Charles C. Thompson II is a network news veteran, both as a founding producer of ABC's "20/20" and as Mike Wallace's producer at
CBS's "60 Minutes."
An experienced print journalist, Tony Hays' recent 20-part series on narcotics trafficking received an award from the Tennessee Press Association.More ↓Less ↑
A senior FBI official said public corruption in Tennessee was “too
extensive” to successfully prosecute and that protection for the corrupt
officials in the state came from Vice President Al Gore’s office,
according to a career undercover policeman.
The stunning declaration came after a five-month investigation into
narcotics trafficking and public corruption in Warren County, Tenn. ran
into twin brick walls at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the
Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“He can’t threaten us. That’s our constitutionally protected right to talk to you if we want to,” responded one former TBI agent, Butch Morris, who is now chief of police of La Vergne, Tenn. “It just shows how desperate he’s become.”
Corruption ‘too extensive’ Meanwhile, new information from current and former TBI agents continues to flow freely. One spectacular example of alleged corruption in the bureau came from career undercover officer Michael Downie, a veteran of numerous federal, state and local operations. The case, which took place in Warren County, Tenn., in 1993-1994, is exceptional for the documentation associated with it, including audio and video and stacks of documents and correspondence.
Downie and former Warren County Sheriff Mason Black had attempted to build cases against a local drug dealer, Billy Wannyn, and a state judge, Barry Medley. But efforts to prosecute Wannyn, the son-in-law of a prominent state senator and congressional candidate, Jerry Cooper, were allegedly shut down by the local district attorney, Bill Locke, and the FBI promised and then refused to pursue corruption charges against Medley for accepting a $6,000 bribe and altering drivers license records.
Black was elected sheriff of Warren County, Tenn., in 1990. A 20-year veteran of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, Black had a reputation for being impeccably honest. And when he took over the sheriff’s department, he told other officers that something was wrong.
“When we were going out and just busting the little nickel-dime dealers, everybody was happy,” he told journalist James L. Pate. “But when we started rolling over some of these guys and working up the drug ladder, it seemed like the district attorney’s office would start to throw obstacles in our path.”
Warren County is not a place to be caught playing both sides of the fence. The area has a history of mysterious drug-related deaths. Two men — Billy Hill and James West — died soon after agreeing to serve as informants. Hill died of an apparent drug overdose, but West was killed the day after he was released from jail. West’s murder is still unsolved.
It wasn’t just drug cases that prosecutors wanted swept under the carpet. Drunk-driving charges were routinely dismissed by then-District Attorney General Bill Locke. When irate citizens attempted to form a Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter and publicly criticized Locke, he threatened the state MADD headquarters in Nashville. The MADD movement in Warren County fell by the wayside.
In 1993, Black turned to longtime undercover operative Michael Downie for help. According to official documents, Downie had just finished working in an FBI corruption probe in Cleveland, Ohio, that resulted in the conviction of 42 police officers. His true identity had been leaked, and Downie needed a place to work while matters cooled off.
“I had always wanted to live in Tennessee,” Downie told WND, “and I jumped at the chance to work with Mason Black in McMinnville.” Downie was recommended to Black by some friends who were Tennessee law officers.
Downie, paired with investigator David Wheat, immediately went to work rooting out the illegal drug traffic in Warren County.
“We did it the way you’re supposed to do it,” says Downie. “We worked our way up the ladder. We made buys and tried to nail down the distribution network.”
It didn’t take long before Downie had identified a major cocaine trafficker in the area, Billy Wannyn, son-in-law of Sen. Jerry Cooper, a powerful Democratic state legislator. Even for a seasoned undercover operative, Downie admits he was a little na?ve about what happens when you investigate a politically well-connected person in Tennessee.
“We put our package together and went to the district attorney,” said Downie. “They were all over us, telling us what a great job we did and how this was going to be a great case — until they saw the subject’s name. And then they didn’t think we’d made our case. Told us there was more work to be done.”
On Oct. 26, 1993, Downie and his partner met with FBI Special Agent Conley Carter and briefed him on their activities and the extent of drug trafficking and corruption in the area. Carter told Downie not to attempt to prosecute locally and promised assistance from the Safe Streets Task Force.
Less than a week later, Downie and Wheat met with Robert Ray Carroll, an ex-con with a story to tell. According to Carroll, he had met with General Sessions Judge Barry Medley and gave him $6,000 to reduce a pending felony theft charge to a misdemeanor. Carroll provided a written statement to that effect, signed by three witnesses. On Nov. 5, 1993, Downie and Wheat interviewed Carroll on tape.
Carroll told the lawmen he saw Medley on the 19th or 20th of October 1993 at about 2:30 in the afternoon.
“‘I’ll take the six thou[sand] … and see what I can do,’” Carroll quoted the judge as saying.
Downie and Wheat immediately forwarded copies of both the written statement and the tape to Agent Conley Carter. And that’s when strange things began to happen.
Downie discovered that someone was making inquiries about him in Ohio, calling telephone numbers connected to his previous undercover work. The individual making the calls was identifying himself as a TBI agent, Mark Gwynn, now a public relations assistant to TBI Director Larry Wallace.
“The only way they could have gotten those numbers,” says Downie, “was through phone records. And there were no subpoenas. But it didn’t take us long to learn that the TBI was capable of coercing such records out of the telephone companies with their bullying tactics.”
As time passed, the undercover operative continued to ferret out corruption and drug dealing. Downie continued to feed Special Agent Carter information as they developed it. In January 1994, he met with Carter and another FBI agent Robert Dean. Dean was given copies of transcripts and tapes outlining judicial corruption. Dean, like Carter, advised Downie not to try and prosecute the cases locally.
“We will have to proceed federally,” Downie remembers the FBI agent saying. Dean promised assistance as soon as possible.
But the inquiries into Downie’s background continued, and Sheriff Black called Robert Reeves, deputy director of the TBI on Feb. 9, 1994, requesting that he be allowed to question Gwynn. In that conversation, captured on tape, Reeves denied that any phone records from the sheriff’s office had been used to obtain the numbers.
After much hesitation, Reeves gave a rambling, somewhat incoherent explanation of what the TBI had done: “He [Gwynn] called that department and then that department gave him the name of another department and I believe uh … the one department that had he had his name on file with gave him the name of two other departments that he was supposedly connected with, and that’s how he got that information.”
Reeves refused to give Black permission to question Gwynn. The next day, Black called Reeves back again. This time, although TBI Director Larry Wallace had earlier decreed that sheriffs and their departments couldn’t be investigated without alerting the sheriff, Reeves admitted they were investigating Downie, but refused to tell Black what allegations had been made against Downie. Instead, he referred Black to District Attorney Locke, who Carroll had alleged was connected to the bribery of Judge Medley.
Despite their promises to intervene, FBI agents Carter and Dean never provided the help they promised. The TBI continued its harassment of Downie, and the Warren County grand jury produced indictments against Downie, Black and several other officers from the sheriff’s department on vaguely worded charges of official misconduct and weapons violations. Eventually, all charges were dismissed.
Not surprisingly, Downie, Black and Wheat became convinced during the spring of 1994 that something was wrong, not just at the local and state level, but at the federal level as well. The promised help from the FBI never materialized.
In late April, Downie decided to go to Washington and attempt to bring some political pressure to bear. According to Downie, he left one session with FBI and Justice Department officials particularly frustrated and went to a nearby bar. Minutes later, a senior FBI official walked in, Downie said.
“We can’t help you,” he told the undercover officer. The official explained that the corruption in Tennessee ran too deep, that it extended from the local scene through Gore’s office. And then the official turned around and walked out.
Dumbfounded, Black and Downie were determined to continue fighting. In an effort to take their case straight to the Justice Department, they hired Charles Russell Twist, an Arlington, Va., attorney who worked for Justice for a number of years. Twist began a letter-writing campaign in early June 1994.
Twist directed his first request to FBI Director Louis Freeh and Tennessee Attorney General Charles Burson, now legal counsel for Gore. Along with allegations of judicial and political corruption, Twist provided Freeh with a videotape of a drug sale “by an in-law of an important political figure in Tennessee. Another person in the video,” continued Twist, “is the son of a high-ranking police officer in Warren County.” He detailed Downie’s and Black’s attempts to gain cooperation from the local FBI office.
“Aggressive assistance was promised by the Bureau; it was not delivered,” said Twist, who also advised them of the TBI’s attempts to interfere in the investigation and requested that “the TBI not be informed of this request or of the detailing of undercover FBI agents to the state.”
Twist followed up his letter with a personal visit to the Justice Department on June 13, 1994. At that time, he met with Special Supervisory Agent John S. Bowen and reiterated the details of his earlier letter. This visit prompted a request from Andrea Simonton, then acting general counsel for the FBI, for names and phone numbers of individuals she could speak to in reference to the corruption probe. On June 22, Sheriff Black provided her with contact information for five lawmen willing to talk to federal officials.
Then, something happened. Five days later, without any attempts on Simonton’s part to contact the lawmen, Tron Brekke, chief of the Public Corruption Division, wrote Twist and advised him that “the information contained in your letter and provided during your appearance at FBI Headquarters does not provide sufficient information to predicate the initiation of a corruption investigation.” That information had included a mountain of documentation in the form of statements and video and audiotapes.
Although Downie had taped his January conversation with Carter, given the lack of cooperation exhibited by the FBI to that point, he was hesitant to turn it over to Brekke.
Twist responded to Brekke’s letter a month later, on July 27. Disputing Brekke’s claim that insufficient evidence existed, Twist noted that “evidence submitted to the FBI included video and audiotapes of the son-in-law of an elected public official, and the son of a high-ranking police officer, selling a controlled substance to an undercover officer of the Warren County Sheriff’s Department,” and “an affidavit of an individual who alleges that he bribed a judge.” And not a single attempt had yet been made by Justice to talk to anyone on the local level.
But by that time, the sheriff’s election was less than a week away, and the local grand jury, prompted by District Attorney Locke and the TBI, had issued yet more indictments. A TBI agent had shown up at Downie’s home in Ohio, questioning Downie’s wife but refusing to give a reason for the visit.
Downie’s and Black’s attempts to investigate drug trafficking and corruption had turned into an all-out war to discredit them. The drug trafficking and corruption probe disappeared under a mounting pile of subpoenas by the Warren County grand jury. Sheriff Black was defeated for reelection.
Ultimately, Circuit Judge John Rollins, of Manchester, Tenn., in a hearing that lasted all of 17 minutes, threw out all the indictments against both Downie and Black and declared the grand jury in Warren County illegal. A federal fugitive warrant, trumped up on a groundless weapons charge by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Downie was similarly dismissed in a 3-minute hearing.
Downie, still active in undercover police work in a Midwestern state, and an instructor in that state’s law enforcement academy, speaks now of the spiked investigation with bitterness and frustration barely controlled.
“I really wanted to work in Tennessee,” he says. “But I came to understand that Tennessee is an evil place and will stay that way as long as the corrupt justice system is protected by the likes of the TBI and the FBI.”