, and back in rural Texas, out of the limelight, the drug war is still going strong. There are now over 700 officers working for task forces in Texas, compared to only 260 narcotics officers at DPS. This fiscal year the TNCP will distribute more than $31 million in federal funds; more than $350 million has flowed to Texas task forces since 1987.
In fact, the task forces have become self-sustaining, after a fashion. Many outfits were initially dependent on money from city and county governments for their matching funds. This meant the task forces were accountable in some degree to those elected officials. Now, however, most make their matching funds through what is called “program income,” that is, currency and assets, primarily cars, seized during task force operations. Under Texas forfeiture law, law enforcement agencies may keep seized money and proceeds from the auctioning of assets associated with a crime. Although county governments still technically have budgetary oversight of the task forces, they have no real say in how task forces spend their money, and they do not generally share in the proceeds of task force forfeitures. Increasingly, task force program directors, flush with grant money and program income, hire their own officers, rather than borrow them from area agencies.
Money is hard to come by in Chambers County. A good portion of the surface area is swamp and Gulf coast marshlands; the area is known as a birdwatcher’s paradise more than anything else. Just across Galveston Bay is Pasadena, home of one of the largest refinery complexes in the world, but not much of that industry spills over into sparsely populated Chambers County, which has been gradually losing people as the oil industry has declined. When Mike Little took over the task force in June of 1992, it was a small outfit headquartered in the sleepy county seat of Anahuac, population 2,252. Operations were limited chiefly to highway interdiction along the 30-mile stretch of I-10 that runs through the northern portion of the county. Little, who serves as District Attorney for both Chambers and neighboring Liberty County, apparently recognized the drug war for what it was: a growth industry in an area badly in need of growth. He immediately set about expanding the task force’s size and range. In his first year, he brought Liberty County into the fold, establishing working agreements with local governments in Liberty (the county seat), Dayton, Cleveland, and even Baytown, a Harris County suburb of Houston. The office was moved to Mont Belvieu, about halfway between Anahuac and Liberty. Later, Little would bring on board Polk County, which borders Liberty County to the north, effectively tripling the force’s original jurisdiction. (Polk County eventually left the task force.) Little hired a new commander and new investigators, and immediately began making undercover cases with a vengeance. In the first year under Little, who did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, the task force made 621 cases, more than it did in the previous five years combined.
Little’s emphasis on stats has paid off. As the task force’s numbers have improved, its annual budget has grown, from about $450,000 in 1995 to about $710,000 last year. Little has used the money to hire more officers. He now has eleven, virtually all of them commissioned as D.A.’s investigators working directly for Little. He has also hired a special prosecutor and legal secretary in the D.A.’s office to work on task force cases. All told, Little has assembled a force that, in terms of manpower and budget, rivals that of either sheriff’s office in his jurisdiction. In a region where county governments are starved for cash, Little’s officers drive nice new cars and SUVs, purchased in part with seized currency and trade-ins of seized vehicles. “That task force is his baby. He’s never going to give that thing up,” said one area defense attorney.
Yet even as Little has expanded his operation, some in the community have questioned the task force’s effectiveness. “Anytime it’s anything of any quality or quantity it’s DPS, and I’ve got the utmost respect for DPS,” said Walter Fontenot. “They are professionals. But these other, peripheral agencies–I just don’t know what they do.”
Former task force agent Barbara Markham witnessed what they do firsthand. She has become the task force’s most outspoken critic, testifying at the state Legislature on behalf of drug war reform bills and taking her story to whomever will listen, including the FBI. Markham came to the task force in August of 1995 with 10 years of undercover narcotics experience with local police departments and task forces in North Texas. A short woman with hawkish features, a fragile frame, and a serious smoking habit, Markham, now 41, did her first undercover work in a North Texas high school, posing as a student at the age of 26. She came to the CCNTF well recommended, with a reputation for being able to buy dope from anyone, and several awards to her credit. “Barbara is an excellent narcotics officer,” said Don Jones, a 23-year veteran of DPS narcotics, who supervised Markham when she worked undercover at a Denton-area task force in the early 1990s. “If Barbara says something is true, I would believe it.” Nineteen months after going to work for Mike Little, Markham was fired, ostensibly for incompetence. The real reason for her firing, Markham says, was her unwillingness to play ball the way it was played at the task force. “People don’t understand–everybody’s talking about Tom Coleman,” Markham said, referring to the officer who conducted a now-notorious undercover operation (chronicled in the Observer) in the Panhandle town of Tulia, which led to a civil suit and an ongoing FBI investigation. “Well, there are whole task forces of Tom Colemans out there,” she said.
