Pubdate: Wed, 01 Apr 2015
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2015 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Jeremy Roebuck
Bookmark: (Corruption - United States)


Testimony Begins in Trial of Six Phila. Narcotics Cops Accused of Racketeering.

A Main Line prep-school assistant basketball coach told a federal 
jury Tuesday that Philadelphia narcotics officers robbed him blind 
during a 2007 search of his City Avenue apartment.

Their purported haul? A safe stuffed with $80,000 in drug proceeds, 
clothes, a pair of flashy sunglasses, and a DVD he had rented from Blockbuster.

What Robert Kushner appeared less eager to discuss, as he testified 
at those same officers' federal corruption trial, was what brought 
the police to his apartment in the first place. He was selling 
thousands of dollars worth of marijuana every week.

"That's what I did for business," he said. "But that's not who I am."

Kushner, a 32-year-old assistant coach at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew 
Academy in Bryn Mawr, was the first government witness in the 
racketeering conspiracy case against six Philadelphia narcotics 
officers accused of shaking down drug suspects for years. In all, 
prosecutors allege, they made off with more than $400,000 in cash, 
drugs, and personal property all while fabricating police reports to 
downplay their takes.

"It was a terrible experience," Kushner said of his 2007 run-in with 
the officers. "I felt like I got robbed. I felt like I got cheated. I 
thought there is no way this was how the criminal justice system was 
supposed to work."

But when it came time to own up to his own crimes, Kushner squirmed, 
quibbled, and prevaricated on the stand. And so, his testimony 
Tuesday appeared to buoy the narratives put forth by both the 
government and the defense.

Prosecutors have painted Officers Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, 
Michael Spicer, Linwood Norman, John Speiser, and Perry Betts as 
rogue cops who routinely ran roughshod over the rights of drug 
suspects, knowing that as criminals, they were unlikely to complain 
to police, about missing money, property, or drugs.

The story Kushner told Tuesday of his 2007 encounter with 
Liciardello, Reynolds, and a seventh officer, Jeffrey Walker, who has 
already pleaded guilty to corruption charges, fleshed out how federal 
authorities believe the group operated.

Kushner testified that when the officers, dressed in plainclothes, 
pulled him over along Ridge Avenue in October of that year, it took 
him hours to realize they were cops. He had half a pound of marijuana 
and $30,000 in his car at the time. But his first thought, he said, 
was that he had been caught in an elaborate robbery.

"They were rugged-looking guys - unshaven," he said. "They looked 
urban. They were yelling at me. They were cursing at me. They were 
aggressive, and all up in my face."

The officers handcuffed him, drove him to a secluded area, and 
interrogated him, asking questions on where they could find more 
money and drugs. It wasn't until they took him to a Fifth Police 
District holding cell that he knew for sure he was dealing with the police.

Never once, he said, did they read him his Miranda rights, present 
him with a search warrant, or officially place him under arrest. He 
began cooperating after 14 hours in a cell in which he was never 
officially arrested and gave up other drug dealers on a promise that 
he would not be charged.

But when he arrived back at his apartment on the 18th floor of the 
Executive House tower in Overbrook, more than the seven pounds of 
marijuana he had stashed there appeared to be missing. Also gone was 
the safe where he kept his profits as well as $750 on his nightstand, 
and clothes and shoes.

In all, he said, officers took nearly $81,000 from his apartment. The 
property receipt he received from the Police Department - a document 
that should have listed everything seized from his home - noted only 
$13,000 in cash had been taken.

When he called Liciardello back to ask him about the discrepancy, 
Kushner said, the officer's response set him on edge.

"You sure you want to accuse the Philadelphia police of stealing?" he 
recalled Liciardello saying. "It's a very serious offense."

Since then, he told the jury Tuesday, he has sought therapy to deal 
with depression and feelings of helplessness from the encounter.

But when it was their turn to question Kushner, lawyers for the six 
officers dug in with question after question designed to color him as 
entitled, none-too-bright, and eager to blame anyone for his problems 
but himself.

They have labeled all of their clients' accusers as "trashy riffraff" 
whose testimony is not to be trusted.

Asked how he became a drug dealer after a childhood in Bala Cynwyd 
and a college degree from George Washington University, Kushner 
appeared uncomfortable with the label.

Asked how much money he made dealing drugs, Kushner hedged again: "I 
made a lot of money. But I don't perceive it as making money, because 
I lost it all."

And pressed to explain how, if his 2007 arrest was such a turning 
point in his life, he could explain a subsequent arrest four years 
later for drug dealing in Montgomery County, Kushner responded:

"I felt like I got railroaded by these guys," he said. "I was 
desperately clawing at anything to get my life back to the way it was 
before I met these guys. Sometimes you go back to what you know best."

As for whether his current employer, Barrack Academy, knew of how he 
had previously made his money, Kushner said: "If you're asking me did 
I go out of my way to tell them any of this, I did not."

But it was Kushner's detailed testimony on all of the ways the 
officers allegedly violated his civil rights that prompted the 
sharpest exchange Tuesday.

How did he know so much about what Liciardello and the others were 
legally required to do? asked defense counsel Jack McMahon, lawyer 
for Reynolds. "I'm highly educated," Kushner said. "I went to 
college." McMahon quipped back: "Oh, you're practically a genius."

Testimony in the trial resumes Wednesday.
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