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Phil Burton has his reasons. He has his reasons for uncorking the attic stairs, goading me up those steps the size of baby feet, into that slanting slope of musty heaven, to stumble around in the dark. He has his reasons for hemming me into this room, still dark, with no place for fear of heights. He has his reasons for lunging into a crevice to pick up a light bulb attached to an electric cord, flicking it on, and waving the bare bulb over his stash—the rows and rows of boxes.
Burton has his reasons for showing me this little cardboard refuge. A 22-year veteran investigator with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), three years into cozy retirement, Burton has parked much of his career here. These 30 boxes brim with old case folders, notes, and sentencing reports. Endings. All in various hues of beiged bureaucracy. All that he has left of the job—paper.
Years ago, Burton reasoned that these boxes had a purpose: to bolster his bad memory, to guide him toward self-improvement, and maybe to help someone solve a murder case some day. Now, these moments wrapped in Manila just prove that he existed. Was a cop. A damn good cop. They’re up in the attic, if you want to fact-check his life.
Burton, 54, has his reasons for waving the bulb in a quick, nervous ceremony, accompanied by a sense of embarrassment. When I point to the awards and plaques crammed into one box, he goes gruff.
“Those don’t mean anything,” Burton says. He has his reasons for thinking awards to be horseshit.
And Burton has his reasons for cutting the attic tour short. There are more boxes, more rooms. Rooms full of Phil. Phil Burton is an avid collector of Phil. He has copies of 5,000 prosecution reports; more than 100 video and audio tapes; more than 50 pocket notebooks; 70 work journals (college-ruled); 30 computer discs; 16 photo books; six file cabinets full of papers, reports, and outlines; and four complete depositions. He has tapes of conversations with his old bosses, too. He has his reasons why he keeps those in a fireproof safe.
These are all pieces of Phil. There is Vintage Phil. Shaggy Phil. Cool Phil. Bad Phil. Trim Phil. Narc Phil. Infamous Phil. Jesus-Loving Phil. The many shades of Phil.
On to the basement and another file cabinet. An old one, that used to belong to a Frank Zappa staffer—the magnet stuck to the side says so. That’s where some of the tapes are—Maxell, Sony, Supertape. Marked with dates and case numbers.
The guest bedroom. It’s no longer a bedroom; Burton has taken it over. His sister-in-law and her dog must kiss their vacation digs goodbye, because now it’s just a bed blanketed with Phil ephemera. This is where he keeps the work journals, the journals he kept since cadet class. He has given me these journals. “That’s a lot of homework,” he said, joking, a little in awe of their weight, their pages. Small handwriting, mostly in outline form—there’s so much stress that went with the job.
A sample from Sept. 17, 1996: “Management is not your friend. Be prepared to move back on the street at any moment. No joking in that office—serious at all times, especially with management.”
And then back to the first floor for my initiation into the world of Video Phil. The moment Burton pops in an old Phil tape, presses Play on Phil’s Quasar VCR, and I get to watch Phil in Phil Time on Phil’s 19-inch RCA television set. The reason, finally, why I’m here.
It’s June 25, 1996, all over again. The tape says it’s Tuesday, 10:03 a.m. Burton’s voice is deep, relaxed, and determined. All business. It’s bright and sunny, and he looks downright youthful. He pulls over his silver Toyota Tercel near a crew of workers for the city’s Water and Sewer Authority (WASA, then a division of the Department of Public Works), who are working over a trench. He gets out and walks over to the crew. After Burton inquires about a private job he needs done, a worker refers him to Keith Thames, the crew chief. Thames happens to be dozing in the front seat of his government-issue truck .
Burton tells Thames he needs to upgrade the lead pipes in a house he manages—a ruse. “I was trying to avoid going through, uh, the bureaucracy,” he says.
Eventually, Thames will bite. “OK, normally what I do, I get half up front, and when we finish, uh, get the rest,” Thames will say a few days later.
This was to be Burton’s last investigation. Then working in the MPD’s Internal Affairs Division (IAD) as a sergeant, he had received a tip that city plumbers were taking bribes in exchange for performing private side jobs during their regular work hours. Over the course of almost a decade, crews had been bilking the city out of an estimated $1 million a year in lost revenue, stolen equipment, torn-up streets, and overtime abuses. The abuses he filmed would eventually link employees of three city agencies—WASA, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), and the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA)—in these bribe jobs.
Burton’s face freezes as he watches the TV. His jaw line tightens around his mostly white beard, trimmed perfectly. His eyes, trapped behind wire-frames, are dark as olives and set into a pool of wrinkles, lines, zigs and zags.
There were moments when he had no worries, when the investigation clicked. Tape recorders worked. Videotapes didn’t jam. And the bad guys said bad things on tape. By the end of January 1997, Burton had hours and hours of tapes—and roughly 30 city employees in his net. Those old drug cases he helped mastermind—they were haikus compared to this thing. This would be his Moby Dick. He would show everyone that the MPD could handle a righteous big case without having to stand on the shoulders of the Feds.