During her tenure at the CCNTF, Markham was one of three undercover agents. In the entire time she worked there, she says, her two fellow undercover agents, Lynell “Tyree” Beals and John Davis, did virtually nothing but street-level crack buys, one and two rocks at a time. Street-level buys are the simplest of any undercover operation. An undercover officer, sometimes accompanied by a snitch (or “confidential informant”) drives to a house, or more often than not, a street corner, buys a few rocks, and drives off. When the officer has made enough buys in a given area over a six- or twelve-month period, warrants are obtained for all suspects and a roundup or “bust-out” is made, usually with the assistance of every available cop in the area. This is how one former CCNTF officer described a typical bust-out: “It’s probably better known as a free-for-all. You get a bunch of warrants, search and arrest, get ’em all ready to go, get 30 or 40 officers from different jurisdictions, anybody who wants to come along can play. During the course of this, the wrong doors get kicked–you could wind up in Billy Graham’s house. A whole lot of illegal searches and seizures go on.”
More than anything, a focus on street-level buys means targeting black suspects. The result of that focus is spelled out in the case logs, the actual handwritten logs in which task force officers record every case they make, each highway stop and undercover buy. The logs list the defendant’s name, sex and race, as well as the date the buy or stop was made, the charge, and the amount of dope or money seized, if any. The logs also note whether an arrest was made or not. Together with the task force’s quarterly reports, which summarize the information in the logs for TNCP review, the logs provide a statistical snapshot of the daily drug war in action. In the case of the CCNTF, it is not a flattering picture.
Cases in the logbook fall into two general categories: possession and delivery (sale). As a general rule, possession charges come from highway stops by interdiction officers, and delivery cases come from buys made by undercover officers. Considering just the delivery cases listed on the quarterly reports, the emphasis of the task force’s undercover operations becomes starkly clear. From December 1993 to November 2000, task force agents recorded 1,483 buys. Of those buys, 1,088, or 73 percent, were of crack cocaine. The focus on crack accounts for the striking racial bias of the task force’s overall operation. Virtually every one of those 1,088 buys involved a black suspect. Polk and Liberty Counties are only about 13 percent black, Chambers County about 10 percent. Yet an analysis of all of the cases filed by the task force from 1995 to 1999, including undercover, interdiction, and miscellaneous cases, reveals that approximately 57 percent involved black suspects. (In a few cases, the race of the suspect was not recorded in the logs.) “Is it just black folks that are selling dope… or are they just the easiest to get?” asked Walter Fontenot. “Those numbers are consistent with what we have discovered across the state,” said Will Harrell, director of the Texas ACLU. “There is a clear and demonstrable pattern. They are making choices about who they go after, and I think it’s because these are more vulnerable people,” he said.
What really opened Markham’s eyes, however, was not the racial bias of the task force’s operations, but the methods officers used to make their cases. Audio and video surveillance were never used in street-level buys, Markham said. “Mike [Little] said he didn’t want juries to become dependent on having audio to convict,” she recalled. Markham said Beals and Davis were repeatedly reprimanded for their sloppy police reports, for which they often failed to complete such basic tasks as getting witness statements from confidential informants. Sloppiness was the rule at the task force, according to Markham. Early on, she was asked to inventory the evidence vault. Drugs were mislabeled or missing altogether. Procedures were unclear and turnover was high. “Everybody there seemed to be either new to the business or had just been let go from somewhere else for some reason,” she said.
But it wasn’t until the winter of 1996 that Markham discovered how out of control things had really gotten at the task force. Markham was serving light duty that winter due to an injury sustained in a car wreck. That’s how she came to be responsible for filing paperwork in the office’s master file, where a copy of every case made by every officer is kept. Over the course of the previous summer and fall, Tyree Beals had worked undercover in Polk County, doing street-level crack buys with the aid of a confidential informant named James McCloud. When Markham tried to file some lab reports on crack cocaine bought by Beals during his Polk County operation, she was unable to find any of his cases in the master file. Checking with Beals, she discovered that he hadn’t written up a single case report for any of the dozens of buys he had made, though some of them were now up to six months old. “I found out how just how lazy he really was,” she said. (Beals’ supervisor, Commander Don Palmer, declined to comment on Markham’s allegations, citing a settlement agreement signed by the task force pursuant to a lawsuit filed by Markham upon her firing. According to Palmer, the agreement prevents task force employees, including Beals, from discussing allegations made by Markham.)
Beals’ lassitude was a serious matter. He had kept notes on his buys, but they were minimal–literally scraps of paper which listed names, dates, amounts and locations. “He had to sit there at his desk and recreate all of those case reports from memory,” she said. But most crucially, Beals had never done identifications of his suspects, according to Markham. He had written names in the case logs, but he had never confirmed them, she said. The ID is one of the trickiest parts of a street-level deal. An undercover officer typically works in a community in which he is not known, and in which he is not necessarily familiar with the locals. An officer may get a name from a defendant or from a confidential informant, but it is frequently incomplete, or a nickname, or simply wrong. An accepted method of identifying suspects after a buy is made is to promptly contact the local police department or sheriff’s office, who can often provide a photo lineup of suspects for the officer to look at. Many departments maintain big notebooks of photos of anyone they have ever booked, divided by sex and race, with names on the back.
