Much Ado About Cussin'
The dawn of November 3, 2000, ushered in a bad day in the decade-long tenure of Houston Police Chief Clarence O. Bradford. He hadn't even settled into his morning routine when he received the urgent phone call from his boss, Mayor Lee Brown.
Where, the furious mayor demanded to know, was the Criminal Intelligence Division officer assigned to guard his wife, Frances? Even worse for Bradford, it was the second straight day in which CID had failed to have a cop meet Mrs. Brown to follow her from Brown's west Houston home to her job at an HISD school.
It was a bad time for HPD watchdogs to oversleep. The security shield on the mayor and his family had been increased in previous weeks. An unidentified caller had phoned in a death threat that specifically mentioned the mayor's wife and cited her work location. And a prowler had been chased from the mayor's driveway and escaped.
Other developments ratcheted up the tension. A rental van had followed the mayor's daughter in her SUV -- an incident that turned out to be a false alarm. And there was the contentious campaigning on the proposed basketball arena vote, prompting the mayor's security team to draw on CID for extra officers.
Bradford, an emotional chief known for using salty language during confrontations with subordinates, followed up on the mayor's call by summoning a handful of command staff to his office. They included Executive Assistant Chief Joe Breshears, Assistant Chief Jerry Jones, Lieutenant John Silva, department attorney Craig Ferrell and CID Captain Murvel Yates.
Breshears would later refer to the stormy session while testifying in an unrelated arbitration hearing: Bradford berated the group for the security miscues and at one point called Breshears a "motherfucker."
"I didn't consider it terribly profane when he called me that," Breshears recalled, "not to say I wasn't hurt by the words. I wouldn't tell you that. But I didn't jump up and file a complaint against the chief because he said that."
The meeting ended with Bradford deciding to pull CID off the mayor's security team and use officers from other divisions. His reaction to the security lapses didn't end there. Captain Yates got a letter of reprimand. CID Lieutenant Mark Eisenman received a two-day suspension, and CID Sergeant John Olszewski was suspended for five days. Even worse, the department transferred the three out of their prestigious CID positions and left them with black marks on their career records.
It might have been nothing more than an obscure footnote for HPD, except that Yates had been represented in his arbitration hearing by attorney Bob Thomas, general counsel of the Houston Police Officers Union. He quietly stored away Breshears's unrecorded testimony about Bradford's cursing.
As bad as the morning of November 3 was for Bradford, it triggered a chain of events that would be far worse for the chief. The information that Thomas saved would explode into a perjury indictment against Bradford, who is now relieved of duty pending trial.
Parallel worlds of police profanity came together for Thomas nine months later, when controversial HPD Captain Mark Aguirre became his client. An officer who knows Aguirre and Bradford says that both employ expletives regularly, but for vastly different effect.
Aguirre, who ran the South Central Command until his recent suspension for the botched Kmart trespassing arrests, swears in a calculated way to draw reactions from subordinates. The officer who knows the two men says Bradford uses profanity more emotionally, often simply to vent his frequent frustrations. It's not unusual for department visitors to hear Bradford's shouts coming through the walls of his office.
In August 2001, Aguirre angrily called a meeting to tongue-lash his supervisory staff for what he believed were lax work habits of his patrol officers (see "HPD Blue" and "Curses, Foiled Again!" by George Flynn, May 30 and July 18; and "The War Within," by Richard Connelly, June 27).
Terms like "lazy bastard," "son of a bitch" and "goddammit" were spliced with general threats that he would "chop their heads off at the ankles" (some say he said "anuses") if things didn't improve. Several members of his command staff, including an officer who secretly taped most of the meeting, eventually filed formal complaints accusing their captain of unprofessional behavior, including intimidation, threats and profanity.
Aguirre's proposed punishment of up to five days' suspension was reduced to a written reprimand by Bradford. Thomas, representing Aguirre prior to a March hearing to appeal the discipline, made it clear that one defense would be that his actions were no more extreme or threatening than those of his bosses. By calling Bradford as a witness, Thomas sent a clear message that the chief's use of profanity would be an issue.
After the initial hearing, attorney Terry Yates took over from Thomas because of conflicts -- as the union's counsel, he would have been in a position of representing officers who filed complaints against Aguirre, as well as Aguirre himself against the department.
Thomas then resigned his post under pressure, a departure some union members believe was orchestrated by Bradford. With attorney Yates in charge at the second hearing, Bradford gave his now-celebrated response to the question of whether he'd ever called a subordinate a "motherfucker." The chief said initially he didn't recall it, then graduated to "I categorically deny having done that."
