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Documents show lapses in Houston PD's handling of confidential informants

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St. John Barned-Smith
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Gerald Goines deceived his fellow police officers as well as judges and juries when he lied about defendants in cases he handled, authorities say.

The indicted cop’s misconduct — he now faces murder charges after a fatal drug raid he led — has prompted judges to overturn two convictions this month and forced Harris County prosecutors to review hundreds of his old cases.

But internal HPD audits and court documents, as well as a review of some investigations led by the former narcotics officer at the center of the fatal Harding Street raid, raise questions about the supervision Houston Police Department officers receive for dealing with confidential informants. Investigators say Goines exploited the system for handling and paying CIs to launch the 2019 raid that left two people dead and himself and four other officers injured.

Red flags from the audits — conducted by the department’s own internal auditors — and records include supervising officers signing off on incomplete paperwork to pay informants, officers exceeding withdrawal limits for confidential informants and notarizing documents that were never properly signed.

While the audits from the HPD Inspections Division describe failures to follow policies and procedures rather than the illegal activities prosecutors say Goines was engaged in, experts say they point to a potentially broader problem at HPD: when officers stop following protocol or ignore small rules, they could be more likely to break the more serious ones. Such shortcomings can lead to environments that can allow a rogue officer to operate unchecked.

When asked for comment, Chief Art Acevedo said he had not had enough time to review the relevant documents, and said it would be inappropriate to discuss Goines because of the pending criminal case against him.

The department’s review of its Gang Division uncovered issues with tracking money and with the use of confidential informants across the division.

HPD’s review — which looked at operations during October 2016 — found two instances in the audit period where supervisors hadn’t signed off on officers’ informant payment requests, documents show. And while the division’s policies require officers to submit police reports with each CI expenditure, “no offense reports were submitted as part of the supporting documents.”

When officers filed receipts and reports, auditors wrote, they often deviated from department protocol. Issues included failing to list who issued the cash, tracking receipt numbers and failing to keep tabs on the cash they had on hand.

Auditors found other problems within the division. They said that both handwritten ledgers and electronic databases used to track transaction were missing required information, including the person issuing funds, type of transaction, a receipt number and fund balance.

In some cases, officers did not seek authorization from superiors to pay confidential informants, the documents show. Officers failed to follow policy by not submitting copies of offense reports to back up information for each informant payment.

And the audit team from the Inspections Division reported that HPD’s Office of Budget and Finance was conducting audits of the division’s CI funds every two years, instead of twice a year, as required by its own internal protocols.

The documents show auditors recommended changes to policies, corrections to ledgers or internal recording documents, and additional training to correct the problems — recommendations HPD leadership appear to have signed off on.

In a similar review of the Vice Division in 2018 by the Inspections Division, auditors determined that sergeants approved cash draws by investigators for confidential informant payments and other casework that exceeded department rules in nearly 60 percent of the cases they reviewed, and expense affidavits failed to note which supervisors were issuing the funds.

Auditors wrote they found evidence supervisors authorized multiple withdrawals a minute apart, “and appear to have been done so in order to avoid violating the $250 limit.”

Wrong Door: Houston botched drug raid was not the first

Other times, the audit found sergeants signing for funds in place of an officer before a notary public.

“In one incident a unit lieutenant was the notary in question,” the audit notes. “In another case, the sergeant signed for someone else and was also the notary who signed the expense report.”

Auditors found the division was using forms that didn’t identify which supervisor was actually authorizing money draws and employees weren’t using basic records forms to document cash disbursements. They recommended supervisors institute periodic self audits “to protect the integrity of the funds and to ensure department policy is being followed.”

While HPD audited its Vice and Gang divisions fairly recently, a Chronicle investigation in November found that auditors went almost two decades without reviewing the Narcotics Division. In response to a records request, the department produced just one audit -- from 2000.

Inspectors who reviewed the division’s confidential informant files that year reported that the division’s monthly expense affidavits were supposed to be reviewed twice a year, according to internal department policies.

“The Office of Budget and Finance informed assessors that such an audit has never been conducted,” the report’s authors wrote.

They also reviewed officers’ “receipt for funds” forms and CI activity sheets. In the 46 files auditors reviewed (which contained 288 CI activity sheets), they found 45 errors. The assessors found files that had outdated information or were inactive, or lacked proper identification requirements, and urged a “total review” of the files to bring them into compliance with department requirements.

A high-ranking New York Police Department anti-drugs supervisor commented on the findings.

“They set those parameters for a reason,” said Stephen Nasta, a former NYPD inspector who oversaw hundreds of narcotics officers and is now an adjunct lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If you don’t have controls, you can think it’s your money and you can do what you want with it. It can lead to problems.”

J. Thomas Manger, who led police departments in Maryland and Virginia for 21 years and served as president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association until 2016, declined to discuss Goines’ casework or the Harding Street scandal, but said maintaining close supervision on officers’ interactions with confidential informants and confidential informant payments is crucial for departments.

“There’s a big difference between willful dishonesty and violations of protocol when they’re done for reasons of expediency or laziness,” he said. “That doesn’t make right, but it’s a different issue to fix.”

Court records in two convictions based on Goines’ casework also have information about supervision and oversight. The brothers in the case were both recently declared innocent.

In Otis Mallet’s case, court records show one of Goines’ supervisors present the day of Mallet’s 2008 arrest later signed off on conflicting expense reports. Narcotics Sgt. Troy Gamble acted as surveillance late in the evening on April 29, 2008 when Goines said he bought drugs from Mallet, according to the arrest report filed in the incident.

Prosecutors now say the entire Mallet transaction was a “fraud,” and it’s unclear what portions of that arrest report are accurate — or if Gamble was even present that night.

Just over a week after the arrest, the sergeant signed off on Goines’ confidential informant payment expense report from April — a report that showed Goines hadn’t made any payments that month, even though Mallet’s arrest report shows Goines said he paid Mallet $200 for a ‘quarter’ of crack cocaine.

Gamble later signed off on Goines’ May expense report form, which showed the narcotics officer paid a confidential informant $200 for information related to the case — even though Goines never mentioned using an informant in any other case documents.

The discrepancies in Goines’ case documents ultimately helped persuade a judge to declare Mallet “actually innocent.” His brother Steven Mallet, saw his case overturned two weeks later.

Jonathan Landers, who represented Otis Mallet, said their cases revealed a lack of meaningful oversight of line officers by supervisors.

“Someone could have looked at that April expense report, compared it to the underlying offense report and seen something was off,” he said. “And then that information should have been turned over to the DA’s office.”

Prosecutors agreed.

“The May expense report directly contradicts [Goines’] trial testimony and the offense report in question, so it should have raised red flags,” said Joshua Reiss, post-conviction chief at the Harris County DA’s Office. “It raises a lot of questions as to, ‘Were these expense reports being closely watched or not?’”

Reached by phone, Gamble said he didn’t remember Mallet’s arrest, but said he reviewed any expenses on any case he was involved with — and a situation where expense reports didn’t line up with details in an arrest report would concern him.

“All the expenditures should add up,” he said. “If you spend money — any money spent should be documented.”

Landers, meanwhile, said Mallet’s casework, and the audits, underscored a more fundamental problem.

“The policies are there for a reason, so police are held accountable,” he said. “They’re enforcing the law. They ought to be following their own rules. You have to think why they have those rules — to prevent situations like what happened in Otis Mallet’s case.”