March 11, 2004 - The Associated Press

$5m Settlement Reached In Tulia Drug Case

By Betsy Blaney, AP Writer

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LUBBOCK, Texas - More than 40 people snared in a now-discredited drug sting in the Texas Panhandle town of Tulia will share $5 million as part of a settlement, an attorney for the plaintiffs said. The agreement with the nearby city of Amarillo, announced Wednesday, also ends the multiagency task force that ran the sting operation. It was cheered by the NAACP and attorneys representing those arrested in what many believe was a racially motivated operation.

"The settlement that was reached is truly historic," attorney Jeff Blackburn told The Associated Press. "It represents the first example of a responsible city government putting an end to irresponsible task force system of narcotics enforcement."

All but one of the 46 people arrested - most of them black - will receive some portion of the $5 million. One defendant died before going to trial and is not included in the settlement, Blackburn said.

A claims administrator will determine how the funds will be apportioned.

The settlement also will disband the multiagency task force that oversaw the only undercover agent involved in the busts, Tom Coleman, whose methods and testimony have been questioned.

More details were to be released Thursday in a news conference in Amarillo.

The case cast an often-unflattering light on the farming town of about 5,000 between Lubbock and Amarillo on the High Plains. Amarillo saw an "injustice" and wanted to right it, Blackburn said.

Coleman, who is white, said he bought drugs from the defendants, but he worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance. No drugs or money were found during the arrests.

Mediation is ongoing with others named in the lawsuit - 26 counties and three cities that were involved with the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force.

Swisher County officials earlier approved a $250,000 settlement for those imprisoned based on Coleman's testimony in exchange for the defendants promising not to sue the county. Coleman no longer is an officer.

Vanita Gupta, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who also represents the plaintiffs, commended the city of Amarillo for doing the right thing.

"It's not simply that Tom Coleman was a rogue officer," she said. "The city of Amarillo has recognized that federally funded task forces are ineffective tools of law enforcement and they operate as rogue task forces because they are unaccountable to any oversight mechanism."

Coleman, who testified at trials that he bought cocaine from the defendants, is scheduled to stand trial May 24 on perjury charges related to testimony he gave during evidentiary hearings.

Former state Judge Ron Chapman, who was brought out of retirement to preside over a review of the cases, said in a report that Coleman was "the most devious, nonresponsive witness this court has witnessed in 25 years on the bench in Texas."

A task force leader had testified that Coleman's former employers said he needed constant supervision, was a discipline problem and tended to run to his mother for help.

After their arrests, some of the first defendants who went to trial received lengthy sentences, one as much as 90 years. That prompted other defendants to take plea agreements for lesser terms out of fear of lengthy sentences.

Gov. Rick Perry granted pardons to 35 of those convicted.

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