But if it was easy to bribe city employees, it was hard to persuade his MPD supervisors and prosecutors of the importance of the case. Oddly enough, the white shirts and suits downtown—still obsessed with catching Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. in some wrongdoing—believed it was just a bunch of guys shoveling dirt. In his efforts to get the case prosecuted, Burton would end up getting drummed out of a job, blabbing to the Washington Post, and suing his department and old supervisors for wrongful discharge—all in the hope that someone would care enough to throw the book at a bunch of rogue plumbers.
Burton has his reasons for keeping up his paper vigil. For keeping those boxes of documents, videotapes, and audiotapes where supervisors and U.S. Attorney’s Office bigwigs say stupid things.
Burton has his reasons for being angry. By the end of 1999, only 11 out of some 30 city workers he believed were guilty had been prosecuted. Although it was the biggest investigation in the IAD’s recent history, Burton insists that it’s only partially complete. There are still unpunished crimes, he knows. They are documented on his tapes.
Burton has his reasons for keeping this case going. No matter that he’s a civilian now, a church officer and a grandfather. No matter that he plans on becoming a history teacher. No matter that he’s “genuinely content.” It’s just that…he’ll throw his collection of Phildom away when someone at last listens—and arrests those suckers. It’s just that…there’s only one year left on the statute of limitations.
The fact that time is running out for the case is urgent only to Burton. His persistence elicits nothing more than a roll of the eyes from the folks at the U.S. Attorney’s Office—and worry from his friends, who wonder why he still seems so invested in the events of 1996. His case isn’t sexy; it doesn’t have the cinematic allure of murders or drug runners. But this was his city’s big corruption case, and, by his reckoning, a lot of people screwed it up.
He never got to close it out and come away feeling as if he had made any difference at all. It was two years of his life, and all he got was walking papers. Ex-cops talk about isolation, drinking problems, bad hearts—but mostly they talk about the cases they never finished. Those are the ones that give them nightmares. Although this case did have an official, well-publicized courtroom ending, and although Burton knows who committed the crimes, he still couldn’t get closure.
So Burton continues to wrestle with the case, only now as an unofficial paralegal for his own civil crusade. He lobbies reporters, and some of them take his calls. So he keeps those tapes, too.
“I’m not crazy,” Burton says of his campaign. “Something will happen from this. Somebody’s got to keep a record.”
I have to get organized. I’m on a treadmill now, getting nowhere with the best intentions in the world.
—Burton, writing in his journal, Aug. 1, 1972
To know a cop deeply, to be able to judge him beyond the superficialities of awards and rank, you must figure out what he worries over. By the nature of their jobs, cops are complainers—about their supervisors, the stresses on their bodies, the perps they have to lock up, the bad hours, bad food, bad pay. But it’s their anxieties, what they truly focus on, that allow for a true assessment of who they really are.
Burton fretted over the anatomy of the job, not the politics of it. One day he assessed his weaknesses and concluded that he had a boatload.
The list of things Burton dwelt on was endless. He couldn’t work anything mechanical. He sometimes forgot things, such as correct dates. He knew, deep down, that he was no cowboy in the streets—he didn’t have the physique, the broad shoulders and lineman’s gut, or the reckless attitude that went with the role. Nevertheless, he always just wanted to be a street cop.
These self-identified faults always manifested themselves in tremendous on-the-job guilt. Burton used his work journals to vent all his fears, anxieties, and difficulties. In these notebooks, he would flagellate himself over the littlest things. Every T had to be crossed, every I had to be dotted, or else a tide of inner repulsion swept through his head. He hid the indignities of bladder pain, chest pain, nightmares, and a pair of numbing legs. He felt bad if he took a lunch break or, as once happened when he was off-duty, he didn’t arrest the Cadillac-driving dude he spotted stealing newspapers out of a street box.
Burton’s moral compass never wavered. He learned lessons of respect and service from his professor father and scientist mother. After enlisting in the Marines, he graduated from Stanford University in 1968 with a degree in political science and was quickly shipped off to Vietnam as a rifle platoon commander. He saw enough combat that he made a pact with himself during his one-year tour: Never think about the future.
When he came back alive, he wanted to try big-city policing. The only city hiring in the wake of the riots that swept the country after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was D.C. While waiting for his acceptance, he ran the Boston Marathon. Just because, he says, it would ease his “transition back into the world.”
After graduating from the police academy with a 94.17 grade-point average, Burton took a patrol assignment in the then-notorious 3rd District, making $8,500 per year. In pictures from that time, he poses tough, handsome, and happy. But always serious. Even in snapshots, he didn’t goof off.
On Tuesday, Aug. 29, 1972, two years back from Vietnam, Burton wrote this after his shift on a foot beat:
17 parkers. Two spotchecks. 5 business checks. For the Scandal Sheet, that’s all I did. But that tells nothing about what I really did. I stopped 25 minutes for dinner—5 minutes for coffee—in a ten hour tour. I never hid. I checked alley after alley—returned to 17th and Q—the worst areas. I treated people with respect….I didn’t turn my back on the black man propositioning the whore at 14 and Q.
Will I ever find happiness or contentment? Maybe never. O.K. assume you won’t, accept it and choose the best way to respond. How can I?
