The cover-up was the crime in Plantation last week.
Police Chief Larry Massey blatantly broke state open-record statutes, commonly called the Sunshine Law, which is essential in keeping an eye on what our public officials are doing. And Plantation City Attorney Donald Lunny Jr.. sat by and apparently approved.
The trashing of the statutes came after I asked to see the internal affairs file on a steroids investigation involving two Plantation police officers. That request led to epic stonewalling by the chief, who tried to charge New Times unlawful fees, illegally redacted information from a document, and ultimately refused to release any more public information at all.
The more I learned about the case, the more I understood why Massey was in full obstruction mode: He had played a potentially controversial role in the steroids investigation before trying to hide it from public view.
Juicing at local cop shops is a raging issue in South Florida right now, with a recent a new steroids scandal at the Broward County Sheriffs Office and (apparently unrelated) news of police beatings, one involving a videotape showing Fort Lauderdale police rushing a man and breaking his nose in an elevator.
BSO had another steroids scandal in 2005, after which eight deputies were cleared of wrongdoing because they had prescriptions. Basically, that agency is allowing deputies to juice so long as they can find a willing doctor to write a script for them.
Imagine if Major League Baseball allowed such shenanigans. Commissioner Bud Selig would get laughed out of his office.
When I got wind of the Plantation steroids case, I was told it involved two now-former police officers, one of whom has been identified as Joseph Alu, who is a cop with a rich biography.
Alu was hailed as a hero in 1995 when he was badly burned in a house explosion that critically burned another officer, Jim O'Hara, and killed two teenaged sisters and their mother's estranged boyfriend.
In late 2007, the large, muscular, and heavily tattooed Alu and another officer were accused of using steroids. Both tested positive, prompting an internal affairs investigation. Attorney Scott Rothstein , whose large downtown Fort Lauderdale firm represents the Fraternal Order of Police, defended both officers during the investigation.
Beyond that, the case gets very foggy thanks to Massey's obfuscation. When I asked to view the investigative file on March 9, I was met with a week of silence, even though the law demands that such requests be answered promptly and fulfilled in a reasonable amount of time.
Finally, on March 16, Sgt. Richard Vincent, who works in internal affairs, emailed the following:
"In regards to your request for inspection of the 'steroids file,' due to the complexity and volume of the file which includes exempted personal medical information, it would have to be reviewed and redacted by our City Attorney. If it is your desire to view the file, please contact our Records Custodian, Donna Jones-Wehbe, for information on the cost of reproduction and attorney fees."
It was clear the department was going to make this as painful as possible. A dead giveaway was the reference to "attorney fees." Governmental bodies are legally allowed to charge only specified fees under Florida's Sunshine Law, and attorney bills are not one of them. To make sure, I called one of the state's foremost experts on the law, Pat Gleason, an attorney who works in Gov. Charlie Crist's administration.
"They do not have the authority to do that," she assured me.
I didn't have time for a long, drawn-out fight, though, so I quickly narrowed the request to the investigative summary, a simple report on the findings. I honestly expected to get that report within a few hours. Not quite. Chief Massey introduced himself to me in an email.
"Let me just take a minute to involve myself in this situation, since in my opinion, this case would take longer than the customary 15 minutes...," he wrote. "This case is a bit of an anomaly that involves an extensive administrative investigation conducted over a lengthy period of time in which the lines of distinction blur between medically protected/exempt information and that which is open for public inspection. In order to protect the City of Plantation from legal exposure, I feel strongly that..."
It went on and on. The upshot was that now the chief was personally involved, and it was obvious that he was intent on making this as difficult as possible, including charging fees for what he called "the special services of an attorney."
"Why would this simple legal review not fall under the city attorney's normal job duties?" I wrote Massey back. "Frankly this seems a gratuitous attempt to place unnecessary burdens on someone trying to obtain public records. I hope the department doesn't hit all its citizens (and not just the ones who happen to be journalists) with such superfluous fees."
I should have said "illegal fees." Massey didn't email me back until the next morning, Tuesday. "All I am asking you to do is take financial responsibility for the work involved in completing the request," he wrote.
I thought my tax dollars would take care of that, especially since I had already reduced my request down to one stinking report. Now I was angry.
"You are dead wrong on this issue," I wrote back. "I'm just asking for the investigative summary. I would hope that you can have that to me this afternoon, as I expected it yesterday afternoon."
Massey only dug in further, replying: "I would like nothing better than to simply honor your request, but this is an unusual set of circumstances that requires such measures, and perhaps even an opinion from the courts. I'll have someone contact you once I receive legal guidance on how best to proceed."
Now he was talking about taking the case to court, one of the more novel ways ever devised to save taxpayers' money on attorney's fees.
I called his office and got an answering machine. I left a voice-mail asking him to call me before emailing him back.
"I assure you, Chief Massey, that Florida statutes do NOT allow for attorney's fees to be charged to citizens seeking public records," I wrote. "Please forego your plans to spend taxpayers' money in court to keep your department's steroids investigation out of the public eye."