Markham says she typically tried to do photo IDs for her own cases within a few days or (under extenuating circumstances ) a couple of weeks at most, before her memory of the suspect’s face began to fade. Beals had waited months. “Guess what? I’m sorry, but there’s no way you can remember a guy you bought from five months and fifty cases ago,” Markham said. In fact, there does seem to be some confusion about just who the suspects were in these cases. According to arrest warrants obtained by the Observer, a Polk County bust-out in late November of 1997 resulted in 10 arrests in cases made by Beals in the summer and fall of 1996. Six of the warrants contained names that differed from those Beals had written in the case logs. The case numbers, dates, and charges matched, but the names did not. Some were close: A case logged as “Derrick Johnson” resulted in the arrest of one Derrick Ramon Petty. A “Kenneth Harrell” became Darrell Wayne Harrell. But others were not at all similar: A warrant for Terry Lynn Jackson bore the case number for the suspect Beals had logged as “Tommy Phillips.” Jimmy Dewayne Davis was arrested for a case logged as Charles Knight. Michael Deon Burch’s case was logged as Eric Davis.
Could they all have been honest mistakes, or aliases? Asked about the discrepancies, Markham was skeptical. More likely, she said, is that the names Beals provided could not be located in the stacks of photos maintained by Polk County authorities, and Beals either guessed or was coached into making the IDs for the warrants. “They’ll say, ‘We don’t have a Kenneth Harrell… are you sure it wasn’t Darrell Wayne Harrell?'” she said. Six months after the fact, who’s to say if it was or wasn’t? There are a lot of Harrells in the area, Markham said. “Once you get your name on the list, you’re screwed.”
The last straw came shortly thereafter for Markham. Beals swore by his snitch, James McCloud. “He called him his super snitch, because he brought the dopers right to you,” Markham recalls. As she returned to duty, Beals suggested she make some cases in Liberty County using McCloud. Agents often share snitches among one another and with other agencies. The best snitches are paid informants; they make a living of sorts doing nothing but helping narcs set up deals. The standard fee paid by the CCNTF was $50 per case, according to Markham. The task force set up an apartment for McCloud in a public housing complex in Dayton, just outside of Liberty, and he and Markham went into business.
Right from the start, Markham had misgivings about McCloud. In no time, McCloud had arranged for a dealer to come to the apartment with some marijuana. But when the dealer arrived, McCloud took him into the kitchen, out of Markham’s sight. The dealer soon left, without Markham having observed any deal taking place. McCloud returned from the kitchen with a baggie of pot. He immediately set about writing up a CI witness statement, in which he claimed to have witnessed Markham receiving the pot directly from the dealer. “I told him that just wouldn’t work,” Markham said. His witness statement was false, and the case was only marginally prosecutable, because she had not witnessed the actual transfer of pot and cash. Then McCloud said something very disturbing. “He said, ‘That’s how we did all of our cases up in Polk County,'” she said. (McCloud could not be reached for this story.)
In a second incident, McCloud brought Jackie Semien, a young woman from the complex, to the apartment. After Markham briefly left the apartment and returned, she noticed that a blunt (a marijuana-filled cigar) had been placed on the coffee table. She tried to offer Semien five dollars, but she wouldn’t take it. Instead McCloud took the bill. Shortly thereafter, Semien left, and once again, McCloud offered to write up a witness statement alleging a direct transfer from the suspect to Markham. Markham is now convinced that Semien was brought to the apartment under false pretenses by McCloud and set up, and that the dope was McCloud’s all along. (Semien declined to be interviewed for this story. However, when Markham first brought this story to KHOU television in Houston, Semien confirmed Markham’s version of events in an interview that aired last year.)
After one more questionable deal, Markham complained to her superiors, assistant commander Dearl Hardy and commander Don Palmer. “They told me, ‘That’s the nature of the beast,'” Markham said. (Citing the settlement agreement, Hardy declined to comment on Markham’s allegations.) If she had not seen the deals, they reassured her, then the confidential informant would testify in court. No problem. Markham made it clear she wouldn’t work that way, and shortly thereafter, she was fired. Markham later sued the task force over the firing. In a deposition obtained by the Observer, Hardy defended the task force’s use of McCloud, alleging that the force had made 120-150 cases with him.