2. Surrender short of suicide. Drink. Drugs. Self-pity. Apathy. T.V. inaction.
3. Act positively, even if I don’t get that most beautiful of rewards, inner peace. At work be serious, think arrest, and never make the same mistake twice. At home, spend an hour keeping your body hard and tough. Improve your mind, your creative talents to their maximum. And treat your friends with the gentleness, love and concern that will give them happiness, even if you aren’t so fortunate.
Burton never considered Option 1 or 2. He stayed with the job through the drinking-in-publics, the traffic stops, the warrant issues, the disorderly conducts with hatchets, the family disputes, the robbery reports, the fights, and the men with guns. And he just got better.
In the mid-’70s, he received all “Excellent” marks on his evaluations, police records show. “Officer Burton is an excellent officer. He accepts responsibilities readily and is conscientious about his work. He is well liked by his officials and fellow officers. He is quick to lend assistance when ever needed,” wrote Lt. Charles Mussomele on Jan. 22, 1975.
The accolades didn’t mean much. Instead of coasting, Burton left the department in 1975 to obtain a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford. He returned in 1979 and rejected a promotion to sergeant in 1980. That would have meant taking a desk job. Desks were not his thing. (He finally accepted the job in 1994, when he felt ready to pass on his knowledge to younger officers.)
In the ’80s, Officer Burton worked in the 3rd District, mainly undercover, buying dope. One officer jokes that Burton was the only white cop in the city who could buy heroin. But he did more than just buy drugs. He made cases—great cases. His drug enforcement unit was one of the first in the city to use cameras to film drug transactions. His unit bought its own equipment, first an Olympus OM-10 SLR and then a Sony WatchCam. He was never behind the cameras much; he was usually out there making the buys himself.
“That guy had balls the size of elephants,” offers one current police official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“He’s just a consummate professional, very sincere,” says T.J. Monahan, a retired MPD sergeant who worked with Burton in the 3rd District. “He’s on a mission. Whatever his mission was, he devoted 110 percent, whether it’s a lost bicycle report or narcotics. Very methodical.”
“He was an excellent officer in narcotics work, both in terms of undercover work and in the way he put cases together,” says Steve Roman, the former chief of the Narcotics Section at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “He wasn’t looking for tricks. He was looking for a solid case.”
By the mid-’90s, several officers in the IAD, which was responsible for investigating wrongdoing within city agencies and the police department, wanted Burton. When an opening became available, they lobbied to bring in the investigator.
On Feb. 18, 1996, Burton transferred in. He wrote in his journal on Saturday, March 2, his own mantra:
Up at 8 after bed at 10:30 and still tired….On other hand, 49 and still running the streets but don’t lose focus—if a “mission statement” is useful, mine at IAD should be: To aggressively but respectfully pursue allegations of criminal misconduct by District public servants. NOTE the key words: 1) aggressively, 2) respectfully, 3) criminal. Approach should follow a path of 1) teamwork—means no criticism of others, willingness to help anyone with their projects; 2) an eagerness to learn everything—don’t waste opportunity to learn.
A month later, Burton got his chance to display his eagerness when he received a 911 page from his supervisor, Lt. Wade Sovonick. A city inspector had come forward with a serious tip, something about city plumbers taking bribes to handle side jobs.
“Dude, you need to drop everything,” his supervisor told him.
A few weeks into the case, Burton concluded that perhaps this investigation could be as successful as the thousands of drug cases he’d handled. The ones where everyone got locked up.
“Everything was falling right,” Burton says. “At the end of this case, the only people who stood to lose were the bad guys. Think about it. IAD was a laughingstock in the police department. It would have enhanced IAD’s credibility. The MPD was a laughingstock. The city government could have demonstrated that it was serious about rooting out corruption.”
Good afternoon, Jason. This is Phil Burton callin’. Just to refresh your recollection, we met at an awards ceremony for police officers about two years ago now, and I think we talked with your then-editor about a story that I wanted to contribute to the City Paper about the Water and Sewer case that I was working on. And didn’t know if you or your paper were still of any interest and what happened with that case?— Burton, in a voice-mail message, Dec. 26, 2000
Burton leaves me this message at work. Then he calls again before I even make it back to the office. He calls again when he thinks I’ve paged him, even though I haven’t. Then he calls again, one more time, to just lay it on the line.
Finally, in mid-January, I call back, partly to stop him from calling. He gives me the speech, one that he’s probably given to other journalists, too. Which can be convincing.
We meet at an Arlington diner. Over eggs, grilled chicken, and lots of coffee (black), Burton sandbags me for four hours. Three years after the WASA case, his enthusiasm hasn’t dampened. He can still rattle off dates and times, and play ventriloquist, impersonating the plumbers who accepted his illegal jobs. The statute of limitations runs out at the end of this year, he says. This is his last chance to get these guys, he says.
Desperation, laid plain and bare. In his sunken eyes. In his speech, which grows dozens of tentacles with little facts attached to them. And comes seeded with a lot of “ums,” “uhs,” and “ahs.” Eventually, his rap all connects to a conspiracy of briberies—and conspiracies against Phil Burton. It’s an unaccustomed role. He has never played the role of victim before. Never had to.
