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