Pubdate: Sun, 28 Mar 2004
Source: Amarillo Globe-News (TX)
Copyright: 2004 Amarillo Globe-News
Author: Joe Chapman
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


To the tune of a $5 million payment and the disbandment of a regional 
narcotics task force, Amarillo's settlement in the Tulia lawsuit was a tap 
dance of legal liability.

The city settled with 45 Tulia residents who had sued members of the 
Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force for civil rights 
violations. The suit related to the residents' arrests in the 1999 drug 
sting conducted by Tom Coleman, a Swisher County cop and task force agent.

A judge later found Coleman's investigation to be flawed, the charges were 
dropped against some of residents and the governor pardoned the others.

The Amarillo defendants - the city and three police officers - were the 
leaders of the task force, and they announced a settlement agreement with 
the plaintiffs March 11. The Globe-News last week obtained an unsigned copy 
of the settlement document draft from the city's legal department.

In the document, the Tulia plaintiffs release the city, Chief Jerry Neal, 
Lt. Mike Amos and Sgt. Jerry Massengill of liability in the undercover 
investigation that led to their arrests. The wording avoids pinning 
responsibility for the investigation on Amarillo or the three officers.

But that inadmission of wrongdoing, as conveyed in the document, contrasts 
with some of the tone city leaders expressed when announcing the settlement 
this month.

The settlement document states that the Amarillo defendants haven't 
admitted and don't admit "responsibility or liability to pay any amount of 
damages ... but instead such liability is expressly denied . ." It states 
that the settlement represents the "compromise of disputes and 
controversies" between the parties.

But the day the settlement was announced, City Attorney Marcus Norris 
acknowledged wrongdoing had occurred when he said, "The Legislature needs 
to clarify who's responsible for the misdeeds of a task force."

However, he and City Manager John Ward primarily focused their regrets on 
the task force system and the risk Amarillo was exposed to while being a 
part of it.

"It passed the scrutiny of a lot of attorneys and city councils when it was 
set up that way," Ward said. "I accept my share of the blame; I didn't stop 

Norris denied the city was liable if any innocents had spent time in jail.

"We'll never know absolutely if the people really sold drugs to Coleman or 
not," Norris said. "Maybe they were innocent or maybe they were guilty. But 
because of the misconduct of Coleman, we had to throw those cases out.

"I don't think we can really admit liability. What we can say is we will 
accept responsibility for errors made by our supervisors."

Jeff Blackburn, Amarillo attorney for some of the plaintiffs, said he 
agrees with the distinction the city made. It avoided claiming legal 
responsibility in the settlement so that it couldn't be sued for anything 
else related to the matter, he said.

"But morally, the city has admitted and accepted responsibility for what it 
needed to accept responsibility for," Blackburn said Friday. "There's a big 
difference between morality and law. What a gap."

The settlement document not only releases the Amarillo defendants from 
liability, but a mutual release clause also releases the Tulia plaintiffs.

It only protects them from being sued for their actions related to the 
investigation, Blackburn said.

"It's tied exactly to this thing," he said. "In other words, anything 
arising out of this investigation is covered. But if somebody pops off 
later on or falsely depicts the city, they could be sued for it."

The settlement document also details that Hogan & Hartson LLP, another firm 
representing plaintiffs, will receive the $5 million payment from the city. 
The money will be deposited into a trust account controlled by the firm in 
Washington, D.C., and a claims administrator will determine how to divide 
the money among all the plaintiffs and their lawyers.

Not mentioned in the settlement document are the retirements of two of the 
Amarillo Police Department officers who supervised the task force. When the 
settlement was announced, attorneys for the city said Amos and Massengill 
would retire from the department.

Ward on Friday said his understanding was that the retirements had been the 
officers' choice and not a condition of the city's settlement.

Although Neal had said the city's legal department notified him of 
Massengill's retirement, Ward said the legal staff was relaying information 
it had received from Tod Mayfield, attorney for Amos and Massengill.

Mayfield had announced the two officers' retirements during mediation, Ward 

Attempts to reach Mayfield for comment Friday were unsuccessful.

Blackburn said his plaintiffs hadn't pushed for Amos's and Massengill's 
retirements. The retirements were between the city and the two officers, he 

Ward said he didn't know whether Amos or Massengill would be allowed to 
stay with the department should they pursue staying.

Blackburn stopped short of saying he and his clients wouldn't mind if the 
officers stayed with the department.

"I can't commit to that. That's a different story," Blackburn said. "I 
think it is between the city and them, but I'm not going to commit to 
telling you, 'Oh, that wouldn't bother us,' or something."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom