Drug Money

Narcotics task forces in Texas spend millions of dollars each year busting low-level users and dealers. Is it money well spent, or are officers just addicted to easy cash?

It's a sentiment echoed again and again, and loudly by Peggy Parker, the outspoken mother of Iletha Spencer. Parker notes that the alleged drug deals were supposed to have taken place in September 2000, or seven months before her daughter and the 31 other defendants were indicted.

"If they want to get it off the streets," asks Parker, "why don't they go after the ones who are selling it out of their homes? [Stamps] knew some of them, because he was carried to their houses. For seven months he's been doing this, and he doesn't know who the drug dealers are?"

While Stamps and the task force may not know the names of drug dealers higher up the food chain, the citizens of Brady are definitely aware of the suspects snared in the busts last spring. All the names were printed on the front page of the two weekly Brady newspapers for two weeks running. Many business owners clipped the box and posted it in their stores and shops. Spencer says everyone on the list is immediately turned away when applying for a job -- whether they were convicted or not.

Robertson County Sheriff Gerald Yezak (right) and South Central Task Force Commander Joe Davis plan to focus on rural meth labs.
Robertson County Sheriff Gerald Yezak (right) and South Central Task Force Commander Joe Davis plan to focus on rural meth labs.

Spencer has yet to come to trial, and she declines to say whether she helped Stamps acquire any drugs. But that didn't stop her from venting.

"We're not drug dealers," Spencer insists. "He didn't bust drug dealers. He busted people who went and did a favor for him and got him drugs. We weren't selling the stuff out of our houses. People knew where to get it, and they picked it up and gave it to him. But they didn't mess with the drug dealers."

The Southwest Texas Narcotics Task Force, established just last year, is messing with the Press, however. It has appealed to the Texas attorney general's office regarding the paper's Texas Open Records request for information on its arrests and seizures. Stamps, meanwhile, has moved on to the Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force in Palestine, where the Press tried to contact him, without success.

A question lingers: Why do these drug task forces remain in business despite their well-documented problems, their poor arrest records and their emphasis on low-level dealers and users? The answer is simple: Because there's money available.

Established in 1988 to honor a fallen New York City police officer, the Edward Byrne Memorial Fund, in just the past five years, has distributed approximately $2.5 billion in grants to drug task forces nationally, with $160 million of it going to Texas, where it is divvied up among the almost 50 tasks forces operating in the state. Those task forces are as addicted to the federal cash injections as the junkies are to their dope. And according to critics, they're more concerned with making as many busts as possible to keep their arrest numbers up and their funding high than they are on concentrating on time-consuming investigations that might net large-scale dealers.

The Texas Narcotics Control Program, the division of the governor's office that distributes Byrne Fund money to state task forces, has come under heat itself. In June the Austin American-Statesman reported that Robert J. "Duke" Bodisch, the head of the program, was reassigned when an audit revealed that he borrowed three cars from one of the task forces. The report also showed that for five years the TNCP had used Byrne funds to buy awards, gifts, alcoholic beverages and entertainment -- spending that appeared to fall outside the guidelines governing the use of the Byrne money. The Press contacted Bodisch about task forces in general before his reassignment, but he declined to be interviewed.

This is not the first instance of alleged abuses of task force money. In June 1998 then-governor George W. Bush's office stopped funding for the Permian Basin Drug Task Force amid allegations of falsified meal tickets, doctored quarterly reports on confiscations, and other irregularities. The task force was abolished that summer.

"Some of them are run well. Some are not run well. It's very political," says former task force officer Barbara Markham. "And it's definitely not money well spent."

With her skinny frame, sleepy eyes and cigarette voice, 41-year-old Markham comes off like a doper. It's a good look to have if you happen to be an undercover narcotics officer -- which she used to be.

Markham got her start in law enforcement in 1983. At the time, she was 23 years old, living in Frisco, north of Dallas, going to college and working for Arco Oil & Gas -- and making more money than she ever would as a police officer. But Markham found herself scrambling to find work when the oil boom went bust. So she got herself certified as a peace officer and then hired on as a reserve officer in Frisco, at that time a quiet burg of about 3,000 people. At first it seemed like there was nothing to it.

"Back then we were dealing with things like cattle in the roadway," says Markham.

Markham's cushy new job didn't last long. Shortly after she hired on, Markham's chief approached her about doing some undercover work. Thinking the assignment would be for only a couple of hours or so, Markham agreed, unaware that what the chief had in mind would turn her life upside down forever.

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