Though state charges were dismissed against them in January, several former Fort Worth officers implicated in a traffic ticket scandal could still be prosecuted federally in the case, according to information revealed Monday in one of the officers’ appeal hearings.
Maurice Middleton and five other officers were fired by the Police Department in December 2010 over allegations that they altered traffic tickets to collect overtime under a federal Selective Traffic Enforcement Program grant. All the officers appealed their terminations.
Five of the fired officers, and three others who resigned amid the investigation, were later indicted on criminal charges of tampering with a governmental record and theft by a public servant. (The sixth fired officer reached an agreement with prosecutors to avoid charges.)
But in January, prosecutors dismissed criminal charges against the eight former officers, saying new information had “been revealed that affected the viability of the prosecution.”
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On Monday morning, roughly 50 witnesses had been sworn in to testify at Middleton’s hearing — the first of the appeals to be heard in the case — but were sent away a couple of hours later after hearing examiner Norman Bennett recessed the hearing until July.
The hearing was recessed after Bennett learned that a federal investigation of the case remained underway.
Hearings on hold
In an email sent March 17, Assistant City Attorney Elizabeth Dierdorf notified Middleton’s attorney, Terry Daffron Porter, that she had learned U.S. attorneys are still considering filing federal criminal charges against all the officers previously indicted under state law.
Porter alerted Middleton’s criminal defense attorney, Lance Evans, who contacted federal authorities last week and confirmed the federal investigation was still underway.
“Frankly we thought the criminal cases were over when the state indictments were dismissed,” defense attorney Reagan Wynn told Bennett during Monday’s hearing. Wynn represents another of the fired officers, James Dunn, who was subpoenaed as a witness in Middleton’s appeal hearing.
According to Wynn, Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Wolfe told Evans that he believed a decision on filing federal charges will be made within about a month. Wynn said he expected that any federal charges filed would be different from the charges levied by the state.
“I cannot advise my client to testify in this hearing and I know Lance Evans has advised his client, Mr. Middleton, that he couldn’t testify at this point until we had a better handle of what’s gong on in federal court,” Wynn said.
At Dierdorf’s suggestion and at the agreement of both sides, Bennett recessed the hearing.
Attorney Craig Driskell said he plans to seek a continuance for the appeal hearing of his client, Robert Peoples, now set for early May, because of the federal investigation.
New allegations surface
Before the hearing, Porter filed a motion accusing the city of witness tampering and intimidation.
In the motion, Porter alleges that Dierdorf met with officers on Porter’s witness list to determine why they were being called and what they know. Porter accused Dierdorf of advising officers not to appear unless subpenaed, informing them that they would not be paid by the city for their time and advising some that the feds were still looking into the case.
As a result of Dierdorf’s tactics, Porter alleged, some of the witnesses are now “too scared” to talk to her.
“Ms. Dierdorf’s conduct is akin to a school yard bully, instead of taking lunch money, she is trying to bully the witnesses into being too scared and intimidated to provide accurate, honest testimony,” Porter wrote in her motion.
Porter told Bennett that she had three officers who could testify to the tampering and intimidation.
‘It’s just silly’
Dierdorf called the allegations against her “ridiculous.”
“It’s just silly,” Dierdorf said. “I did not threaten anyone.”
Dierdorf said she routinely tries to calls witnesses in a case, especially city employees, whether it be for a hearing or lawsuit.
“I always have and I always will,” Dierdorf said. “That’s what I have to do to make the case.”
Dierdorf said she tells witnesses that they are allowed to talk to opposing counsel but are not required to do so.
“People were asking me if they have to come if they didn’t have a subpoena. I said you don’t have to go unless you have a subpoena. I did tell them not to come unless they have a subpoena because I can do that,” Dierdorf said. “These are city employees and I can talk to them about my case.”
Bennett said he wanted to do some research on Porter’s motion and would take it back up when the hearing resumes in July.