Other task force operations have been severely flawed. In 1999, then-assistant commander Dearl Hardy organized a raid on Al T’s, a popular Cajun restaurant in Winnie, in Chambers County. Allegedly responding to reports of drug dealing at the restaurant, Hardy and two dozen officers surrounded the place during business hours on a Friday night. “These guys were dressed like SWAT teams and came in with vests and guns, and I mean not pistols, but fuckin’ machine guns,” recalled Herbert Thibodeaux, who owned Al T’s at that time. But Hardy’s intelligence on Al T’s proved unreliable: No dope of any kind was found, nor any evidence of dealing. In fact, Hardy had never even obtained a search warrant, entering on the pretext of a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission investigation. “It was clean as a whistle,” Thibodeaux said. That’s why he was surprised to read on the cover of the Beaumont Enterprise the next morning that 15 pounds of marijuana had been seized and several arrests made in a raid on his restaurant. The news was repeated all that day on the radio in Liberty. Thibodeaux called the radio station and discovered that Hardy, as was his custom, had distributed a press release following the raid. To cover his mistake at Al T’s, Hardy cleverly worded the release to make it appear that a number of unrelated seizures and arrests made by the task force in the 24 hours leading up to the raid had actually taken place at Al T’s.
With the help of Anahuac defense attorney Ed Lieck, Thibodeaux confronted Mike Little and Hardy about the release’s bogus account. “They’re like children,” Ed Lieck said of the task force. “They get caught in a lie, they amend it, then they amend the amendment,” he said. Little eventually issued a profuse apology, but the damage was already done, Thibodeaux said. “I spent fifteen years building up my business, and it took them fifteen minutes to ruin it,” said Thibodeaux, who sold the restaurant shortly thereafter. “I had people calling me for weeks asking if it was okay to bring their kids in there.”
The same level of professionalism prevails on the highway. Whatever else it may be doing, the task force has always kept at least two interdiction officers on the interstate at all times. If the interdiction stops running, the money stops flowing. The highway is also where most of the big dope seizures come–not from undercover work, but from making stop after stop, until an officer gets lucky. The CCNTF has only a short segment of interstate to work with–30 miles of I-10 that runs through northern Chambers County, plus a tiny stretch of I-59 that cuts through northern Liberty County near Cleveland. Fortunately, just to the west is Houston, a major hub for drug traffic. In the eastbound lanes are cars carrying dope out of Houston, bound from Mexico to points east. It’s the westbound lanes that carry the cash, stashed away in cars and trucks driven by mules back up the supply chain toward Mexico. Officers cruise the highway in marked cars, scanning for the vehicles that look like couriers. The more stops a task force makes, the more dope and cash it will find.
Interdiction is a tricky game. A call to action for an ordinary highway patrol officer is any moving violation. But interdiction officers work in reverse: They identify likely drug suspects–using what is known as a profile–then wait for them to make a mistake. If you have out of state plates, look haggard, unshaven and tired, or, as numerous studies have shown, if you are a minority, you have a good chance of getting stopped by a task force, often on the slightest pretext. In theory, you need probable cause to suspect that a crime is being committed to stop and search a car. But in practice, according to a former CCNTF interdiction officer, the pressure to get stats leads to some corner cutting. “The name of the game is find Mike money, find Mike dope,” he said. “They don’t care how it happens.”
Often a search will turn up a sizeable amount of cash, but no dope or evidence that a crime has occurred. Ordinarily, this would be a dilemma: It is not illegal to carry large sums of cash. In those cases, according to a former prosecutor under Mike Little, the task force used what was commonly referred to as a “quick claim,” a ready-made legal form carried by interdiction officers. By signing it, a suspect does not acknowledge ownership of the seized cash, but he relinquishes any ownership he may have had. More often than not, once the officer had the money and the signed waiver, the suspect was simply let go, according to the prosecutor. “It’s ‘Hey buddy, how you doin’ tonight,'” the prosecutor said, describing a typical stop. “It’s just real good old boy: ‘Yeah, you can sign this and be on your way,'” the prosecutor said. “It wasn’t lost on the defendant that that’s the quickest way to get the hell on down the road.” The CCNTF case logs are heavily sprinkled with entries noting seizures of currency with no case filed against the suspect.
The use of such claims by task forces is common, according to Jesse Salazar, a former prosecutor for a drug task force in the Valley. “They really can’t file anything on them. But they’re going to maybe scare them a little bit and they’re gonna put a piece of paper in front of them and say you want to get on your way, just sign over the money,” Salazar said. “It’s highway robbery.” Salazar, who currently works as a prosecutor in Hidalgo County, came to Austin at the request of McAllen State Representative Juan Hinojosa to help draft legislation outlawing this practice. The bill was part of a package of task force reform bills filed last session. The bill passed, and it is no longer legal for officers to offer to let someone go in exchange for cash.
