"Although I regret that the FBI was unable to locate the original documents, or to determine how they disappeared, they have succeeded in recovering almost completely the contents of the files and restoring the public record of the panel's work. This means that if anyone took the records with the intent of destroying them or hiding their contents, the FBI's work has prevented that from happening."
THAT'S MAYOR PAUL Schell's upbeat take on his office's inexplicable loss of several confidential police review board files. They were among boxes of classified documents shuffled around City Hall offices for two months and also sent across the street for open review by the police department—the very people who weren't supposed to see the raw reports in the first place. As the mayor's full statement implies, the file theft—and name exposure of citizens and cops who thought they were making protected statements to his misconduct reviewers—has been resolved. The recent "thorough" FBI probe, which turned up neither culprit nor logical explanation, saw to that.
On closer examination, Schell's statement was actually a well- disguised Word Jumble, which, when decoded, reveals what the mayor was really saying:
"Though my office is fully capable of legally redacting names from documents to protect identities—all that was required in this case—we thought the cops should do it because we wanted to look like lunatics. And though the FBI—which tracked down the Unabomber hiding in a cabin in the woods—cannot find a couple of missing files in a one-block radius, and though the agency—which nabs serial killers simply by analyzing cigarette butts—couldn't determine which of 18 people who handled the files took two of them, the bottom line is that we've taught a unique lesson to anyone who steals: You'll get away with it. But we can replicate!"
The file farce has left some wondering what Mayor Blue Sky was possibly thinking this time. As he said when taking office in January 1998, "You as citizens can help us focus on what we want to accomplish by helping us ask simple questions like 'Why are we doing this?'" OK, why? Why tote confidential records all over Fourth and James? To build muscle tone? Why allow cops to edit documents of their accusers? To improve department penmanship? Why call a superficial and inconclusive probe complete? To make us kick ourselves for unelecting Charlie Chong?
The missing files concerned TV reporter Liz Rocca, who complained she was being blackmailed by vengeful cop who inferred she was a lesbian. It was an inane complaint to begin with (report it on air, Liz!) and all its elements were known to the public. The mayor's triumphant tribute to its virtual recovery was mostly diversionary.
It's the incomprehensible files shuffle and exposure that has the city shaking its collective head—and others, such as activist John Hoffman, shaking in rage. He's one of the 80 or so who, in confidence, told the mayor's review committee about alleged police misconduct and who now feel that confidence has been compromised.
A public records sleuth and member of the independent cop-watching October 22 Coalition, Hoffman has just lodged an official damage claim against the city for releasing the files to police. It's a required first step before filing a lawsuit, as he says he will, for breach of promise or contract.
Hoffman has also filed a complaint with the city's Ethics and Elections Commission. Though executive director Carol Van Noy says the commission doesn't have jurisdiction to investigate the breach allegation, she points out the city's ethics code prohibits officials from disclosing "any privileged or proprietary information gained by reason of his or her official position."
Hoffman, no favorite of the cops who've been featured in the reams of damaging, publicly obtained internal documents he gives to reporters, says he plans to argue the breach point in court—if, that is, he's still kicking. The records-digging ace is not kidding, he says, when he worries that his longtime police disclosure activism and now the files exposure have put his family in harm's way.
"The public sees these problems emerging, but I have been behind the scenes pushing all this time," he says. "My ear is very close to the cops' door and while I have not reached my fear threshold, my wife has. So not only will I sue, I will be citing the fear these revelations have caused in my family as part of the claim. I loathe the thought of sounding alarmist and paranoid, but my wife is one of the most levelheaded folks in the world. She thinks it's time to get out of Dodge."
Of course, if you really want to get lost, John, hide out in City Hall. There'll be a thorough search. After that you're safe.