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Sunday, April 26, 2009

All My Scoffflaws

By Joseph A. Slobodzian
The FBI memorandum describes a pattern of corruption among a group of Philadelphia narcotics officers: false information used to get search warrants, planted evidence and perjured testimony, thefts of drugs, cash, and valuables from dealers.

It's called the Roberts report and, though it's nine years old, it deals with the same issues that a federal-city task force is now investigating.

The report, written on Sept. 5, 2000, by FBI Agent John Roberts - now head of the FBI's public-corruption unit in Philadelphia - remains under seal by order of a federal judge and has never been made public. It's unclear who received the report and what became of its recommendations.

But what has surfaced from court documents is that the report foreshadowed some of the allegations involving brothers Jeffrey and Richard L. Cujdik and other officers in the Narcotics Field Unit.

"At the very least, a department investigation should have been conducted into whether or not police were fabricating evidence simply to obtain convictions," defense attorney Jerry S. Goldman said.

The report, according to court documents, looked at 12 allegations involving a group of narcotics officers. Some were determined to be credible, others unfounded.

None appeared to have resulted in criminal charges, in part because many of the officers involved had left the department.

Still, court documents say the report corroborated allegations that "20-plus subjects have falsified probable cause."

It was in researching post-conviction appeals for his client, Jeffrey Johnson, who is serving a 30-year sentence on a federal drug conspiracy conviction, that information about the Roberts report surfaced.

Roberts, who is involved in the current investigation, declined to comment about his report and its findings.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank R. Costello Jr., a veteran prosecutor involved in the Johnson case and its appeals, also declined to comment.

Police officials have reassigned the Cujdik brothers and another veteran narcotics officer, Robert McDonnell, to desk duty because of the investigation. Jeffrey Cujdik also was ordered to surrender his service weapon as part of the reassignment.

The investigation began after the Philadelphia Daily News published an article on Feb. 9 in which Jeffrey Cujdik's former paid confidential informant, Ventura Martinez, alleged that he and Cujdik made up some drug buys to justify search warrants for people Cujdik considered drug suspects.

None of the three officers has commented publicly about the allegations. The police union and Jeffrey Cujdik's attorney, veteran Center City litigator George Bochetto, have vigorously criticized reporters and investigators for taking Martinez's word over that of a commended and productive narcotics officer.

Allegations of bogus affidavits, stolen money, illegal searches, and false testimony have plagued the Police Department's various drug units for decades. Law enforcement veterans, and even some defense lawyers, concede that such allegations are inherent in the policing of the illicit drug business and the use of confidential informants.

In the early 1980s, it was the "One Squad Scandal," a small group of narcotics officers prosecuted by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office and convicted of selling drugs they stole from dealers.

Later in that decade, it was "Five Squad," another drug unit, in which a lieutenant and three subordinates were convicted in federal court of racketeering and other charges for stealing drugs and $280,000 from dealers between 1980 and 1989.

Then came the 39th District scandal in the 1990s: five narcotics officers prosecuted federally for preying on drug suspects, robbing, and falsely prosecuting them to cover up a scheme that ran from 1988 to 1991.

That scandal had the most impact on Philadelphia and its judicial system. The 40 false arrests linked to the five officers ultimately led to the dismissal of criminal charges against more than 500 people. The city paid more than $4 million to settle federal civil-rights suits filed by those wrongly arrested and jailed.

As civil-rights lawyers litigated those suits, they uncovered new information, including a Police Department internal report that described allegations that narcotics officers stole more than $50,000 from a North Philadelphia drug dealer in 1988.

A veteran narcotics officer, John Boucher, was described in the report as a "possible corrupt officer."

Boucher refused to comment publicly about the allegation and retired from the force in 1996, a year after defense attorneys in a major drug case contended that Boucher's informant, a phone caller he dubbed "Happy Jose," did not exist.

Santiago Arias, the Dominican plumber whom Boucher and "Happy Jose" incriminated, spent three years in prison before his conviction was reversed. In 1998, the city paid $275,000 to settle his civil-rights lawsuit.

The resignations of Boucher and other longtime members of the Narcotics Field Unit effectively ended the chance of other prosecutions. In past public-corruption cases, prosecutors have not usually pursued employees who have retired.

But the investigation led Roberts to compile for his FBI superiors a lengthy memo detailing systemic corruption in the police drug unit, court records show.

His report surfaced in appeals filed by convicted drug dealers Johnson and James Phillips.

It was ordered sealed in 2004 by U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno, who presided over their appeals.

Johnson and Phillips had been convicted in December 2000 of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Each was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

After sentencing, their attorneys attacked the convictions, maintaining that prosecutors withheld evidence that would have called into question the credibility of the arresting officers - one of whom was Richard Cujdik, recently assigned to the Narcotics Field Unit.

The attorneys asked the court to order prosecutors to produce all documents related to narcotics corruption. Among the new evidence that turned up was a copy of Roberts' report.

The FBI investigated narcotics cases again last year after drug defendant Jose Briggs challenged the existence of a police confidential informant identified as No. 142. Briggs was ultimately acquitted.

According to several people close to the case, a six-month FBI investigation into about 300 cases involving No. 142 proved the informant's existence but did not result in criminal charges against six to 10 narcotics officers who used the informant in building drug cases.

FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver said he could not comment on the 2008 probe of No. 142, citing the open federal-city task force investigation.

Goldman, who represents Johnson, said he hoped the new allegations and new evidence would be enough to warrant a new trial for his 40-year-old client.

"People shouldn't be put in jail for their entire life based on suspect evidence," he said.

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