A former CCNTF interdiction officer, who asked not to be identified, said things got particularly bad when Dearl Hardy became assistant commander in early 1997. Currency seizures had been down for the past few quarters. “We were told to turn up the heat,” the officer said. But Hardy took things too far, he said. In one incident, the officer said, he followed a likely courier all the way to the county line, but felt he could not get probable cause to do the stop and search. Instead, he radioed Jefferson County authorities, who eventually made the stop and seized 100 pounds of pot. The stat went to Jefferson County and Hardy was livid, the officer said. “He said, ‘You don’t need probable cause. The law says you can stop a felony in progress.’ I said, ‘Yeah, so?’ He said, ‘Well, every one of those cars is a felony in progress.'” That’s when the officer began to consider leaving the task force, he said. “Yeah, our job is to get the crooks. But do it according to Hoyle. Play by the rulebook,” he said. “As long as you’re making cases for ’em, you can do pretty much anything you want,” the officer said. “But if it all goes wrong, they’ll pin it on the cop and say ‘We didn’t know.'”
Things often went wrong. Defense attorney Ed Lieck recalled one case in which his client had been stopped by the task force on I-10–or so it appeared. Lieck discovered two different police reports for the same incident. When he confronted prosecutors, it was determined that a sheriff’s deputy had in fact made the stop, but had done so against a standing order from then-sheriff Phil Burkhalter, who preferred to leave highway interdiction to the task force. So the deputy called task force interdiction officer Layne Mooney to the scene. Mooney, only too happy to get the stat, wrote up a false report claiming that he made the stop. “It’s perjury, tampering with evidence, falsification of the facts,” Lieck said. The case was dismissed. No charges were filed against either officer. By the time the falsification came to light this spring, Mooney had left the task force to work for the Chambers County Sheriff’s office, where the sheriff asked him to resign.
“Task force cases were always the worst,” says one former prosecutor who served under Mike Little. “When I was first there I was so green that I didn’t know–I took everything they said as the gospel,” the prosecutor said. “But it didn’t take long to figure out you can’t trust them,” the prosecutor said. “I just remember lost videos, ‘broken cameras’ so to speak, microphones not working,” the prosecutor said. “Any prosecutor that had any sense at all, we all complained about it,” the prosecutor said.
Little is one of 11 district attorneys in Texas who are project directors for drug task forces. That is a problem in the eyes of some attorneys. “You have an inherent conflict of interest when you have a D.A. that owns his own police force,” Ed Lieck said. “The potential for abuse grows exponentially.” Jay Kimbrough, executive director of the governor’s criminal justice division, disagreed. “A prosecutor is responsible for ensuring that you’re not rubber stamping any police officer’s actions, regardless of which department they work for,” he said.
In theory, prosecutors act as a check on officer malfeasance, a sort of quality control mechanism. As cases get prepared for grand jury, a prosecutor goes over them carefully in the presence of the officer. Searches, arrests, handling of evidence–everything is reviewed. Bad cases get kicked out. But because CCNTF officers actually work for Mike Little, things do not work that way in Chambers and Liberty Counties, according to one former prosecutor. “The attitude I always got from [task force officers] was, ‘You’re not going to do anything to me, I’m working for your boss, so if he tells you to accept this case, you’re going to accept it.'”
Things were very secretive around the district attorney’s office, the prosecutor said. “One of the reasons for that, I believe now, is that… they were the only ones who really wanted to know the dirty stuff. They were very, very cautious about hiding it from the rest of the prosecutors.” When enough prosecutors began complaining about the quality of cases, Little eventually directed that all “intake,” that is, initial processing, of task force cases go through his chief investigator, Harvey Simmons, rather than through his prosecutors. Simmons is not an attorney. After Simmons had vetted them with the task force, they went to the prosecutors, who had very little discretion. “It was pretty much just prosecute and don’t ask,” the prosecutor said.
In any case, the quality of the task force’s work is rarely on display in the courtroom or tested before a jury. The vast majority of cases plead out. Drug cases accounted for 51 percent of all criminal cases filed in Chambers County in 2000. There were no acquittals that year. “These are the easiest cases in the world to make because it’s the cop’s word against some thug. And the defense attorneys, shit, they just want to move them, they don’t want to try them, ’cause they know that dope cases are losers. I mean juries in this part of the world want to convict dope dealers,” the prosecutor said. The odds of beating the task force’s preferred case, a controlled buy, are long. “You’ve got no audio, no video, you’ve got a cop that hasn’t been besmirched, and all the paperwork looks right,” Barbara Markham explained. “At that point, you’re toast.” Defense attorney Walter Fontenot said the decision to plead out is not a difficult one. “They put a lot of pressure on you to take a plea, and your client probably already has a rap sheet like a roll of toilet paper,” he said. “Look, that’s something a lot of people do not understand. It’s that people with bad records will plead guilty because they know when they get to court the probability of them winning is next to zero, just because of their record,” he said. “But whether or not they actually committed the offense, that’s a completely different story.”
