Something doesn’t add up.
The Inquirer on Friday did something pretty unusual: It printed a takedown of the reporting behind the Daily News’ Pulitzer-winning “Tainted Justice” series of reports about police corruption in 2009. The underlying question in the report: Why had Thomas Tolstoy — accused of sexually assaulting women on the job, as well as sundry other bits of corruption — been able to stay free and even keep his police job in the years since?
The Inky’s answer? Ethically questionable behavior on the part of the Daily News reporters, Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, may have compromised the case. Specifically, the two are alleged to have offered financial assistance to “Naomi,” a key witness who said Tolstoy jammed his fingers into her vagina during a 2008 drug raid. Naomi’s real identity has never been revealed publicly.
Commissioner Charles Ramsey, at least, is making the case that the reporters’ behavior was so egregious that Tolstoy — a bad cop by the commissioner’s estimation — won’t get the punishment he might deserve. “It’s not a question of whether misconduct occurred. I think we have an investigation that does demonstrate that,” Ramsey told KYW Newsradio, “but this could very well be exploited by defense counsel when it comes to creating some doubt in the mind of an arbitrator.”
Here are three reasons — drawn only from the public reporting on this issue — that the “bad reporting kept a bad cop on the streets” story doesn’t quite make sense.
• Tolstoy was placed on desk duty and being investigated for allegedly attacking Naomi nearly a year before the Daily News printed her story.
But Tolstoy was actually taken off street duty “within hours” of his alleged encounter with Naomi, according to reports. Why? A rape kit taken at a local hospital revealed evidence of assault, and Tolstoy’s fellow officers quickly zeroed in on him.
“Despite the lack of photo identification at the scene, there was other information that caused us to narrow the scope,” Internal Affairs Chief Inspector Anthony DiLacqua told the Daily News in 2009. “We had evidence presented to us that gave us reason to look at [Tolstoy] more closely than other officers.”
Tolstoy returned to the streets in January 2009, it was reported, because Internal Affairs couldn’t make a DNA link between him and the attack on Naomi — and because “she had ceased to cooperate” with officers. Commissioner Ramsey announced the formation of an FBI task force to investigate Tolstoy’s narcotics unit in February 2009, but Naomi wasn’t interviewed by that task force until June of that year, just weeks before the Daily News story appeared.
In other words: Police had already tried and failed once to investigate Naomi’s allegations. Their second attempt was slow to develop. By the time Laker and Ruderman arrived on the scene, the department already had a well-established history of being unable to make a case against Tolstoy on these specific accusations.
• Naomi wasn’t the only woman to make sex assault allegations against Tolstoy.
Two weeks before Naomi’s story appeared in the Daily News, Laker and Ruderman featured the stories of Lady Gonzalez and Dagma Rodriguez, two other women who said that Tolstoy had groped them during drug investigations. Both later sued the city, and both settled in 2012; Gonzalez received $150,000, while Rodriguez settled with the city for $77,500.
The city, it should be noted, did not admit liability in the cases. Still, even if Naomi proved to be a problematic witness, why couldn’t a case against Tolstoy be made on the basis of Gonzalez and Rodriguez’s complaints? Both were enraged this year when they found out no charges would be brought against Tolstoy. Commissioner Ramsey seems to suggest Naomi is the lynchpin of any case they’d bring against Tolstoy; we haven’t been told why the testimony of Gonzalez and Rodriguez wouldn’t be good enough.
• Philadelphia Police don’t excel at making cases stick against fellow cops.
It’s worth mentioning time and again: NBC10 reported last year that nine out of every 10 Philadelphia cops fired for cause eventually are reinstated to the force. Seven police officers were rehired just between 2010 and 2012 — and given back pay for the time on the job they missed due to their firings.
This is actually a bit of a nationwide problem: Many big city departments are very frequently on the losing end of decisions by arbitrators, and end up restoring once-fired cops back to their old jobs. That’s a problem that will require more than just a Philly effort. But it’s also true that the city of Oakland’s reinstatement numbers aren’t too different from Philly’s — and a federal judge there has ordered an investigation into why the department doesn’t do a better job of keeping fired officers fired. In any case, I for one would love to see the Philly Police Department succeed at firing bad cops with more than a 10 percent success rate before its leaders start blaming the media.
So what we know — again, based on the public record — is this: The police were already having trouble making a sexual assault case against one of their own, despite multiple witnesses telling similar stories, in a context in which the police seem to have trouble making convincing cases against fellow officers.
But we’re to believe the case can’t stick because a pair of reporters, arriving a year late to the scene, might’ve improperly influenced a witness? That’s possible, I guess. But it feels like we’re missing some critical information, doesn’t it?
That’s not to say Laker and Ruderman comported themselves perfectly. (Full disclosure: I’ve had friendly interactions with the two on social media, but otherwise have had no contact with either reporter.)
In Busted, their book about the “Tainted Justice” series, they admit to buying groceries for another source on the story and even to purchasing a present for the source’s son. That’s right up against the edge of journalistic ethics, and they admit it in the book. “Barbara and I knew the things we did for Benny crossed the line,” Ruderman wrote. “But that line — the one between reporter and human being — got blurry.”
Understandable. (There’s a whole column to be written about “human” versus “journalistic” ethics — I suspect most non-reporters would’ve done what Ruderman and Laker did without a second thought — but that’s for another time.) And it’s also unfortunate: The admitted brush with ethical lines opened the door to entirely legitimate questions about the reporting of “Tainted Justice.” (Indeed, the Friday report by Inquirer reporters Mike Newall and Aubrey Whelan seems meticulous and professional.) If some of the questions seem less than sincere, well, that’s the price you pay for crossing the line. Missteps by good people help keep hypocrites in business.
Then again, Ramsey (and by extension, the Inquirer) aren’t really claiming that the reporting was incorrect. Laker and Ruderman may have been imperfect. It’s hard to believe, though, that they’re the reason a potentially bad cop still walks the streets.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.