Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Exit interview with FBi scourge of STL corruption

This afternoon John Gillies stopped by the office of The St. Louis American. This is one-half, maybe one-third, of the interview. The most recent Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in St. Louis, Gillies is now off to lead the field office in Miami. This interview will be reported in Thursday's St. Louis American; but, after six hours of transcribing an interview at home, I am looking for some instant gratification now.

The St. Louis American: We are very sorry you are leaving. We have been covering off-the-record things about political corruption for a long time that everyone is now reading about in the daily newspaper. So this is a promotion for you?

John Gillies: Miami is a bigger office. St. Louis is 41st out of 56 cities in terms of size, while Miami is 5th. So, from that standpoint, the title is the same, the pay is the same, I just get more responsibilities. [Laughs.] But it’s all good.

The American: Many of us are afraid your leaving means we will see less investigation into public corruption. Convince us we are worrying needlessly about that.

Gillies: It’s my hope that what got put in place remains in place. I’ve got the dedicated squad investigating public corruption. Certainly what we’ve got ongoing, none of that will come to an end. The agents and their supervisor are dedicated to continuing on the progress that we’ve made in uncovering the corruption that’s ongoing here in the eastern district of Missouri.

The American: Recently, we are pleased you have successfully investigated charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice in the investigation of electoral fraud, petty bribery –

Gillies: Define “petty.”

The American: It seemed like a small amount of money. [T.D. El-Amin pled guilty to agreeing to accept $2,100 in bribes].

Gillies: There is no small amount of money when it comes to corruption. It irritates me every time I hear that “they only took $500.” That’s $500 way too much money, as far as I’m concerned. When I had this case out in San Diego and they were bribing judges, it was "only $100,000." I don’t know, what is that magic number? If they take millions, that’s okay, because it makes sense to everybody? When they take dollar one … And one of the judges did admit that on the witness stand: “When I took the first dollar, I knew what I was doing was wrong.” And I agree, that’s exactly what every one of these people know, when they take that first dollar, that what they are doing is wrong.

The American: I’m not insulting your case or the value of doing it.

Gillies: But I think it’s rightly stated that, “really, you think this is the first time? When people do it?” No, they get caught.

The American: Shall I say, rather than “petty,” “routine” bribery?

Gillies: You can see I get fired up when it comes to corruption.

The American: That’s why I wanted to talk to you. I’m just as fired up. I’m sorry to see you go.

Gillies: That’s why I get irritated when people say, “It’s only $500.” $500? That’s still a lot of money. It’s still irritating that a public official would take any amount of money. They should be doing their job, what the public elected them to do. What we’re doing, we’re catching them now. To those out there who think business as usual is going to continue when I leave, I am here to tell that it’s not. That way of doing business is over. If they want to dabble in it, we’re going to catch them in it. I’m very appreciative of the public that has come forward with information. I think from our actions they are seeing that we are responding to their concerns out there. To the politicians feeling some self-imposed paranoia, I say to them, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, there shouldn’t be any paranoia. And if you are paranoid, I’m coming after you.”

The American: So, let me start over without pushing your buttons. I agree with you more than you could ever imagine. So, we have seen convictions for conspiracy to obstruct justice relating to campaign fraud, and bribery. But the other thing we hear about off the record but that we can’t substantiate is threats. In St. Louis politics, they say it’s bribes on the North Side – you caught one of those – and threats on the South Side. [Gillies takes a note at this point.] We hear a lot about people being threatened to vote a certain way or being threatened to behave a certain way. You can’t comment upon specific ongoing investigations, as I know, but generally, have you guys gotten any promising leads on investigating the threat culture in St. Louis city politics?

Gillies: I’d like to hear how you would define the “threat” aspect of it.

The American: I can give you an example. We were told that an elected official called a committeeperson who is married to someone with a job in the same political jurisdiction as the elected official ...

Gillies: I’m not going to comment on this.

The American: So you’re aware of what I was going to tell you?

Gillies: I’m not going to comment on that one way or the other.

The American: My problem as a journalist is we are told things off the record, and if they are the kind of people who would speak on the record, they wouldn’t be the kind of people who would cave under a threat.

Gillies: Correct.

The American: So are there ongoing investigations into the threat culture in St. Louis politics?

Gillies: All I can tell you is we have a number of investigations that continue in the public corruption arena.

The American: The State audit of City government has made for some good journalism. Some of those audits must have led to investigations. I’m amazed that the state auditor just had two laptops stolen from her car while attending an event in a city she has been auditing, and she left the laptops open to view in her car. Is there an impulse to investigate that? It seems like shocker.

Gillies: [Long pause.] It’s in jurisdiction of the local police department.

The American: Of course, the same auditor is also auditing the local police department. I called the state auditor communications person, who is wonderful, and she said their office received comments from the police department after the laptops were stolen. But white shirts respond to the State audit; the guys on the streets, the blue shirts, they’re going to read about the audit when it gets printed. So I think there would be a motive on the part of the working cop to know what was coming in the State audit.