Having Mike Little in charge of the task force has also vastly decreased the odds of a dishonest officer being prosecuted, according to several former officers and prosecutors. The task force has had its share of bad apples, like Layne Mooney, who was allowed to resign and never prosecuted, and who still testifies in ongoing cases, according to Ed Lieck. One notorious case is Donald Lawrence, who worked undercover for the task force in Liberty County in the mid-’90s. Lawrence was allowed to resign after a confidential informant he worked with regularly accused him of stealing task force funds. (Donald Lawrence could not be reached for this story.) Reached at his home in Liberty County, the snitch (who asked not to be identified) said that on several cases he helped Lawrence make, the officer would buy perhaps $150 worth of dope and report that he had spent $200, pocketing the remainder. A source close to the Liberty County Sheriff’s office confirmed the snitch’s account, adding that Lawrence also allowed confidential informants to make buys out of his presence, and then reported that he had made the buys himself. “He was so dirty, I wanted to quit working with him,” the snitch said. According to the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office source, the suspect cases were never prosecuted. They totaled perhaps 50 to 75, meaning Lawrence could have stolen as much as several thousand dollars from the task force. Yet Little allowed Lawrence to resign, rather than firing or prosecuting him. “If you’re part of the system, you escape,” the snitch said.
According to two former CCNTF officers with direct knowledge of the events, Dearl Hardy was also accused of wrongdoing, shortly after he became assistant commander in 1997. According to the officers, Hardy had rented furniture using his undercover identification, because he could not get credit using his real name. His ruse was discovered when Hardy’s pager number was reassigned to another officer, who began receiving pages from several different merchants, looking for someone who owed them money. The name they gave was Hardy’s alias. Depending on the amount of goods Hardy obtained, such fraud could be a felony. Yet commander Don Palmer did not take action against Hardy. It was not until the summer of 1999 that Hardy was asked to resign, following Markham’s lawsuit and several other embarrassing incidents. Eighteen months later, he was back in the drug war, as chief deputy in Chambers County.
“Nobody lasts long, and everybody seems to leave under a cloud,” said one former prosecutor under Mike Little. “I’ve actually had [D.A. investigator] Harvey Simmons tell me himself: There’s a thin line between a narc and a thug. And nobody cares, as long as they’re making their cases.” Undercover officers have to be kept on a short leash, said veteran officer Jack Kelly, who was the commander of the task force before Mike Little took over. “If you turn somebody loose and let ’em go with no hands on ’em–well, what would happen if you do that running a regular job?” he said. “If you pick your people right, if you do enough background on ’em,” it’s not hard to keep a task force staffed up with honest officers, Kelly said.
Does the CCNTF do thorough background checks? In the spring of 2000, they hired Tom Coleman, the narc involved in the widely disparaged Tulia operation. As the Observer reported that summer, Coleman had an extremely shady past as a law officer, as interviews with his former employers or a review of his official state licensure records would have shown. Coleman did not last long in Chambers County. He was reportedly forced out when he could not account for undercover funds he had checked out to make buys, according to a former CCNTF officer.
The relentless drive for stats at the task force has led to some unconventional accounting. Task forces, like all law enforcement agencies, routinely pad their stats by filing as many extraneous cases as possible against a suspect, fully knowing that many of them will never be prosecuted. The CCNTF logs are sprinkled with such cases. For example, suspects charged with possession or sale of marijuana also have a case logged against them for failure to obtain a tax stamp, that is, selling marijuana without giving the government its cut. Other, non-drug related charges–like evading arrest and obstruction of justice–also make their way into the log books.
The CCNTF’s quarterly reports are also punctuated with enormous seizures of powdered cocaine, marijuana, and currency. But more often than not, these are not task force cases but cases made by the DEA, which has branches in Beaumont and Galveston. For years the task force lent an officer to the DEA. According to Markham, the officer would be seldom seen, since little DEA work actually went on in Chambers or Liberty Counties. But by virtue of having an officer assigned to the DEA, the task force could claim it assisted in the high-level dealer busts made by the agency. Any sharing of information by the task force with the DEA also leads to an assist being recorded in the logbook, if a subsequent arrest is made by federal agents.
Though misleading, none of these bookkeeping maneuvers are fraudulent as such. But CCNTF officials may have crossed the line with another type of case padding. For many months, the case logs and the corresponding quarterly reports seem to show scores of cases that do not appear to be legitimate task force cases at all.
From 1996 to 1998, a Polk County Sheriff’s deputy named Mike Nettles was assigned to the task force. According to several former task force officers, Nettles used to bring a stack of case reports to the task force office in Mont Belvieu every few months to be entered into the task force case logs. These were ostensibly task force cases made in Polk County by Nettles. As an assigned officer, Nettles was not employed directly by the task force, but was under their supervision; thus his cases counted as task force cases. But according to Barbara Markham, the reports Nettles brought to the task force consisted primarily of drug-related busts made by officers who had nothing to do with the task force. Nettles was simply collecting every report he could from Polk County, including those made by DPS, local police departments, and the Polk County sheriff’s office, and bringing them to the task force to be claimed as its own. Markham said she first realized what was going on when she was asked to enter a stack of reports dropped off by Nettles into the task force case logs. “It occurred to me that Nettles’ name didn’t appear anywhere on these reports,” she said. Reached at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, where he is now chief deputy, Nettles declined to comment on the allegations.
