JSUT WHEN EVERYONE thought it was safe to believe in the Seattle Police Department again, Detective Gene McNaughton waits in the wings with his claims of police corruption. But he won't be telling his tale as soon as expected.
Although a King County civil trial was to begin this month (after the city failed to get the case tossed out), City Attorney Mark Sidran has successfully shifted proceedings to federal court to argue a constitutional issue: McNaughton says he was denied promotions and work benefits as retaliation for asserting his right to free speech—speaking out about alleged misconduct by his superiors.
A hearing may be held next month. Meanwhile, McNaughton is making his case in the court of public opinion. Claiming he was demoted, shunned, and slandered for his drug-fighting efforts, the 21-year SPD officer and detective has enlisted the aid of a public relations scribe with a flair for the dramatic and retained an attorney who likes to call him the "Serpico of Seattle."
But unlike famed New York cop Frank Serpico, who exposed departmental corruption and was shot and nearly died after his partners left him unprotected in a drug dealer's hallway, McNaughton's wounds appear to be only psychological and perhaps financial. No matter, the metaphor is money to the Arizona publicist recently brought aboard by McNaughton's attorney to publicize his case and mold favorable sentiment.
"In New York," a press release quotes McNaughton's flamboyant Seattle lawyer, D. Michael Tomkins, "Serpico fought internal police corruption—there the cops were the criminals. In Seattle, years later, McNaughton fought the back-stabbing careerists who care not about arrests but care mightily about covering their back till their next promotions."
Serpico's story became a book by Peter Maas and a movie starring Al Pacino. Not to be left out, McNaughton's publicist shows a theatrical touch too: "This case will take you behind the scenes of the SPD. You will see pettiness, vindictiveness, a bureaucracy at war with itself . . . [McNaughton] won't go quietly. He wants the public to know what happens—behind the thin blue line."
Joe Wambaugh, eat your heart out. The release is the work of Phoenix's Bartholomeaux Public Relations, whose president, Carole Bartholomeaux, likes to tell callers, "We're creating wonderful images for our clients." Her eclectic client list includes best-selling action-adventure writer Clive Cussler, the Pinnacle Peak Rotary Club, and Tomkins, the Seattle attorney who is also an author. Bartholomeaux says his book Trial and Error was the basis for the TV series LA Law.
"Well," a playful Tomkins says on the telephone from Utah where he is helping an inventor market what he calls a cure-all snake oil for the new millennium, "that's what they say about my book. Who's to know? Some Barney Miller producers picked up the book—and I'm trying not to be Al Gore about it—but I'm told it led to the invention of LA Law."
Tomkins says the new product he's pushing, "a topical bath that helps ease arthritis, back pain, and skin eruptions, doesn't hurt you even when it doesn't work." But that's another story, he adds. He's more concerned about getting justice for his Seattle Serpico.
"The case is like Serpico in the sense that McNaughton did everything right, yet somehow his tenacious success embarrasses the upstream officer corps, who really don't care about good police work. The criminals were inside the department in the Serpico case and, though they're not criminals in this case, they are lazy bureaucrats."
DESPITE THE PR HYPE, McNaughton does lay out serious claims of departmental malfeasance, which he first outlined to Seattle Weekly last year ("Cop wars," 4/8/99). He says both city and county police officers and commanders told him not to investigate an informant's tips of potential drug deals, then drummed up false charges of disobeying orders when he persisted. In one example, McNaughton says, police ignored his informant's tip that an officer's life may have been at risk. Another tip, passed over by fellow Seattle cops, led to a major drug bust by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency in 1992, McNaughton claims, resulting in the seizure of 32 kilos of cocaine worth millions on the street.
In newly filed court documents, McNaughton claims the DEA bust caused such embarrassment within the department that SPD narcotics officers "had to explain to the mayor's office why they weren't involved" in the bust. In a new deposition, he also describes how it felt to be an outsider on the inside: A captain told him, he says, "that I'm not the kind of officer he wants to speak to and [he] just [turned] his back on me." Others asked how he had "screwed up" so bad to get passed over 32 times for promotion to sergeant.
He was eventually exonerated of a disobeying orders charge, and the 44-year-old cop remains a detective in the SPD auto theft detail, where, he told us, "it feels a little uncomfortable." He has not announced the damage amount sought.
The city was recently able to sever from the lawsuit a number of police officials named by McNaughton, leaving only the city and former Chief Norm Stamper as defendants. Stamper, in a court declaration, says McNaughton simply "was not as qualified for promotion as other candidates [because his] judgment was poor in some instances, he was disrespectful toward certain of his supervisors, and seemed unable to accept that his conduct in regard to [the informant] was inappropriate."
It will all shake out in court, once a trial is held, says attorney Tomkins. "We're ready to go. They're still trying to hide the pickle."