"You know the stuff is getting serious," an acquaintance said last week. "Black folks are hiring white lawyers again."
The speaker, a black lawyer not hurting for business and recalling the days in the 1960s when the most militant black radical would show up in court with white lawyers, was joking, of course. But his implication was right on target: The fallout from the ongoing federal investigations is being felt in unexpected ways in the District. And as the scope widens -- from the seemingly endless troubles of the city government to the newer problems in the police department -- it looks like lawyers all over town are going to have plenty of work.
During much of last week, of course, Mayor Marion Barry was plagued with questions and mounting concern over reports that money from his ceremonial fund may have been misused, another chapter in the ongoing saga of alleged city corruption.
Moreover, the ongoing federal probes have begun to have serious ramifications on Capitol Hill. Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) called the D.C. government "scandalously corrupt and hopelessly incompetent."
And if some residents thought Danforth's remarks sounded like such an overstatement as to be suspect, given his strong opposition to statehood, they were showing deepening concern as the police department became ensnared in the net of the federal probers.
Those investigations first came to light three weeks ago when it was revealed that the FBI was checking into allegations that some narcotics officers in the 4th District may have stolen drugs and money during raids. Many residents were particularly outraged then because it also was revealed that a 4th District narcotics officer may have leaked information to drug dealers in the ill-fated Operation Caribbean Cruise.
In that raid, some 500 police descended on 68 homes of city residents suspected of being part of a drug network. But many were innocent people, and police found relatively small amounts of drugs.
Then last week, diGenova announced that 300 to 400 drug cases would be dropped, a controversial action that was unprecedented in the memory of local prosecutors. Aides justified it by explaining that if the cases weren't dropped, the result would be numerous challenges from defense lawyers who would contend that corrupt officers had brought the cases. "As officers of the court, our obligations are clear and unequivocal," said diGenova in a statement.
Gary Hankins of the Fraternal Order of Police retorted that diGenova's action was "a cheap shot" that left the strong impression that all 16 members of the 4th District vice squad are corrupt. And I have to admit that given diGenova's questionable penchant for taking dramatic public action in his probes and failing to follow through in a timely fashion with either charges or indictments, I initially agreed with Hankins.
I also worried that the decision was a golden opportunity for those merchants of death called drug dealers to ply their trade with impunity while the hapless people who live in the 4th District are further victimized.
And while the public safety issue hadn't abated, by week's end it developed that diGenova's decision was prompted in part by the truly disturbing revelation that the U.S. attorney's office has been told that some 4th District vice squad officers routinely lied under oath to judges to obtain search warrants. They allegedly used the warrants to raid houses where they expected to find drugs and money.
While criminality among police is a growing national problem, if this truly frightening, alleged pattern of officers using bogus affidavits is shown to be true, not only is the city's much-touted effort against drugs in serious jeopardy, but also the relatively good reputation of the police department is at stake.
What then is to be done about this deteriorating situation that is endangering our citizens, paralyzing our institutions, embarrassing us nationally and polarizing our city racially? For now, I join with other observers in calling on the U.S. attorney to move more quickly on charges. The longer this whole thing drags out, the worse it is -- and not just for those folks who need lawyers.