Breshears followed with the testimony about the chief calling him a "motherfucker" or "stupid motherfucker" during a staff meeting -- the one that turns out to have been the November 3 confrontation over security miscues.
Aguirre used the contradiction in testimony to file a perjury complaint with the district attorney's office. Prosecutor Don Smyth presented the case to a grand jury, which returned a felony perjury indictment.
There seems little doubt that the chief uttered the obscenity in question. What no one can explain is why he didn't admit it outright, since he did own up to using profanity in nonwork situations.
Defense attorney Rusty Hardin, a member of Bradford's team, says the chief was thrown off by the reference to Breshears, a close associate.
"You can see it in Bradford's words," says Hardin. "The question comes out of the blue, he hasn't thought of it, doesn't know it, doesn't recall. Then, the more he thinks about it, it's 'Why would I do that? I like Breshears, I trust him, he's a friend.' So then Bradford says no."
According to Hardin, Bradford took the indictment threat so lightly he didn't even bother to consult a lawyer before he went before the grand jury. Hardin indicated that the chief likely will not challenge Breshears's recollection of the incident.
"He's convinced that Breshears truly believes that he said it, but that Breshears is not making an overt attempt to get him," Hardin says.
Attorney Yates says he questioned the chief while being unclear on exactly when Bradford had cussed, but he believes the chief had early warning that the question was coming.
"Bob Thomas and myself both tried to make this reprimand of Aguirre go away without ever having the hearing," says Yates. "I'd heard several people had talked to Bradford about the fact this was going to be brought up. It was the reason he was subpoenaed. He knew the question was going to be asked, so I was shocked at his answer."
Yates says that after Bradford's denial at the hearing, Assistant City Attorney Marcus Dobbs called for a recess and begged Yates not to go forward and call Breshears.
"They knew that Breshears was going to have to contradict Bradford," recalls Yates. "I said, 'You can stop this whole thing by dropping the reprimand.' They refused to do it."
While Hardin contends Bradford was merely confused in his answer, Yates figures a less savory character trait was to blame.
"I think that a lot of what has happened to the chief has taken place because of his arrogance."
An HPD veteran says the general mood in the department is one of amazement on how the fates of Aguirre and Bradford have suddenly converged.
"Everybody knew that Aguirre was going to flame out eventually," chuckles the source, "but no one knew he'd take the police chief with him."
If Chief Bradford swore and intentionally denied it later, perhaps his last line of defense is that the crime of lying about cussing is so trivial that any prosecution would be a waste of public dollars.
Hardin, a former assistant district attorney, points out that perjury complaints to prosecutors are common but rarely acted upon. Hardin notes that in his nationally publicized cross-examination of bimbo-widow Anna Nicole Smith, the lies could have filled a book.
He points out that the judge even referred Smith's alleged perjury to the D.A.'s office, but "we've yet to ever hear a word about it."
Assistant D.A. Smyth sees the chief's credibility as symbolic of every officer who testifies in a criminal case.
"He is the chief of police, and the only thing we've got going for us in a lot of criminal trials is the integrity of the police officers and their investigation. So it's important that the public have confidence in their police officers and the work they do and the testimony they give when they take the stand and testify under oath."
Officers, even police chiefs, have a duty to be honest "to assure the public that the law enforcement community is acting properly," says Smyth's boss, District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. "I guess you could fall back to Bill Clinton days and say, 'Well, if it's about sex or it's about my private life, then it's free from scrutiny.' I don't know that I believe that, and I think that the proof will show [Bradford's testimony] was not a slip of the tongue."
Rosenthal says there is no grudge or other ulterior motive involved in prosecuting the case -- just a grand jury's decision based on "what the facts proved."
"I can tell you that I was somewhat disappointed, because [the chief and I] have always been on good terms," he says. "Every time we've interacted I thought we had gotten on real well together. So there's certainly no contentiousness between the chief and this office that I'm aware of."
Rosenthal's predecessor, Johnny Holmes, was well known around the courthouse for his prodigious profanity in private conversation and occasional media interviews.
"I do use language occasionally that is probably shocking and offensive to some," notes Holmes. "However, that is my problem and it is not worth lying about." More to the point, argues the retired D.A., is that "we must insist on witnesses testifying truthfully, or suffer the consequences for not doing so. Our whole system depends on it."
On the other hand, Rusty Hardin frames the issue this way: "This whole thing is over whether Bradford [remembers] calling somebody a motherfucker a year and a half before he was asked. That's crazy. I wouldn't want to be held to that."
Any volunteers for the jury that will decide whether that's a crime?
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