In his long career in the 3rd District’s vice unit, he worked some of the biggest, most complicated cases around. And he got into plenty of disagreements with prosecutors and supervisors. But he knew the limits. He knew respect and how to hone his arguments. He invented a few new ones, in the service of persuading young prosecutors to go after the low-level, corner dealers. The broken-window theory. Locking those guys up, he argued, would surely clean up any rotten neighborhood.
But this bribery case was different. From the start, he never had control over it. No matter how many videotapes he made or how many pieces of evidence he collected, the case really was in the hands of his supervisors and the Public Corruption Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. It didn’t matter how solid the case was—his bosses were still indifferent. And the case slipped out of his hands. He wasn’t around to make celebratory toasts. He hated the outcome. Too lenient. They missed some guys.
It’s happened to the best of cops. And it’s only made worse by retirement. “I know how difficult it is to leave the job,” says William Corboy, an MPD captain who retired last June. “I left the job more than once. But there’s not a whole lot you can do to change all that stuff.”
“That stuff” is the cases. The ones you still dream about closing. “There are cases that occurred 15 years ago that I try to get people to work on today,” Corboy says. “I have dozens of them in mind. My wife said to me one night, ‘When are you going to let go?’ She rolled over. I rolled over. I said, ‘I’m never going to let go. I can’t.’”
“You think you can just retire and that’s the end of it,” says Dr. Beverly Anderson, who heads up the MPD’s Employee Assistance Program. “They become very isolated. Here you have a job with a lot of control and a lot of power. Then, one day, you don’t have that badge. Who are you then?”
Burton still acts like a cop. “He never closed the case,” says friend Detective John Rentz. “He never closed the case mentally. He’s hung up in time on this case. It’s like this thing from the mid-’90s has reached out and lassoed him. Phil didn’t get what he wanted, but you don’t necessarily get everyone in a case, rightly or wrongly. I feel for Phil.”
I feel for Phil, too. His capacity for memorizing data. His reams of evidence. His doggedness concerning an almost 5-year-old case. And most of all, because the guy doesn’t profile as a total nutjob. Despite his seeming obsession with this case, he leads a pretty normal, Cleaver-type life. He’s not a drunk who sits around listening to a police scanner; he’s just a cop who won’t bend his honor over this one case.
Eventually, I make it to Burton’s house—singing-bird clock, wicker furniture, tons of family pictures, scary dog (Bella). Our relationship thereafter is one expressed through the giving and receiving of documents.
I get the data. Burton dribbles it out to me in small bites, in outlines and lists—lots of lists. In his spare time, the investigator has gone to the trouble of turning the events of the case he can’t let go into two unpublished “articles,” one a 96-page tome, the other a short 32-pager. I get those. And a lot more. Documents, bootlegged tapes, digests of events whittled down to easy-to-read form. Investigative Cliffs Notes, with bold headings such as “Overview of WASA-Organization and Corrupt Practices” and “Evidence Lists: Audio Video, Physical.” Any car ride is an excuse to dump a bunch of fresh reports in my lap, any meeting a cause to offer another goody bag of data, courtesy of Kinko’s.
And when I’m just about exhausted, Burton always has a few more minutes.
“You got to see this one,” Burton will say, coffee reheating in the microwave. As if he had never left work. As if I were one of his detective buddies.
What I see is the same stuff everyone—the prosecutors, his partners, his supervisors—got to see. Great undercover work.
“You got to see this one,” Burton says. It’s the tape of his first bribe job. A WASA crew headed by Thames and Harvey Roach, then the president of Local 872 of the American Federation of Government Employees.
After observing an illegal job, on Galen Street SE, Burton made the approach. It was late June, 1996. He would pay $2,900 in exchange for some illegal plumbing work. Done legitimately, by a commercial plumber, the job could have run as much as $8,000. Seven WASA employees would be implicated on the tapes.
Not only did Burton succeed in making the bribe, he got Thames to start talking. On July 2, the officer met up with Thames in the Safeway parking lot on Connecticut Avenue NW.
Burton played dumb. But Thames was dumber. “When you cut the street, you’re supposed to get a permit to put the street back,” Thames said, later boasting, “By us working for the city, we don’t need permits.”
On Burton’s tape of the meeting, Thames goes on to talk about duping the city into finishing his crew’s side jobs: Once they cut up a street to replace pipes, the city comes in and fills in the hole.
In the same conversation, Thames puts all the pieces of the conspiracy together. Burton asks, “How much do the other guys…Do you…Do you split it up even with them, or how…”
“You know normally, what I do is, uh, I get three laborers and then I get, maybe two plumbers, and the plumbers normally get more money than the laborers,” Thames says. On another tape, he names each laborer and how much each is getting paid for a side job.
For months, Burton continued to work Thames over. The WASA supervisor openly discussed the history of side jobs within his department. In November, he told the officer: “We had one crew that used to do so much. Oh, man, they did side jobs all the time. They might make $3,000 on a side job a week.”
Thames went on and on: “They just slowed down a little bit because they were under…they were under investigation. Certain things was coming up that they couldn’t account for. But, I mean, they still doing it.”
And on: “They got connections right in with the people who do the paperwork.”
In between untangling the web of conspiracy with Thames’ crew, Burton worked another investigation just as easily. In early October 1996, he approached Tyrone Parker along the 1700 block of T Street NW.