Gillies: I’m going to tell you that the number of corrupt officers is not that big. I think we’ve done a hell of a job disrupting and dismantling the groups of corrupt police officers that are out there. I’m not going to tell you that we’re done, but I’ll tell you that the number of corrupt officers is in the minority. I’m appreciative of Chief Isom’s leadership at the police department, I’m appreciative of some of the changes that he’s conducted. I don’t think he would object to me sharing the fact that they speak about corruption and ethics to the recruit classes now. I think that’s huge. The FBI started Project Integrity when I was in the Detroit field office. We had corrupt police officers there, and we taped them making their personal comments about how they went wrong and the effects it has on them and their family while they are sitting in jail for the next 20 or 30 years. I think it’s very moving if you are a recruit to see cops telling you about the stresses that they have, the temptations that they have, and the endgame being that “we succumbed to those temptations and now we are in jail for the next 20 to 30 years.” They go on and tell you that “we’re local officers, we do this, we feel like we are big shots – till the feds come around. Then it’s a whole new ballgame.” We show that tape to the recruits. I get moved every time I see it. I think it’s very powerful hearing from corrupt cops about how they went bad. We’ve used it in other police departments across the country, and I’m glad Chief Isom is letting us talk to the recruit classes here. I think if you want to weed that mentality out, you talk about ethics. When I talk to them, I talk about, “You are letting your family down. Your family is proud of you, you’re a police officer, you’re giving back to your community, you’re protecting us – then you’re selling. You sell it all for what?”

The American: This “scared straight on corruption” aspect. I think you can help us here. We have some people waiting for their federal sentencing, and we have some people who think their number may be coming up in one of these press releases from the U.S. Attorney’s Office I look forward to every day I go to work, because we have been reporting on these kinds of things for a long time and we are finally seeing confirmation. We were called "divisive," "alarmists," "liars," all this stuff. We are aware, and you are probably aware, that right now there are a lot of conversations being had about “getting on the same page, let’s not be a hero, we’re all a team, you’re not going to go away for that long, and if you cut a deal, you’re not going to go away for that much less long, and these fines are not that much money, and when you get out of prison you are going to have friends who will take care of whatever your financial problems are.” There is a lot of pressure coming from powerful people on less powerful people who have got caught in the dragnet, and they are telling them that “now is not the time to be a hero.” To someone who is right now being told, “Do your time, do your bid, the amount of money is nothing to” – look at the amount of campaign contributions some of these people amass! They can find money. So, what would you say? And you are going to have chance to tell some of these people this, or your colleagues in the U.S. Attorney’s office will.

Gillies: These individuals are standing up and saying that they are doing the right thing. They are doing partially the right thing, in that they are admitting their own wrongdoing, but they know that others are involved in wrongdoing. They have witnessed it, they have been a part of it. And if you are going to quote God and religion and everything else. I think part of doing the right thing would be doing the entire right thing. And the entire right thing would be to share with law enforcement all the corruption that is out there. However, I will tell you that, with or without people’s cooperation, we will continue to pursue these matters, so those who think that by some people pleasing guilty and not cooperating (and I won’t tell you who is or who isn’t), that if they don’t cooperate they will be taken care of, etc. – that’s not going to stop us. We’re going to continue to pursue, if the public continues to come forward, and I’m hoping to convince the public that we do take these charges seriously. We have a responsibility, and through our milestones in weeding out the corruption here it makes our job tougher. People go more underground, but that’s all right. The good thing is, they don’t know who is or who isn’t cooperating with us. When they see the FBI, they see me. They don’t know we are a very diverse group. We look like anybody out there. So that’s good.

The American: I’m reporting on a city with a Democratic mayor, Democratic state auditor, Democratic attorney general, Democratic governor, and now a Democratic president, and this firebrand director of the FBI is going off to Miami where you are never going to run out of opportunities to investigate the stories that motivate you. And so people say, "That just goes to show they got the call, they pulled this guy off the job. Simmer down, it’s going to be okay.”

Gillies: That’s bull. This is a great opportunity for me to go to Miami. I go from the 41st sized office to the 5th. And offices 1, 2 and 3 are led by assistant directors, with 4 being Chicago and 5 being Miami. So that puts me in the elite leadership of the FBI in running a huge field office. I could already retire. So I’m looking for my next challenge. This is my next challenge. One of the negative things about leaving is I don’t get to see these cases brought to fruition that I know are out there. But like I said, I got a dedicated team led by a dedicated supervisor. Obviously, I have a boatload of experience in corruption I’ve mentored and passed that on. If you look for corruption, you will find it.

1 comment:

Greg Schultz said...

Wow, when I lived in St. Louis, I didn't think it was sophisticated enough to have corruption. In reality, I was the naive one.