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June 1, 2004 - The Dallas Morning News (TX)

Edirorial: Mr. Hill And Fake Drugs

If This Is 'Hands Off,' What Would 'Hands On' Be?

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Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill has repeatedly said that the ongoing investigation into the 2001 fake drugs scandal should be allowed to run its course. He's absolutely right. That's why indications that Mr. Hill attempted to manipulate public opinion about his office's role in the scandal are so disturbing.

This editorial page has obtained copies of two draft "letters to the editor" praising Mr. Hill's handling of a scandal that saw his office send dozens of Mexican immigrants to jail using fake drug evidence. The immigrants have since been released, but several lost jobs and family as they languished in jail for months on the bogus charges.

The draft letters, according to their title pages, were faxed from the district attorney's office in March to two Dallas lawyers. Both lawyers say they believe Mr. Hill crafted the letters. Neither letter was ever published.

"Dan told me that Hill wrote the letter," said Cynthia Barbare, who had defended some of the falsely accused individuals. She was referring to Dan Benavides, an attorney in Mr. Hill's office whose sudden death in April has been ruled a suicide.

Michael Brito, 2003 president of the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association, agreed: "The language didn't sound like Dan's," he said. He noted that a portion of the letter sent to him refers to the scandal as a "mess" that "involved Hispanic police officers, Hispanic informants, and Hispanic victims" - phrasing that both Mr. Brito and Ms. Barbare say they've heard Mr. Hill verbalize in the past.

Both lawyers say that Mr. Benavides recruited them to sign the letters and to send them to The Dallas Morning News. But neither complied, citing as the reasons they declined the letters' excessive praise for Mr. Hill and sharp attacks on Ruben Navarrette, an editorial columnist for The Morning News who has written critically about Mr. Hill's conduct.

Mr. Hill was "totally cooperative" in unraveling the scandal, said one letter. Mr. Navarrette is harming "the search for truth" with his writing, said the other.

Neither attorney realized the other had been approached by Mr. Hill's office until contacted for comment by this newspaper.

Mr. Hill doesn't deny his office's role in shaping the letters, but he's ambiguous about whether he did the actual crafting. He told a Morning News editorial writer earlier this month that he thought Mr. Benavides wrote the letters. Last month, Mr. Hill told a Morning News reporter: "I think Dan helped me with that, and then we had some other people put it in language that would be readable."

Police Sgt. Ross Salverino, who investigated Mr. Benavides' sudden death, told a Morning News editorial writer in April "it's my understanding that Bill Hill wrote the letter."

Regardless of how much actual wordsmithing Mr. Hill did, it's clear his office isn't taking the kind of hands-off approach to special prosecutor Dan Hagood's probe that Mr. Hill publicly pledged. The independence of Mr. Hagood's investigation has been under question since Mr. Hill named him to the position in December.

This letters brouhaha simply adds more reason for Mr. Hill's constituents to question his commitment to a truly independent investigation.

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