On Burton’s tape, the interaction goes down smooth, almost routine, each man appearing to know what the other wants.
“Um, I’m trying to get some plumbing work done,” Burton says.
“Yeah?” Parker asks.
Burton wants Parker’s crew to upgrade his lead pipes to bigger copper ones. Could he do that? After telling Burton that the work isn’t the city’s responsibility, Parker still accepts the job: “Well, what I’m saying is you can get it done….You know what I’m saying? You can get it done. You give me the address and a phone number….But you got to take care of the people when they come.”
“I understand that,” Burton says.
Burton will end up paying $3,700 for the job set up by Parker and executed by two crew supervisors, Elliott Wright and Jimmy Johnson.
Through asking leading questions, Burton is able to get Wright to admit on tape that what they’re doing is not completely kosher. “We have a plumbing company, and we are licensed,” Wright says. “But we don’t use it, ’cause we work for the Water Department, do you see?”
Burton wants to know about inspections and permits, whether Wright can arrange for that hassle to go away. “It could be done quickly and quietly,” Wright says. “This is our side hustle. The District don’t pay us to do what I’m gonna do.”
Altogether, some 16 city employees can be spotted on the officer’s tapes for that job. Wright and Johnson coordinated the effort with Parker. Johnson was on leave while he worked on the job, but Wright was on duty for the city; he stopped by periodically to check on Johnson’s progress. Their crew used city equipment and got another crew to finish up the job. They never did get a permit.
Burton brought his evidence to his supervisors’ attention. By now, he thought he had acquittal-proof stuff on two crews—and leads that stretched beyond them. He and other officers had observed other crews abusing time and attendance, and they had taped the crew chiefs implicating private plumbers.
Burton’s supervisors said they were pleased, but prosecutors seemed uninterested. When he criticized the U.S. Attorney’s Office for dragging its feet on the case, Burton’s bosses agreed. But they chose not to air their complaints a block and a half away at the prosecutors’ offices. When Burton argued that they could make arrests without warrants—a not uncommon tactic—they told him to just wait.
Eventually, Burton’s waiting became an in-joke among his supervisors. They would pass him in the hall and jibe, “Make any arrests yet?”
“What is wrong with US Atty’s,” Burton wrote in his work journal from that period, concerning the Public Corruption Section. He listed 12 reasons, six of which were “no heart.”
By the end of March 1997, the only people outside of Burton’s office who seemed to have gotten a good look at the tapes were the workers he was trying to arrest.
On March 26, Burton called Johnson, one of the supervisors who had worked the G Street job. “How you doing?” Burton asked. Johnson, it turned out, had heard about Burton’s tapes.
“Not so good,” Johnson responded. “Heard you’re trying to set the boys up….Heard they got the boys on camera and a whole bunch of shit.”
In a normal undercover operation, when an officer appears to be compromised, the investigation is immediately closed out. But in this case, something peculiar happened: The prosecutor assigned to the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Birney, and Burton’s supervisor, Lt. Joe Fairley, accused the officer himself of being the source of the leak.
So Burton did what he always does. He demanded a complete investigation into the leak. That didn’t happen. Instead, the case got shuffled to another prosecutor—by then it would be the investigation’s third. And that prosecutor sat on the case. Or, more specifically, didn’t rush to return Burton’s urgent phone calls. Burton’s journals are filled with notes about phone calls, repeated and unanswered phone calls to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Some prosecutors have called Burton’s efforts overzealous, but it’s the way he has always approached cases. Throughout his journals, it’s clear that Burton believes passionately in police work, believes in one simple thing: locking up the bad guys. And once he starts an investigation, he never lets go.
A week away from Burton, going through his reams of notes, I remember one of the first tapes he showed me. This one was from 1987, on 12th Street NW. Burton is shown steering his Orange Datsun up to a curb, camera carefully hidden, to make an undercover drug buy. The dealer, a well-toned guy, pops into the car and attempts to steal Burton’s money. Burton grabs hold of the guy’s fist, the fist holding his dough. Tugging and pulling ensues before the guy just decides to whale on the cop’s face. Over and over again.
Burton doesn’t say anything. He just takes the beating. You have to wince at the tape. While his face gets pummeled, he doesn’t let on that he’s a cop or scream for backup. It’s just a dealer, a camera, and a human punching bag. Finally, after 30 long seconds, another dealer intercedes.
Burton used this beatdown as street cred. He would eventually buy from both dealers and lock them both up.
When he showed the tape to me, Burton chuckled—See how dumb we were back then? “We didn’t know anything,” he said. He added later that when he returned to the station house, his fellow officers were mystified by his actions. One cop had a simple question: “Why didn’t you give up the money?”
“It never occurred to me,” Burton told him. He’s just a guy who doesn’t let go, no matter what.
