The Freedom Fighter?

James "Smokie" Phillips is running for constable -- and running from his past

The constable's chief job is to deliver paperwork for the courts, but the race has attracted a slew of sheriff's deputies, retired cops and would-be politicians. Three are women. All are black, even the Republican. All promise far more than reliable warrant delivery: programs for the elderly, extra neighborhood patrols, ideas to keep kids off drugs.

The race seems wide open. The guy elected last time, Perry Wooten, was thrown out after being convicted of theft. Prosecutors said he paid employees for overtime they didn't work, then demanded the money back for his personal coffers. Wooten, a mound of a man who seldom cracks a smile, is appealing the verdict, which allows him to run again. Naturally, he is. Adding to the mix, his replacement, Michael Butler, now has the power of incumbency.

But when Butler failed to show for a recent debate at the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center, an audience member recited a list of disciplinary write-ups and infractions, purportedly from Butler's personnel file. "We did a thorough research on Mr. Butler," Robert Amboree told the cheering crowd. "If we find something worth knowing, we want you to know, too."

Phillips, his lawyer says, was the government's 
"biggest pelt."
Daniel Kramer
Phillips, his lawyer says, was the government's "biggest pelt."

Amboree leads the Afro-American Sheriff Deputies League, which is officially supporting both Phillips, the league's vice president, and retired HPD officer Reuben Anderson. Amboree says he got interested in Butler because he was annoyed by the idea of a "black man testifying against another black man" -- a jab at Butler's testimony in Wooten's criminal trial, although Butler was a minor witness at best. "I don't believe Precinct 7 needs four more years of controversy," Amboree says.

But Phillips, Amboree admits, could well prove controversial. "People may not support him like he thinks they will, because of his past," Amboree concedes. "People don't know if he's guilty or innocent. They think, 'Okay, even if he's not guilty, there's something there.' That idea of when there's smoke, there's fire. And I hate that, because he's a very good person, and I think he would make a good constable."

Phillips says those assumptions about him are one of the reasons he sought to have his record expunged before running for office. But Judge Atlas denied that request last November.

Ironically, it's the court file Phillips wanted to destroy that provides the most potent witness to his innocence. Sitting in his campaign office off the Southwest Freeway, he leafs through a 12-inch pile of documents, periodically brandishing one or another. Here's a false affidavit; here are the hospital records proving his motorcycle accident. "Everywhere I go, I have to explain this," he says. "I shouldn't have to do that. And I can't walk around with a big stack of records and say, 'Read this!'

"When they do," he adds, "they're shocked. 'How could they lie like this? How did you live through this?' But I can't get everyone to read it."

Attorney DeGuerin offers two reasons why the FBI would choose to target Phillips: They wanted a cop, and Phillips happened to be in the wrong place.

In requesting a wiretap of Cornett's business in 1995, FBI agents vented their frustration. Surveillance of Cornett's shop, they said, "has proven to be very difficult." They suspected officers were being used "to protect and support" Cornett's business. But the wiretap never turned up any proof of that.

Indeed, when the indictments were issued in 1996, Phillips's arrest was given prominent play in the Houston Chronicle's report. The story cited "sources" saying that more arrests were on the way and "may include additional law enforcement officers."

That never happened. Says DeGuerin, "They really wanted to get a police officer, and Smokie was it."

Raul Sauzo, who handled Phillips's civil claim and attempt to get his records expunged, agrees. "You're in the twilight zone," he says. "You can't figure out how these things could happen."

But Phillips shrugs off questions of whether he should have better distanced himself from the drug dealer. He admitted in his first interview with federal agents, in 1996, that he'd heard rumors about Cornett, "but he did not make it his business to check it out," according to court files. There were other connections: Cornett and Phillips dated the same woman. At one point, Phillips bought jewelry from Cornett. Then there was his job at the Benz Club.

"We were friends, but we wasn't tight-tight," Phillips explains today. "I never been to the man's house; he never been to my house. The government tried to act like we were buddy-buddy, which wasn't true." He offers no apologies for what he says was a "business association." Nor does he mention that he had to file an amended tax return during the trial -- as prosecutors noted, he'd failed to claim almost $50,000 in income from part-time jobs on his returns.

Shaped by his own experience, Phillips's campaign is less tough on crime than tough on injustice. Portraits of Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X hang proudly from the walls of his headquarters; in his official statement he spends more time detailing "disparity in the criminal justice system" and listing martyred black leaders than outlining his plans as a constable.

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