Massey wrote back with another dancing email, saying he was just trying to protect the city from potential litigation and trying to charge me reasonable fees. "Please be patient until I receive clarification from the city attorney," he wrote.
But I suspected he'd already contacted Lunny. Massey, in his previous email, had cited a 1999 ruling in which a circuit judge ordered a convicted rapist and killer to pay $35 an hour in attorney's fees involving a "voluminous" sex crime file — the kind of citation that sounded straight from the legal department.
Massey was reaching here. Did he really want to be a crusader for government secrecy? Somewhere I was sure Dick Cheney was smiling, perhaps in his undisclosed location.
"I've had eight days of patience," I wrote him. "Turn over the four pages."
Later that afternoon, Massey finally gave in, writing me at 3:08 p.m.: "I just met with the city attorney. In an effort to put this matter to rest, available for your review is a redacted memorandum which shows that I concluded the persons involved were under medical care. That is all there is."
He added that he wasn't charging for his time.
I picked up the memorandum and found that it was heavily blacked out, starting with the entire header, including the date and author (even though Massey had already claimed authorship).
There is no conceivable way that the date of that document could be considered private medical information. But that was just the beginning. Massey also blacked out all references to Alu and the other officer. Another obvious violation.
It became clear as I read what was left of it that the chief had crossed off just about anything he didn't want me to know, whether it involved medical records or not. I was stunned by his gall, but I really couldn't believe that Lunny Jr., an government attorney, had signed off on this sham.
Deciphering what was left of the document, it was clear the I.A. investigators had determined that the officers violated departmental policy involving the use of controlled substances and that Massey presided over a hearing on the case, though the nature of the hearing had been blacked out.
"I did not serve notice of intent to impose discipline," Massey wrote in the report. "I entered the meeting with an open mind and admittedly held reservations about whether the investigation uncovered substantial proof to warrant the current findings."
The reservations won out; the chief exonerated the officers. The gist of his reasoning was that he believed that the officers had legitimate prescriptions for the steroids and that steroids are "often dispensed for legitimate medical reasons."
Massey then wrote of how steroids are "gaining widespread acceptance when administered as part of a medically supervised [deleted]."
The chief also wrote that he took a trip to the medical facility (the name was blacked out, of course) where both officers had obtained the steroids. He found that the building "has prominently displayed medical signage." That wasn't all that impressed the chief. He also wrote that the officers had "put forth an effort to appear in person at an actual brick and mortar medical facility, to establish a doctor/patient relationship and nothing highly irregular stands here..."
After reading the report, I told Massey that he'd illegally blacked out the date and a lot of other information. He wrote me back the next morning, Wednesday, indicating that he would not provide me any more records or explanations for the rest of the week because he was busy moving his office to another location.
"I do not have the time to deal with this matter at the moment so there will be nothing for you tomorrow," Massey wrote. "I anticipate having someone contact you on Monday, at which time we hope to have a cost estimate and detailed exemption list available for you."
And he was true to his word. He took a vacation from the law, which in itself is breaking it. On Monday morning, the department released another version of the document that included the date, December 27, 2007, but little other new information.
So I called Rothstein, the lawyer and businessman, and the story took an interesting turn. After the police investigation was concluded, both officers left the department to work for Rothstein as bodyguards on his "executive protection team."
Rothstein told me that Alu is assigned primarily to protect his wife, while the other officer has left his employ. The attorney said he couldn't talk at length about the police investigation because of his "intimate" involvement in it, but he gamely fielded some questions.
And he said neither officer had done anything wrong or illegal.
"Had they done anything wrong, they would have been disciplined, they would have been prosecuted," Rothstein told me. "You can't make something out of something that does not exist."
I told him that it appeared that the I.A. investigators had determined that the two officers had indeed violated the department's policy, only to have Massey personally exonerate them.
"I don't remember what the finding was, but I know they were both lawfully prescribed the medication they were taking," Rothstein said.
I asked him what he thought of the use of steroids in general.
"If you're using them for a real medical purpose, they can be great," he said. "They help people who are burn victims, people who have growth issues, people who have hormonal issues. People who are using them illegally, it's bad news. They harm themselves, and they create a dangerous situation for others because of aggression issues."
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In the case of Alu, who didn't respond to a request for comment, Rothstein cited the 1995 burn injury. But Alu, I also knew, was a bruiser of a guy, an avid weightlifter. Might he be abusing the drugs? Might the original finding have been correct?
"Just because someone reaches a conclusion doesn't mean they were right," Rothstein said. "Neither of them did anything wrong... The chief did what he believed to be the right thing."
Because Massey kept so much of the case an illicit secret, it's hard to know whether anything was right. But despite the chief's efforts to hide the case, the truth surfaced. And it came from an unlikely source — a police officer accused of abusing steroids.
Next week: The case has implications that stretch across the county.