This day: 1) pray constantly 2) Keep critical-judgemental-thoughts to self 3) Even-thinking 4) Be dogged on case 5) When tempted to quit to feel self-pity, remember…about [Civil War] Gen. Joshua Chamberlain.—Burton, writing in his journal on Sept. 23, 1996
On Valentine’s Day in 1997, between waking at 5:10 a.m., preparing an index for one of his undercover operations, and meeting up with his wife, Marla, for dinner and Bible study, Burton wrote down something unusual in his journal. Another officer in the IAD, Eugene Edwards, had bitched to him about his unusual relationship with Burton’s boss, Lt. Fairley. At the time, Fairley was teaching a course at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). Fairley allegedly used Edwards to run errands for him, even to drive him to class, while they both were supposedly on duty. Burton wrote: “Fairley keeps Gene running non-police errands—helping him register.”
Ten days later, Burton made another notation concerning Fairley’s side job. “Gene says that Fairley had him go to UDC w/ him today to work on the class which he is going to teach there,” Burton wrote, adding a one-word commentary—”wrong.”
With not much else to do but wait for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and his supervisors to conclude his WASA investigation, Burton worked anything that came his way. He busied himself with the bits and pieces of police work—attending court, helping other investigators with their cases, and investigating officers who were wasting taxpayers’ money. These last investigations just happened to involve his own supervisor.
By May 30, Burton believed that he had amassed a credible amount of evidence documenting his supervisor’s time and attendance fraud. Especially because, in mid-May, he had caught Fairley photocopying exams for his class while he was on police overtime. Burton quietly gave Fairley’s boss, Capt. Chris Cooch, a two-paragraph memo outlining his findings.
Cooch was tasked with investigating Burton’s allegations. But the investigation didn’t go very far. Cooch never interviewed Burton, apparently choosing instead to believe Fairley’s claims that he had used his own paper when making the copies and had dispatched Edwards on errands for him only when the officer was on lunch break.
But police records, provided by Burton, show that both Edwards and Fairley had been on duty when they made the copies of the exam; Edwards had gone to Staples to get the paper while supposedly attending to police business. Fairley contended that Burton had brought the accusations as way of getting back at him for having cut Burton’s overtime. He stated that he had told Burton his overtime would be stopped on May 28, two days before the officer filed his allegations. It didn’t matter that Burton was on leave at the time, some 200 miles outside of the District. It didn’t matter that his overtime was cut after he lodged his complaint.
Cooch apparently checked none of these facts. And no other officers stepped forward to back up Burton’s claims, according to police records.
Still, years later, at least one investigator says that Burton was right to have made the complaint against Fairley. “I believe the findings, as far as I understand them, are improper,” says the officer, who wishes to remain anonymous.
The case against Fairley was ruled “unfounded”; Fairley died in April 2000. Edwards later got a promotion to detective, according to police records, but he did not pick up a single case during the time Burton was still with the department.
Chalk up two defeated investigations for Burton—first of WASA and now o f Fairley. He lost his overtime privileges, and soon he would lose control over the WASA case.
On June 2, Fairley encouraged his officers to establish stronger relations with the FBI. The IAD had always worked closely with the Feds, but their relationship could best be described as cool and difficult. Burton seized on this as the answer to his stalled investigation of WASA. With the U.S. Attorney’s Office still not returning his calls, he decided to try some new calls, this time to an FBI agent.
Burton met with the agent on June 5. He made his best pitch, and when the agent said he was interested in helping him, he gave over some of his investigative reports. The next day, he informed his supervisors of the meeting. They were not pleased. Cooch summoned him to a meeting in his office, which Burton secretly recorded, fearing retribution.
“I can appreciate you being upset,” Cooch said from behind his desk. “You’ve worked very hard, and you have been stonewalled by the United States Attorney’s Office, and you seem to be getting zero or no help from your officials, and that includes me.”
Cooch then went on to ask Burton about his contact with the FBI. The officer didn’t hold back, telling Cooch anything he wanted to know.
What Burton didn’t know was that Cooch was already investigating the matter, and his interrogation was part of that investigation.
“In my opinion, you shouldn’t have called the FBI,” Cooch said, and with that he finally informed Burton that he was under investigation.
Documents from that investigation quote several IAD officers indicating that they had been confused by Fairley’s directive to establish better relations with the FBI. They hadn’t been sure whether they could go to the FBI or not. Some suggested that Burton’s actions seemed legit.
“I don’t know why he would be written up for going to the FBI,” says one former IAD investigator. “That’s what we did in the normal course of things.”
In his deposition for Burton’s later wrongful-dismissal suit, in which he alleged that he had effectively been forced to retire, Cooch said that even his own supervisor, Cmdr. Lloyd Coward Jr., had informed him of his desire for a “better relationship” with the FBI. Cooch also noted that the FBI was already aware of the WASA case, long before Burton’s meeting; that there were no written operating procedures; and that Burton’s actions did not jeopardize the case in any way.
Coward, in his own deposition, stated that he had erred in the investigation into Burton’s actions. He said that he had never allowed Burton to air his side of things fully, that the officer had been entitled to a conference with him and had never received one. “I neglected to bring him in, sit him down, and have a conference with him, which we are required to do,” Coward stated.
Throughout the summer of 1997, Burton found his police duties slowly being taken away. He was not allowed to check in to the office early, so he didn’t have his accustomed extra time to call his sources. He was cut off from working drug cases, non-IAD business he carried out as part of a federally funded program. He found another one of his cases summarily dismissed as worthless by Fairley.
