Pubdate: Wed, 28 Aug 2002
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2002 Austin American-Statesman
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


Civil Rights Groups Have Complained That Sweep Unfairly Targeted Blacks

Texas Attorney General John Cornyn has announced that he will begin an 
investigation into a 1999 drug sweep in Tulia that resulted in the arrest 
of 37 African Americans, about 30 percent of the town's black male 
population, and was criticized by civil rights groups.

"There has been some confusion over whether there even was an ongoing 
investigation," Cornyn told The Associated Press. "I became concerned 
things had gotten bogged down."

But a spokesman for Cornyn's Democratic rival in the November race for the 
U.S. Senate said Tuesday that the timing of the investigation suggests 
Cornyn is playing politics.

"The closer we get to Election Day, the more apparent it is that John 
Cornyn is concerned about his own record as attorney general," said Justin 
Lonon, a spokesman for Democrat Ron Kirk, who has not spoken about the 
arrests in the Panhandle town during his campaign. "Imagine how much better 
off we would be if John Cornyn would have taken action on this issue rather 
than wait till 70 days before he faced voters."

Cornyn has said politics played no part in his decision.

"This is part of my job. I do that regardless of whether I am up for 
election or not," he said.

The case has drawn national media attention in recent weeks with Cornyn 
running for the Senate.

It is one of the first racially charged issues to emerge openly in a 
campaign in which Kirk is trying to become the first African American 
senator elected from the South since Reconstruction.

Despite Democrats' strategy of trying to generate high African American 
turnout, race has not been an overt campaign issue since Cornyn chided his 
spokesman in June for calling the racially diverse Democratic ticket a 
"racial quota system."

And Lonon did not suggest Tuesday that race was a factor in Cornyn's decision.

Gary Bledsoe, director of the Texas chapter of the National Association for 
the Advancement of Colored People, hailed Cornyn's investigation.

He said it should be resolved quickly, but he warned that it could be tough 
for Cornyn to investigate law enforcement officials who normally work 
closely with his office.

"The case for innocence is truly compelling," Bledsoe said. "It may or may 
not be politics, but you have to keep your eyes on the prize, and we're 
talking about innocent people in jail."

In a letter Monday to R. Alexander Acosta, deputy assistant attorney 
general for the U.S. Department of Justice civil rights division, Cornyn 
said he has told his staff to open an investigation and has asked the Texas 
Department of Public Safety to join.

Cornyn said he didn't want to interfere with an ongoing federal 
investigation but said a state review is needed to see if any Texas laws 
were broken.

In his letter, Cornyn asked that state investigators be allowed to review 
the federal case.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the federal investigation is still 
open and declined further comment.

Swisher County authorities arrested 43 people in a drug sting, including 37 
African Americans. Of those arrested, 11 were found guilty and 17 accepted 
plea agreements.

Many of the cases against black Tulia residents were based solely on the 
testimony of officer Tom Coleman, who said he spent 18 months working 
undercover to make drug cases against a large portion of the town's black 

Coleman worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance. Little or no 
corroborating evidence was introduced during the trials.

Coleman was charged with theft and abuse of power during the investigation. 
The charges against him were later dropped.

Charges against the last defendant were dropped in July.

Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart and the district attorney, Terry 
McEachern, have denied allegations of racial bias and stand by the cases. 
So has Coleman, who no longer works in law enforcement.
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