A Confused Inquiry

By Bob Herbert
New York Times| Opinion
Thursday, 22 August, 2002

Under pressure, and after a great deal of confusion among its own officials, the U.S. Justice Department has said it will continue its criminal investigation into a drug sting gone haywire in the Texas panhandle town of Tulia.

Just last month an adviser to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Lori Sharpe Day, wrote in a letter to the president of the American Bar Association: "An investigation of events in Tulia was conducted by the Criminal Section and recently closed."

Those "events" included the arrests on July 23, 1999, of dozens of Tulia residents on narcotics trafficking charges. Local authorities rounded up more than 10 percent of the town's black population.

The arrests were the culmination of an absurd one-man "investigation" by Tom Coleman, a narcotics agent who did not wear a wire or conduct any video surveillance, did not keep detailed records of his alleged drug buys and wrote such important information as the names of suspects and the dates of transactions on his legs and other parts of his body.
After a series of columns in this space, an outcry arose and several public officials asked the Justice Department to take action.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York, in a letter to Mr. Ashcroft, said: "This is far worse than Keystone Kops police work. It looks more like deliberate racial profiling, arresting and prosecuting with trumped-up evidence. Officer Coleman's `investigation' is more reminiscent of the Old South of 1962 than the New South of 2002."

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton noted in a letter to Mr. Ashcroft that Mr. Coleman had made criminal allegations against people who were subsequently shown to be innocent. But most of the time his word was enough to send people to prison, sometimes for astonishingly long sentences.

The "evidence" in those cases, said Mrs. Clinton, "was simply the testimony of Mr. Coleman. Yet any reasonable review of the public information made available clearly establishes that Mr. Coleman's testimony in many cases was at best inconclusive, and at worst constituted perjury."

In a direct plea to Mr. Ashcroft, Mrs. Clinton said, "I implore you to reopen the criminal investigation of Mr. Coleman as soon as possible."

As requests for some sort of action continued to come in, Justice Department officials seemed baffled about the status of their alleged investigation into the events in Tulia.
A criminal investigation of Tom Coleman's activities was started two years ago, when Bill Clinton was president. I called the Justice Department two weeks ago to ask about the status of that investigation. A spokesman, Mark Corallo, said that it was continuing. I told him I had a copy of the letter from Ms. Day to Robert Hirshorn, president of the Bar Association, saying the investigation had been closed.

Mr. Corallo seemed surprised. He said Ms. Day had probably been mistaken, but that he would check. He called back and said, "Mystery solved!"

According to Mr. Corallo, the criminal investigation had, in fact, been closed, but the matter was still under "review" by the Civil Rights Division.

This week the official account changed yet again. In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, the Justice Department's director of public affairs, Barbara Comstock, said the information given to the Bar Association was erroneous, and the criminal investigation "remains open."

"The department apologizes," said Ms. Comstock, "for any confusion resulting from the issuance of that letter."

She said, "The Criminal Section is working expeditiously to review all of the relevant evidence to determine whether to prosecute for federal criminal civil rights laws violations."
If the department is serious about this matter -- and that remains to be seen -- it will not limit its investigation to Mr. Coleman's activities. There was an entire criminal justice hierarchy that worked in concert to send the Tulia defendants to prison, including the district attorney who prosecuted the cases, the sheriff who hired Mr. Coleman, and the regional narcotics task force that trained and supervised him.

Federal investigators who are both honest and diligent will find plenty of evidence of official wrongdoing waiting for them in Tulia.