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The Freedom Fighter?

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

Everyone at the constable's debate is talking about drugs. How to rid Precinct 7 of drugs. How to tear down drug houses. How to keep the kids off drugs. Nobody is talking about the fact that one of the candidates on stage has been convicted of participating in a major coke ring.

James "Smokie" Phillips doesn't volunteer the information, even when he's asked what he would do about the neighborhood's drug problems. No one asks, either.

Instead, he gives a standard stump speech. If elected constable, Phillips vows to step up patrols by attracting new cadets to work without pay. He talks fast, but his allotted minute is up before he's done. "I was just getting started," Phillips says, laughing.

A youthful 42, Phillips has a hard time looking serious, even in his dark suit and glasses. He smiles more than the forum's other six candidates combined, no easy feat in a roster of aspiring politicians.

But while Phillips doesn't make reference to his drug conviction at events, he's more than willing to talk about it. He likes to call himself a "freedom fighter." It's clear that his biggest fight was for his own freedom: from jail and from a damaged reputation. Only on the first count was he entirely successful.

Phillips had been a sheriff's deputy for six years when he was charged in 1996 with being part of a drug conspiracy (see Tales from the IRS," by Steve McVicker, April 16, 1998). Phillips, the feds said, had protected drug kingpin Wendell Cornett in exchange for cash. A federal agent who'd staked out Cornett's house claimed that Phillips had pulled over his car. Investigators recorded Cornett bragging that if he needed to check out a license plate, Phillips would do it. Witnesses said Phillips was handed envelopes of Cornett's cash; the feds said that Phillips used it to buy a Mercedes-Benz.

But the case began to collapse at trial. Like many deputies, Phillips had frequented Cornett's auto detailing shop. He also made extra cash working the door at the Benz Club, a nightclub Cornett had an interest in. The two men were friendly, but under the relentless questioning of Phillips's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, the prosecutors had a hard time proving a relationship beyond that.

The evidence, in fact, showed that Phillips had bought the new car by trading in an old one. And he'd never pulled over the FBI agent's car -- at least, the agent couldn't identify Phillips and never recorded any such traffic stop in his surveillance logs.

The license plate checks? There was no evidence Phillips ever conducted them.

Those witnesses? All had been offered deals in exchange for their testimony.

Indeed, the star witness, who claimed he'd palmed Phillips $20,000, described Phillips as wearing a brown constable's uniform. Phillips had previously worked as a constable, but at the time in question he was a sheriff's deputy, wearing blue. And the witness had no memory of Phillips wearing a cast, even though he was wearing one as a result of a motorcycle accident.

"Their whole theory of Smokie's guilt was guilt by association," says attorney DeGuerin. "But he didn't do anything wrong. The only thing he did was get too close to Cornett."

Phillips was tried along with Cornett and a bevy of his associates. In closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Dies spent 75 percent of his time on Phillips, DeGuerin says. "That was his weakest case and his biggest pelt."

After three days of deadlock, the jury decided Phillips was guilty.

But U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas disagreed. In an extremely rare decision, she threw out Phillips's conviction. Keeping the guilty verdict, she wrote, would create "a manifest injustice." There was, she added, "little or no credible evidence" that Phillips had been a voluntary part of any drug ring.

The U.S. attorney's office, perhaps realizing how many holes DeGuerin had punched in the case, decided against a retrial. (A spokeswoman for the office said the trial record should speak for itself.)

With Atlas's decision, Phillips was no longer a felon. He was, however, out of a job. The sheriff's department had fired him almost as soon as he was arrested.

He managed to get work as a constable, first in Precinct 7, then in Precinct 6, where he still works. He continued to try to get back to the sheriff's department and real police work. The black officer filed a lawsuit against Harris County, claiming he'd been fired before the conviction, while white defendants in similar cases were allowed to stay on the job. He got a cash settlement, but not reinstatement at his job. (Through a spokesman, Harris County Attorney Mike Stafford declined comment.)

Phillips applied to the Houston Police Department and squads for the North Forest school district and Texas Southern University, but there were always the questions: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Well, yes, but it was complicated…

 

No one would hire him. So he decided to run for office.


Fifteen Democrats are running for Precinct 7 constable in the March 9 primary. The winner faces a Republican in the fall, but the precinct -- a pie-shaped wedge from the edge of downtown south to the county line -- is largely black and far from wealthy. Republicans do not do well here.

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."

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.

Thanks to Phillips's prosecution, he sees himself as part of a bigger tradition. "Dr. King was jailed. Jesse Jackson was jailed. Nelson Mandela was jailed," he says. "Maybe that's an important step on the road to fight for equality, justice and fairness."

It wasn't the way he'd planned it. He'd always been a good kid; in his only year of college, he played in the marching band. He got into law enforcement because he liked people, not because he had plans to shake up the system.

"I would rather have just kept my job, stayed at the sheriff's office, continued to help people, and not have to fight for justice," he says. During his fight for his freedom, his plan changed.

Of course, none of that may matter in Precinct 7. People who attend candidates' debates may want to know about drug houses, but in a field of 15 candidates, voters may just look for a familiar name. "It's really a race of popularity," Phillips explains, offering a big toothy grin. "How many friends you have who have friends." When it comes to the polls, that court record may not matter at all.


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