In August, according to Burton’s journals, Fairley told Burton that he couldn’t ask other officers for help with his WASA case. While Burton was on leave, in mid-August, Fairley held an office meeting in which he told his officers that he was now in charge of the case.
After filing a grievance with MPD Assistant Chief Michael Fitzgerald, Burton could do nothing but wait out his problems at the IAD. Fitzgerald said he would take care of the complaint—but nothing happened.
On Oct. 3, Burton turned in his retirement papers. He had realized that he had investigated himself out of a job; his own department thought him expendable.
But he still couldn’t let go of the WASA case.
On Oct. 22, just days before his retirement was to take effect, Burton wondered if he was doing the right thing. He wrote in his journal: “Back + forth on leaving…be humble—why take this stand—corruption costing hundreds of thousands, loyalty to sources, arrogance of prosecutors and cowardice of MPD officials, along with dishonesty.”
Burton made a last-ditch effort to close out his case. On his second-to-last day, Oct. 23, he tried to arrange a meeting with then-MPD Chief Larry Soulsby. Soulsby’s assistant called back, and Burton spilled his guts about everything—the great case, the endless delays, his mistreatment at the IAD, and the fact that he would go to the press if he needed to.
The next day—his last—Burton woke up at 5:20 a.m. At 8:30, according to his journal, he called to lobby Acting U.S. Attorney Mary Lou Leary and left her a message. She didn’t return his call. At 9:50, he called again and left another message.
Late in the morning, according to the investigator’s work journal, a friend with ties to Soulsby’s office called with some bad news: If Burton decided to push this thing, he might be charged with obstruction of justice.
At 4:10 p.m., Burton, who just finished his day shift, got one final call from the IAD. They wanted his office keys.
Burton did speak out, eventually talking to a Post reporter, Michael Powell, who filed a story on Dec. 19. The headline read: “D.C. Water Workers Accused of Corruption; Private Jobs Allegedly Done on City Time.”
Four days later, Burton got a call from Thomas Motley, then acting chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Public Corruption Section. By that time, the WASA case had been shuffled back to prosecutor Birney. Motley wanted to know if Burton would continue to assist his office in prosecuting the case. And he admitted that Burton might have been right all along.
“We’re going to put some pressure on Birney,” Motley said, according to a tape Burton has of their conversation. “I think the Public Corruption Section has been woeful on what they’ve done. Woeful. There will be changes made to reflect that.”
Motley continued his mea culpa. “I’m scratching my head,” he said. “I know, within the next 60 days, someone’s going to be indicted or somebody won’t be here….’Cause right now, for the last 60 days, ain’t shit been done.”
Burton assured Motley that he would help in any way he could with the WASA case. Motley, who had taken over the job from John Campbell, promised that under his new leadership, accountability would be the order of the day at the Public Corruption Section.
“Right now, John Campbell is gone,” Motley told Burton. “Whatever happened on his watch, happened on his watch. I’m just here to clean up the mess.”
The way you send a message to city employees is the same way you send a message in the street. You take the bad guys, you get arrest warrants, you lock them up, put them in handcuffs, and let everybody see what happens when you’re involved in criminal wrongdoing.—Burton, talking to Motley, Dec. 23, 1997
The job description of a police officer says nothing about taking a stand, fighting with supervisors, and getting methodically shitcanned. Yet it is one of those unwritten codes that officers grapple with: Do I just accept that my cases get no-papered, ignored by the U.S. Attorney’s Office? Do I simply put up with incompetent supervisors? Do I ever speak up?
In this paradigm, the MPD creates two types of heroes: There are the ones who win awards for acts of bravery. And then there are the unofficial heroes, the ones who leave, or get pushed out, over principles.
They are disgruntled, honorable people. People whom the rank-and-file love, especially because they talk back, they argue, they speak up in private and in public. They are decent cops who get fucked.
The MPD creates these heroes in droves. They go on to suffer the indignities of filing lawsuits, sitting through tedious depositions, enduring lengthy discoveries—and losing friends.
Burton is one of those heroes. With his reams of paper. His paper vigil.
“What happened to Phil Burton was a fucking travesty,” says one current police official, who wishes to remain anonymous. “The day he left was a sad day. It was a damn shame that it happened.”
Another official close to the WASA investigation sees nobility in Burton’s stand. “[He] was met with obstacles at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our own department,” the official says, on condition of anonymity. “Those obstacles were senseless.”
Not surprisingly, both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Burton’s supervisors regard Burton himself as the main obstacle. “He was an experienced narcotics investigator, but this was his first big public-corruption case,” offers Randall Eliason, the current chief of the Public Corruption Section. “I don’t think he appreciated the difference between the two.”
After Burton retired, prosecuting the plumbers still seemed a chore. Prosecutors never consulted with Burton during their grand-jury proceedings—highly unusual given that he had been the lead investigator on the case. Because they dragged their feet for almost two years, Burton’s main source at WASA refused to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, claims Burton. He could have provided context and expertise for their review of the videotapes.
As obsessive as Burton was during the investigation of the WASA case, he’s been just as relentless in dissecting the failures he attributes to prosecutors. In his world, the prosecutors are as guilty as the plumbers.
