FBI flubs hamper corruption case against Bibb deputies

A federal case against allegedly dirty Bibb County sheriff’s deputies was apparently hamstrung by FBI missteps.

Word of procedural blunders emerged in U.S. District Court Thursday during a sentencing hearing for the three men.

The three, who at one time faced up to 20 years in prison, were instead given three years of probation for their roles in a corruption episode.

The former deputies -- Jimmy Lee Denson, 45, Decarlo C. Latimore, 38, and Sgt. Arthur Howard, 44 -- had pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count of conversion of government property.

Under plea agreements, each man admitted taking up to $1,000. The ex-cops must relinquish their law enforcement certifications.

The three men, along with Deputy Jermaine Donnell Hill, were arrested last year. Hill, who served as an informant for the government in the case, will be sentenced later.

Denson and Latimore, according to authorities, were asked by Hill to help with a pair of police traffic stops in early 2014.

By then, Hill was working with the FBI to ferret out potentially on-the-take cops after he was implicated in a previous FBI sting involving an abandoned car, a so-called bait car, in November 2013.

Hill, whom authorities had been told was involved in illegal activity, was caught on video pocketing $1,000 he found while searching the vehicle.

When the other deputies assisted with the ruse traffic stops in February 2014, an undercover agent was driving the car. Concealed cameras and an estimated 250 grams of cocaine were inside along with a couple of $1,000 bundles of cash.

Macon attorney Donald L. Johstono, who represented Denson, said his client was handed some of the money on two separate occasions but twice gave it back.

Sometime later, Johstono said, Denson met with Hill and that time accepted $500, which Denson assumed came from the traffic stop.

At sentencing, Denson, a cop for nearly a decade and a half, apologized for making what he called “a serious error in my life.”

The three deputies sentenced Thursday would likely have claimed entrapment as a defense at trial, a move that may well have been buttressed by facts of the case. That is, the government’s informant induced them to commit crimes they would not otherwise have committed.

“They just let Hill pick and choose who he wanted to go after,” Johstono said.

The government’s case, though, seems to have taken its biggest hit because of the FBI’s handling of what at least began as a fairly routine corruption probe.

Word of the deputies’ arrests and the stings was trumpeted at a news conference last summer.

In the ensuing months, problems emerged for prosecutors.

The FBI, for reasons not yet clear, recorded everything that Hill, a 10-year veteran cop, did on his cellphone -- thousands of text messages and calls.

But initially, according to court filings, agents only disclosed a handful of those to prosecutors, who shortly before Thanksgiving learned that there were 18,000 or more recorded texts and phone calls that the FBI had not disclosed to prosecutors.

The FBI cannot typically sit on such information, which must be reviewed -- in part for details that might exonerate suspects.

As it turned out, the contrary happened: There was potentially incriminating information in the calls.

That would tend to indicate the FBI wasn’t trying to hide anything, which Judge Marc Treadwell noted in court Thursday.

It appears that perhaps agents just didn’t want to review all the calls. Treadwell said there was no good reason they weren’t reviewed.

Either way, the information wasn’t disclosed to federal prosecutors, so it was not shared with the defendants in a timely fashion as it ordinarily would have been.

Another blow to the case came to light in December when the FBI turned over additional documents to prosecutors.

Included in those were evidence-handling forms, chain-of-custody papers for cocaine and cash used in two instances in the sting.

The forms were original copies and they were not completely filled out.

Shortly after, however, a FBI agents went back and got those forms and filled them out, essentially backdating them.

In court Thursday, Treadwell referred to that as “fabrication.”

Another hampering matter involved an FBI agent testifying before a grand jury in the case failing to disclose, as required, that he had once been suspended or disciplined.

Asked about the case, Stephen Emmett, an agent in the FBI’s Atlanta office, said by email Thursday that the agency “will decline comment in that this matter is currently in the court system.”

Johstono, the ex-sheriff’s deputy Denson’s attorney, said his own examination of the case “started out being a straight-forward thing and then ... it’s like digging up a fire ant bed.”

Johstono, a former federal prosecutor, said, “The FBI is held to such a high standard. They’re a good investigative agency, and to pull this kind of stuff where they’re falsifying records and not disclosing evidence, that is totally not what the FBI as an agency normally does.”

He added that the “sad part” of the case was that it fell short of fleshing out whether there was any corruption in the sheriff’s office.

“The way this investigation was handled,” Johstono said, “allowed the informant, Jermaine Hill, to make dirty cops out of good cops.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.