Reviewing the logs, Markham was able to identify for the Observer the Nettles cases she had entered, which were in her handwriting. Other large blocks of Polk County cases delivered previously by Nettles were not difficult to spot. Unlike the other cases in the logs, the Nettles cases are out of chronological order, and they tended to be dropped in just before the end of a quarter, when case statistics were reported to the TNCP in Austin. If all the Nettles cases are indeed bogus, it would represent a considerable inflation of the task force’s yearly statistics for cases, arrests, and seizures (see sidebar, “Padding the Books”). Millions of dollars of federal money is doled out every year in a grant process dependent largely on evaluations of these reports. The report form itself clearly warns against making fraudulent entries.
Nettles is no longer with the CCNTF, but Liberty County currently has an officer assigned to the task force. And there is evidence that Little has secured a source of stats in Chambers County. A new sheriff, Monroe Kreuzer, took office in January. In a move that surprised many in Chambers County, he hired Dearl Hardy (who had found work as a school police officer after leaving the task force) as his chief deputy. According to Jack Kelly, who served briefly as a deputy in the new administration, Hardy is directing his deputies to send all drug cases to the task force. “I made a bust about four one morning on a guy and he had about a gram of cocaine on him,” Kelly said. “And so I went through the normal procedure like we’d always done. Put the guy in jail, came in and field tested the dope, did a report on it.” Kelly said he was preparing to turn the dope in for DPS lab analysis, when Dearl Hardy walked in and told him to stop. “He said, ‘You don’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Oh? Since when?’ And he said what you do is you call the task force, they come pick up the dope, you write a supplement and [the case] is theirs,” Kelly recalled. “I said, ‘Well how in the hell can you write a supplement when you’re the one that initiated the case?’ [And Hardy said] ‘Nope, that’s what we do.'” Kelly said he signed the evidence slip to Hardy, handed him the dope, and left. A few days later, he resigned.
Why would Hardy be helping out Little, who only lately let him go? Several observers in Chambers County have speculated that Hardy and Little cut a deal: Little helped Hardy get the chief deputy spot, despite his past, and Hardy agreed to supply Little with stats for the task force. “I know a lot of other people made the comment that Little had fired [Hardy] before, and now they’re the best of buddies,” Kelly said. Asked about Kelly’s story, Hardy denied directing stats to the task force and he said he never told Kelly to write up the case as though it were not his own. “That would be falsifying a report,” he said.
“If you’ve ever taken physics, electricity will follow the path of least resistance,” said Walter Fontenot. “And it’s the same thing in law enforcement. Boy, if you can bust something easy, go after the easy ones. Something hard? Well, that takes time, that takes energy, that takes brainwork.” Fontenot said he would just as soon see the task forces abolished and the money given to the DPS narcotics division.
Progress is difficult to measure in the drug war. Washington demands numbers because numbers don’t lie. But the numbers in this part of Texas are getting a good workout. According to Markham, the FBI often chips in some confidential funds to a task force investigation so it can count the stats for its own records. (A snitch working on those cases might earn $100 per case, instead of $50.) And DPS sometimes counts cases made by local authorities, if they feel its officers have been of assistance in the investigation. The task force, meanwhile, is counting everybody’s stats. The same case can be tabulated four or five times in the great scoreboard of the war on drugs.
But is anybody even keeping track? There is a federal audit requirement for task forces, but real oversight is with the TNCP, which administers the grant. As the CCNTF’s bookkeeping demonstrates, the annual rankings can be deceiving. The TNCP does send someone out to do a performance review of each task force once a year, but the resulting report falls far short of an audit. Task forces also have to complete an annual state audit accounting for the expenditure of seized funds. Yet as Representative Juan Hinojosa’s staff discovered in researching task forces last year, only about 30 percent of the task forces even comply with this requirement. Hinojosa has formally requested an interim legislative study of the task forces, and the request is pending. The director of the TNCP has also recently been demoted, following an unflattering audit that revealed that federal funds had been used for unauthorized purposes, including party favors for the annual drug task force convention.
According to Jay Kimbrough, a major reorganization is underway at TNCP. All task forces will now be required to adhere to DPS policies and procedures, and DPS will have a supervisory role over the task forces. Project directors will still be able to pick their own commanders, but several new DPS narcotics captains will be hired in the coming months, and their duties will include field supervision of the task forces, Kimbrough said. Kimbrough, who took over the governor’s criminal justice division last summer, also said that under his direction the TNCP will not focus so much on statistics. “I’ll be more interested in their following protocol and procedures,” he said.
