Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Federal Wiretaps And Local Cops: Scenario Once Led To A Wild West Standoff

Tales Of Political Corruption
Vol. 1, No. 3

Federal Wiretaps And Local Cops:
Scenario Once Led To A Wild West Standoff

The Cool Justice Report
Sept. 27, 2006

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column, excerpted from "Payoff: Tales Of Political Corruption," is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report,

Several years ago Philadelphia Mayor John Street found himself the object of national attention when a routine sweep of his office by local police turned up a surreptitious listening device.

The feds ultimately accepted responsibility for planting the bug, a microphone capable of recording all conversations within the mayor's office. Speculation concerning the identity of the electronic eavesdroppers initially ranged from Street's Republican opposition in the coming election to concerns that Street was yet another in a growing army of politicians gone sour. Today, the mayor is still firmly entrenched while several confederates have been prosecuted.

That the mayor of a large urban center is the target of electronic eavesdropping is not surprising. Elected office seems to bring with it the focus of federal investigators as the stakes for control of lucrative municipal contracts ratchet up. The trend toward gentrification of decaying urban centers has replaced physical blight with moral decay.

But that is not the most compelling part of this story. Lost in the feeding frenzy of yet another impending demise of a politician was the fact that local police were used to sweep for bugs that exposed a federal investigation secretly taking place in their city. Don't these folks communicate with one another?

The fact is that local cops and feds have been at odds many times in the recent past. Concern that the locals are too cozy with the targets of federal probes has led to separate, covert investigations that bypass the channels of local law enforcement, sometimes even colliding with them.

Years ago Bridgeport saw just such a clash in what became an almost comedic attempt by the feds to take down Bridgeport's police superintendent, Joe Walsh. Federal investigators had long suspected Walsh to be a dirty cop. Several attempts to infiltrate his department with a mole were unsuccessful.

In one endeavor the feds identified a local cop reputed to have a heroin addiction. A junkie rat was enlisted to befriend this cop and exploit the addiction. Ultimately the cop succumbed and agreed to travel to New York to score some dope to be shared with the new junkie friend. Waiting, however, were the feds. The unfortunate cop was not booked and paraded immediately before a judge. Rather, she was taken to a local motel and offered a deal: work as a mole inside the department, reporting any information that could be used to target Walsh as well as others. The cop refused. Even addicts have some sense of loyalty. The chance to make the drug distribution case go away evaporated and this cop was prosecuted.

The stage was set for what would become an urban legend not unlike the gang that couldn't shoot straight, when the feds conceived of a plan to use longtime hoodlum, Tommy Marra, to approach Walsh with a potential cash payoff. Marra was a small time car thief and gangster wannabe who was graduating to bigger games. He had a voluminous rap sheet. He ultimately would serve time for the baseball bat killing of another local smalltime bad guy.

I had heard of Tommy through the years but didn't know him personally. One of my teenage sons was dating a girl that Marra's son fancied. Some threats were subtly passed causing me to be concerned enough to reach out to Tommy's lawyer, a local guy I knew. Marra was on trial for the murder and a meeting was arranged for me at the courthouse during a recess in his trial. In a scene reminiscent of the Godfather, Tommy granted me an audience and assured me that his son would back off. This was years after the botched Walsh sting.

The feds suspected that Joe Walsh controlled the lucrative towing contract deals for local city garages. On a summer evening in 1981, Marra was enlisted to offer Walsh a substantial bribe to ensure that the contract would be awarded to someone close to him.

Walsh apparently bit and the payoff was negotiated and arranged. Marra was wired and given the cash for the meet. FBI agents were present to monitor the transaction through the listening device and actual surveillance. They even invited the beat reporter from the Bridgeport Post to accompany them on the take down.

In an affidavit, David Margolis, head of the Justice Department's Organized Crime and Racketeering Section in Washington, said federal authorities had received information that Superintendent Walsh accepted payoffs.

"Walsh ran [the situation] by me," recalled long-time Inspector Anthony Fabrizi. "I told him, `It stinks. Everyone knows you don't take money. It's got to be a sting.'

"So I wired him up and I led the squad that staked it out."

In a Wild West scene that would have made the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday jealous, the showdown was set for a city parking lot. The cops stood 100 feet away in a firehouse. FBI agents were nearby in a van.

"I trust you, you trust me," Walsh told Marra, who handed him an envelope containing $5,000.

Then, the cops beat the feds to the punch. "Put your hands on the dashboard, you're under arrest for attempted bribery," Walsh told Marra. Marra was cuffed. FBI agents, too late, ran to the car. They demanded their equipment, the money and their witness.

"We told them, `Get out of here. If you want to talk to us, come to the station,' " Farbizi said.

Walsh was backed up by a bevy of Bridgeport cops. So here were the feds facing off against the locals. To add even greater comedy, the local cops had invited the beat writer from the same paper who covered the local police. Neither reporter had any knowledge that the other would be there or what was intended; neither wanted to be scooped on such a huge story.

The feds never got to Joe Walsh. He retired comfortably.

Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. He has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Andy Thibault, author of Law &Justice In Everyday Life and a private investigator, is an adjunct lecturer of English and a mentor in the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University. Website, and Blog,


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