Howard's gambit: Deflect attention from widening scandal of police misconduct 

If you're wondering why Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard threw a bomb into the federal investigation of the police shooting of an elderly woman, the answer is: It's a diversionary tactic.

Of course, that's not how Howard sees it. A spokeswoman for his office says federal and local authorities disagree on strategy. Howard, says his spokeswoman, doesn't want police officers involved in the case to get off with light punishment.

But others say it's a bit of "cover your ass" before a looming scandal swamps Howard and police Chief Richard Pennington.

With Pennington, sources have confirmed the existence of a memo that sets quotas for arrests and serving warrants for the narcotics squad. Called the "nine and two memo" by the feds -- nine arrests and two warrants per week -- it's important because the family of the slain woman, Kathryn Johnston, will undoubtedly sue the city.

If her death resulted from the actions of rogue officers acting outside department policy, then the city could escape some or all liability. However, if city policy contributed to the fatal incident -- and quotas are frowned upon by all responsible law enforcement officials -- then Atlanta could face a big penalty in civil litigation.

Here's the rest of the story, as told by law enforcement sources and lawyers involved in the case:

When it became clear that federal officials didn't buy the cops' story -- that an informant had told them he'd purchased drugs at the home of Kathryn Johnston -- the narcotics officers began to waver. First they admitted some facts, and then the whole story. Two officers, Arthur Tesler and Jason Smith, had lied about the informant to con a judge into issuing a no-knock warrant. A third officer, Gregg Junnier, knew of the lies.

The information about drugs in Johnston's home came from a low-level street dealer the officers had arrested. That wouldn't have been sufficient to get a no-knock warrant. After a shootout that left Johnston dead, the officers tried to pressure one of their informants into saying he'd bought drugs at the woman's house. The informant instead went public, telling about the officers' intimidation. That broke open the investigation, and city officials brought in federal authorities.

As the feds dug deeper, the tale got worse. Sources have told me the police officers told the FBI of many other cases where the cops used illegal short cuts, and that the cases number in the "dozens" and "hundreds." People convicted in those cases will, of course, clamor for new trials -- and they'll almost certainly win because the evidence was tainted by police misconduct.

Howard's office tried those cases. So when the merde hits the air conditioning, a lot could land right on the head of the district attorney. His gambit this week -- saying he will bring murder, burglary and other charges against the officers (despite the fact that murder and burglary don't fit the actual events) -- could be intended to divert attention from the widening investigation of numerous similar cases of police and prosecutorial misconduct.

Howard could even derail the federal investigation by scuttling the officers' deals with the FBI. The only beneficiary would be Howard, who might escape well-deserved blame in the resulting chaos.

Howard's spokeswoman, Lyn Vaughn, angrily defends her boss. Emphasizing that she was speaking for herself and not officially for Howard, she says there was a "difference of opinion" between the Fulton County prosecutor and federal agents over how to proceed with the case.

"The feds cut a deal [with the cops], with light sentences," Vaughn says. "The cops got this because they told a story of all this corruption. But what if it doesn't exist? What if all of this big corruption in Atlanta is just made up? Then these guys get off. Mr. Howard doesn't want to blow the case out of the water, but he felt he had to act."

One lawyer involved with the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the FBI doesn't buy Howard's reasoning. "It doesn't make sense. It's all about protecting the city and the district attorney from liability. It's pretty clear there are many other cases that are now being looked at."

Chief Pennington is the other person on the firing line. His modus operandi is to look good and let someone else do the job or take the blame. One Atlanta police sergeant told me that some officers call Pennington "Do-Nothing Dick." Another officer said, "You don't get rewarded for doing the right thing. You get rewarded for producing numbers that make the chief look good."

Steve Coleman, spokesman for the department, said he would not comment on the situation because it is under federal investigation. When asked specifically about the "nine and two memo," he would not comment.

Officers have told me that Pennington, in middle-management meetings, harasses and intimidates subordinates to achieve numerical goals -- numbers of arrests, numbers of warrants served. That sort of policy polishes the chief's reputation, but isn't real crime-fighting. It's artificial image-making.

Moreover, it puts incredible pressure on rank-and-file officers. And that's what everyone -- from cops on the street to lawyers in the case -- say prompted officers Tesler and Smith to lie to a judge to get a warrant, and Junnier to keep silent about the deception. The officers' actions are in no way justified, but Atlanta's top officials -- Pennington and Mayor Shirley Franklin -- should have known that policies in the police department would inevitably lead to mistakes, bad mistakes, fatal mistakes.

Kathryn Johnston learned that lesson. She paid the deadly price for the self-serving, look-good polices of Pennington, Howard and Franklin.

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