Back in Chambers County, the FBI has begun conducting interviews for a possible public corruption investigation, after being contacted by Barbara Markham and others with knowledge of the task force. After her firing, Markham found herself blackballed in the area and had to return to the Metroplex to find work as a patrol officer. After a lackluster performance last year, the CCNTF suffered a substantial cut in it’s annual grant for the first time ever. But with almost $800,000 in program income socked away, Little was still able to keep the outfit running full bore. By all accounts, crack is still easily obtained in Liberty and Chambers Counties, the location of the marketplaces no secret to anyone. The task force has taken to cruising through the areas in marked cars, just so the dealers know they are there. Indeed, if drug sales were to decline, it’s unclear if that would be good news or bad news to the task force. The narratives that accompany each quarterly report sometimes strike a strange tone, like a commodities broker trying to assuage a client. “Highway seizures were off a bit this quarter,” one report read, “but crack sales are still strong.”
Padding the Books
The Observer has tabulated almost 200 suspect cases–cases the task force claimed credit for but apparently had nothing to do with–found in the CCNTF log books from 1996 to 1998. Each case took place in Polk County and was brought to the task force by former Polk County sheriff’s deputy Mike Nettles, according to former CCNTF officer Barbara Markham.
Was the task force somehow involved in these cases? The Observer picked one at random, a 177-pound possession of marijuana case filed against Dwayne Lewis on August 25, 1996. The Polk County Enterprise ran a brief story on the arrest, which involved a 2 A.M. traffic stop on Interstate 59 near Corrigan. The arresting officer, according to the Enterprise, was Polk County Sheriff’s deputy Jason Bridges, assisted at the scene by Bobby Cheshire of the Corrigan Police Department. No mention was made of the task force. In a phone interview, Bobby Cheshire, who now works as a truck driver, said he recalled the stop. Was the task force involved? “No, no, no. That was all Jason,” he said. “He observed the car, and he stopped it. I don’t recall what the traffic violation was,” Cheshire said.
In a phone interview, Bridges said he also recalled the case. He confirmed that he was not assigned to the task force. Asked how the stop could have gotten in the task force logs, Bridges said, “I was working for the county, but there was a member of us [on the task force] so they got all of our stats.” Bridges, who now works on a task force in east Texas, defended the practice, although he noted that this was not the way things were done at his current task force. “From my understanding, when I was working at Polk County, they did claim our stats but that’s because they assist us with our investigations,” Bridges said. “As long as you assist the investigation you ought to get credit for it, whether it’s making phone calls or whatever.” But was this highway stop a task force investigation? “As far as them being out there with me on that stop or something like that, I don’t remember and I can’t quote on that and I won’t,” he said. But according to Cheshire, the Dwayne Lewis case was just a routine stop on the highway, not the result of an investigation by anybody. “It was not a tip, it was not anything, you know it was just a traffic violation.”
According to Don Jones, the Denton area DPS narcotics agent, task forces will sometimes follow up on stops made by other agencies by interviewing the suspect, in which case the task force might conceivably write up the original stop as an assist, since some intelligence was collected in the case. But the Lewis arrest and seizure was not reported as an assist. The quarterly report has separate accounting forms for task force-originated cases and task force assists. The report clearly shows that the marijuana seizure was counted as a task force-originated case. Other Nettles entries in the logs are equally suspect. In two cases dated July 14, 1996, Angela F. Ramirez and Sterling A. Robins were arrested for possession of marijuana in a correctional facility. “No way could that have been a task force case,” Markham said. “We never did any work in jails.”
In addition to Nettles, the CCNTF also had Robert Croft, a Liberty County Sheriff’s deputy, assigned to them during this period. Markham questioned the legitimacy of the arrangement with each officer. According to Markham, neither Nettles nor Croft worked regularly with task force officers or took orders from task force supervisors. In fact, they were rarely seen at all, though they were theoretically assigned to work exclusively with the task force. According to a source close to the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office, Croft’s reluctance to work closely with the task force was a constant source of conflict between the district attorney and the sheriff, and Croft was caught in the middle. (Croft declined to be interviewed for this story.) Yet the task force claimed each officer’s salary, paid by their respective sheriff’s offices, toward their required cash match for the TNCP grant. And, of course, they claimed stats made by them as well, when they could get them. In Markham’s view, Croft’s stats represent further case padding.
Jay Kimbrough, director of the governor’s criminal justice division, declined to say whether the CCNTF’s case logging practices were in keeping with TNCP guidelines. He did acknowledge that the definition of a task force case had become “subjective.” “We have some work to do here, to make sure we’re all playing by the same standards,” he said.