Most damning of all, Burton believes, is the fact that prosecutors, by choosing to file the charges that they did, effectively forfeited any leverage they might have used to compel workers to finger other suspects. Prosecutors had calculated that they would be more successful if they took the plumbers into federal court, where the sentences would be mandatory. Although the plumbers could have been charged with multiple counts of bribery in D.C. Superior Court, the prosecutors didn’t want to risk the sentencing discretion of a judge or jury.
In March 1998, indictments were handed down against eight WASA employees, including Roach and Thames, and a private plumber. The two crew chiefs took plea bargains and ended with jail terms over a year long. Parker was not charged.
The Wright and Johnson case proved more difficult for prosecutors. Although Burton insists that the crew was taking a bribe, prosecutors saw things differently. Because Johnson was on leave at the time, and there was a written contract for the work, bribery would be harder to prove.
In December 1999, Wright and Johnson pleaded guilty to criminal conflict of interest and received probation.
“Overall, I think [the WASA case] was a very successful public-corruption case, where 11 were convicted, including four WASA supervisors,” Eliason says.
Eliason and others say there is no chance that anyone else from Burton’s videotapes will be arrested.
But Burton says that there are many more people who could have seen the inside of a jail cell. It’s just that the Public Corruption Section wasn’t interested. There were some 19 others on those tapes, including employees from the DCRA and the WCCA, as well as Parker, who allegedly set up the Wright and Johnson job.
“We have a target who names a recent city councilmember,” Burton says. “We have widespread reports that many if not most plumbing companies in D.C. were using kickback schemes with various crews from WASA. We set out for a week to follow the very best crews in WASA, to use them as a sort of baseline of honesty. They were every bit as unaccountable as the worst crews. We had targets describing the way other crews were taking bribes. Were those leads ever followed? It went horizontally across the field units and vertically who knows how high?”
“Did Roach give that money to DCRA?” asks prosecutor Steve Durham. “Ask Harvey Roach, who won’t cooperate. That’s the $64,000 question.”
Roach, the former union president, went on to serve a little over a year in prison for conspiracy to commit bribery. He is now doing construction work in the District, trying to get on with his life. He doesn’t need Burton kicking him around anymore, still talking about “the Case.”
“I think he has a vendetta,” says Roach, who refuses to discuss his relationship with the DCRA. “Nobody’s perfect. It’s not a perfect world. He don’t let things die. I served my time. I want things to move forward. To try and keep a person down, that tells you about his character.”
“He might come and try to kill me—who knows?” Roach says. “He’s obsessed. Who’s to say what he won’t do?”
I viewed my retired status as merely a different context in which to honor the WASA case and the dozen fine people who had contributed so nobly to its field success. I could not walk away from the case, because to do so would have placed me in the same conspiracy of inaction.—Burton, unpublished 96-page article
Policing the bribes didn’t start with Burton. “Mr. X,” a WASA official, spotted them on his routine crew checks during the late ’80s. He had heard about this type of stuff before—crews lured into the easy money of a private plumbing gig. It wasn’t glamorous, but the work paid. Public-works lore had it that one corrupt crew chief referred to his complicit and silent workers as his “angels.” But Mr. X caught them red-handed.
The workers were incredulous; they kept on working despite getting caught. Mr. X wrote them up and requested that they be terminated. It never happened. The crew remained on the job—and on the take. Mr. X got stuck hearing death threats on the crews’ radios.
Instead of letting the matter go, Mr. X continued to chronicle the workers’ abuses. He then went to the IAD in the early ’90s. He estimates that he made roughly half a dozen trips. The IAD investigators never got beyond asking him basic questions. He then went to the FBI; the agents too weren’t interested. Small stuff, they told him.
Finally, Mr. X met Burton. The investigator asked all the right questions, made all the right promises.
After the case stalled in the prosecutors’ office, Burton says, he couldn’t bring himself to call Mr. X. His source had come through with so many crucial documents, had told him how to dress for the setup, what kinds of questions to ask, what kind of car to drive. Now, Burton couldn’t bear to pick up the phone and call his loyal source to tell him the bad news.
It was only after he quit that Burton’s guilt faded away and he finally felt able to contact Mr. X. Now he needs Mr. X to come forward again—this time to convince me he’s not crazy for keeping this case going.
On a Thursday evening in February, we all meet for dinner at Burton’s house. It is the first time they’ve seen each other in over a year. They promise, at first, not to talk about the case. Instead, they exchange stories about hunting, children, and grandchildren.
But after dinner, Burton can’t help himself. He brings out a tape. It shows some illegal work permits passing from Roach and Thames to Burton.
It’s so clear. “You could be Ray Charles and figure this one out,” Mr. X jokes.
“It’s a mosaic,” Burton says. He’s right: Pure friggin’ art, this undercover work. His undercover work.
Burton watches the TV intently. It’s 1997. It’s his last bribe. Jan. 30, the last of his major undercover operations. There is pain—and regret—in his voice. When the tape runs out, he seems unsatisfied. All the proof in the world, and all prosecutors had to do was press Play.
Turning to the rapt audience in the living room, he begins another filibuster on all the other tapes he’s got. The classics. All downstairs in a basement cabinet.
“What else do you want?” Burton asks. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.