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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Corruption Trial Starts

Corruption trial starts for Minneapolis police officer
The Star Tribune by David Chanen - May 10, 2009

Michael Roberts was the only Minneapolis officer indicted after a 14-month probe. He says he was entrapped by a gang member turned informant.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - In 2007, an informant told authorities something stunning: At least a half-dozen Minneapolis police officers were selling non-public information to gang members. An ensuing 14-month investigation resulted only in the short suspension of Lt. Lee Edwards, former head of the homicide unit, for violating a department policy, and a single indictment of longtime North Side officer Michael Roberts, for allegedly accepting $200 from a gang member to run a records check and get a license plate number.

On Monday, in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, Roberts goes on trial. His defense is that he was entrapped -- that the criminal/informant enticed him into the exchange. "I'm innocent; Naturally I'm frustrated," Roberts said Friday during a break in jury selection. The long-awaited trial brings the department a step closer to closing the book on its first-ever corruption probe involving multiple officers. Reflecting on the probe last week, Chief Tim Dolan said that at first he didn't know "where it would go and how big it would get." Now, he said, "I'm more or less pleased it wasn't bigger than it was." In July, a grand jury indicted Roberts, 58, for allegedly taking the money to obtain a plate number through the National Crime Information Center and non-public information through the department's computer records system. The $200 was paid by Gangster Disciples member Taylor Trump. It was Trump, a convicted drug dealer who is awaiting sentencing on federal mortgage fraud and drug charges, who told authorities in June 2007 that at least six officers gave him information to protect his criminal enterprises. The indictment alleged that Roberts knew Trump was a criminal. The $200 is small change compared to the amount pocketed by the last Minneapolis police officer indicted on federal corruption charges, in 1996. Stanley J. Capistrant took $336,556 in drug-seizure money while he was assigned to the narcotics unit. He told investigators it was to support a gambling habit.

Then-Police Chief Robert Olson held up his own badge and said that Capistrant "tarnished it for every single one of us." When Roberts was indicted, Dolan expressed similar sentiments.  "Cases like this are very unfortunate for the profession as a whole because bad actions of a few can tarnish many," said Lt. John Delmonico, president of the police federation. "It will be nice to have the case over and get some closure." F. Clayton Tyler, Roberts' attorney, said last summer that Roberts didn't deny his transaction with Trump. But he said Roberts neither sought out the man nor asked for money. "Any time you have a pending case there is going to be a lot of stress," he said. "Mike is handling it in a very professional manner." Prosecutors were unavailable for comment. After Roberts declined a plea bargain, a grand jury indicted him for allegedly failing to report on his 2004-07 tax returns at least $75,000 from off-duty security work. At the time, Tyler said, "I think sometimes when the U.S. attorney feels uncomfortable with the strength of their original case, they look for other charges to go into." The questions Tyler wanted U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle to ask potential jurors give clues about how he intends to defend his client: Have you ever publicly stated a position or expressed your views regarding blacks and crime? What is your opinion regarding the use of informants in police work? Do you believe informants, hired with public funds, are accountable for their actions?

Racial bias to be alleged

Tyler proposed that jury instructions disclose that Trump is receiving a reduced sentence for his role in the prosecution. The judge ruled that Tyler can introduce evidence of racial bias when impeaching prosecution witnesses. Some have alleged that only black officers were targeted in the investigation. At least 19 officers have been subpoenaed to testify, including Edwards and Dolan. Edwards, the main focus of the corruption investigation, was cleared of criminal wrongdoing but later suspended for several weeks without pay. One of those subpoenaed is Lt. Mike Keefe, whose unit played a major role in investigating Roberts. On Friday Keefe was suspended for allegedly spreading rumors that some of his officers lied about their work in handling the investigation. Keefe has been openly critical that Trump, the main witness against Roberts, isn't credible.

The department's internal affairs unit found that Edwards violated codes of conduct and ethics in dealing with Trump. The FBI taped Edwards telling Trump the license plate number of a city-owned vehicle. Edwards has maintained that he talked with Trump only to try to turn the gang member into an informant. He said he didn't know that the FBI already was using him.  The FBI told Trump to get close to Edwards to see whether he would take money for information. But while Edwards provided information, Trump didn't offer him money.  Attorneys also subpoenaed community activist Ron Edwards, who isn't related to Lee Edwards. Ron Edwards has stayed in contact with Roberts since the indictment and said the officer is "doing as well as anybody who had their life destroyed." Edwards is angry that other community leaders haven't reached out to Roberts. During a break in jury selection Friday, Roberts chatted with Sonny Day, a longtime friend and former DJ at KMOJ-FM. Day also is friends with Trump, who recently called him from jail. "I was thinking, why does he want to try and set somebody up?" Day said. David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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