Eleven Alexandrians sitting as a special grand jury last week gave Public Safety Director Charles T. Strobel a clean bill of professional health. But, with a City Council election scheduled May 7, questions left unanswered by the grand jury mean that the controversy is not about to die.
Questions about some of Strobel's actions as head of the police department, as well as the motivations of those who have criticized him, may be answered in a number of ways likely to keep the controversy bubbling.
Federal authorities are investigating allegations concerning the Alexandria police department, two civil cases have been filed, and an administrative review of the police department by the acting city manager is anticipated.
In a four-page report widely regarded as a victory for Strobel, the special grand jury said Wednesday that it found no evidence to back up allegations of wrongdoing by Strobel, including assertions that he had prematurely stopped a city drug investigation. The report also praised his department as "functioning in a highly professional and enthusiastic manner."
As much as the report appeared to be a victory for Strobel, it was a political blow for Mayor Charles E. Beatley and council member Donald C. Casey, who have led the attack on Strobel.
At this juncture, however, the question many are asking is how the city became so deeply mired in a controversy over allegations called "baseless and unfounded" by the special grand jury. Many agree with Republican council member Carlyle C. Ring, who said last week: "I've never seen so much fuss over nothing."
For the last two months, the city has been caught up in rumors and allegations that have spared few city officials. "If you have the leader of the council [Beatley] and one of most outspoken members [Casey] forcefully and vigorously alleging problems," said stockbroker and Republican Party activist David Speck, "then the allegations assume a strength of their own, and that's where the momentum got up."
Added to this was what some have called Beatley's inability to get the political support he needed on the council at crucial stages in the controversy.
When the three Republicans on the council declined to vote for Beatley's call for an independent probe of the drug investigation, for example, Beatley, a Democrat, refused to push for a vote by the full council -- a vote he might well have won. And only days before the grand jury issued its report, Beatley was rebuffed by the council, including two Democratic members, when he publicly called for Strobel's suspension.
Despite the knocks he has taken, Beatley has said he will press for an administrative review of the police department. But even that is not a certainty. "That is going to be another fight, I think," said Republican council member Robert L. Calhoun.
Despite what Calhoun calls Beatley's "leadership failure," Calhoun also faults the council. "The blame has to rest with us collectively," he said. "We did not . . . say, 'We're not going to be run around by you people in the press.' "
Beatley and Casey have said they see the allegations as genuine signals of something awry in Strobel's police department.
Privately, both have made clear their distrust and disapproval of Strobel's management style.
"I don't doubt that a good deal of it is due to some personal animus . . . or so it would appear," said Calhoun. "I don't know why exactly."
But others say the motives of the six-term mayor still seem to arise out of a sense of concern for good government. "I'm probably more sensitive than most mayors to indications of problems . . . and I'm more reactive to get a solution," Beatley said last week.
"Beatley has too much integrity to get involved in vendettas," said state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell, a Republican and a former Alexandria vice mayor.
As for Casey, Mitchell says his role is no different from the one he has played his whole political life as a whistleblower. "The present situation is the inevitable product of something that has been part of his political personality for the last 15 years," said Mitchell.
Casey says he remains convinced that part of the story has not come out.
"The federal investigation centers on a number of allegations, some of which are extremely serious," he said.
The U.S. attorney's office refuses to comment on its investigation.
In addition, the special grand jury report did not answer all the questions about Strobel's handling of a 1984 police cocaine investigation.
On Dec. 20, the Alexandria Port Packet, a community newspaper, reported allegations that Strobel had prematurely ended the investigation. The next day, Strobel said the investigation had never ended.
The special grand jury report said only that the investigation was terminated by Lt. Arthur Bratcher "at a logical point in time."
The report does back Strobel's statement that the drug investigation never turned up evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Alexandria Sheriff Michael E. Norris. But it does not explain the discrepancy between claims by a detective that the investigation focused on Norris and Strobel's statement that the sheriff's name merely came up.
Norris, who has suggested that the 1984 investigation really was aimed at his personal life, said last week he still has some unanswered questions about the probe, but that he will seek the answers "administratively" with Strobel and others.
Through his lawyer, Strobel declined last week to be interviewed on the drug investigation.
On Friday, Strobel filed a $1.3 million defamation suit against six persons, including four current or former police officers and a Port Packet reporter.