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Gipson issue is awash in unseemliness

Alton Maddox. C. Vernon Mason. And, more recently, Michael Nifong.

The list of attorneys sent to legal oblivion -- or worse -- after making headline-grabbing accusations they couldn't back up should scare any barrister considering such a strategy.

Which raises the question: What does attorney Anthony L. Pendergrass know that no one else seems to?

Pendergrass' sensational accusation that Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson bought cocaine but got a pass when caught by cops in a drug house is almost enough to make you forget about the disciplinary case he's trying to win.

In fact, it brings to mind that old TV show "The Practice." When things were going bad for the fictional lawyers, they'd employ what they called "Plan B" -- hurling mind-boggling accusations to take the spotlight off their guilty client.

The twist here is that it's far from clear that Pendergrass' client -- Officer Cariol Horne -- is guilty after courageously intervening when she felt a white officer was choking a black suspect. The notion that an officer would risk her career if it weren't necessary to save a life strains credulity, particularly in a police culture that closes ranks to protect its own.

The fact that the "suspect" was cleared of all charges by a judge who found that police had no business barging into his home in the first place only bolsters Horne's case. So does the department's selective use of witnesses in building the case against her. And so does the fact that the department tried once before to fire her, only to be slapped down -- again -- by a judge.

The whole case reeks of a vendetta.

But if circumstantial evidence points to Horne as a hero, it also makes it hard to take seriously the accusation against Gipson. Of course, Pendergrass makes clear that he's not making the accusation himself but that he's merely saying witnesses he'll call to testify have told him that one of Horne's accusers spread the word years ago that she had caught Gipson selling drugs but gave him a pass. He says the story is "common knowledge."

But no matter how you parse it, current and former cops have called the allegation ridiculous.

More telling, for me, is that Buffalo is not a city known for protecting African-Americans. Rather, it's a city whose unofficial Police Department blog had references to Horne supporters as "junglebunnies" and "banana-eating apes."

Given that racist mentality in at least a part of the force, the notion that a black commissioner could keep the job when white cops have evidence he's a coke user seems beyond belief. Even Marion Barry couldn't have concealed his habit had he lived in Buffalo.

Still, the allegation is out there, and Pendergrass makes no apologies. He said this type of "evidence" has been used all along to target Horne.

"I didn't make these rules that say hearsay evidence is permissible. They made the rules," said the aggressive attorney, who, in forcing the hearing to be opened to the public, knew city rules better than city lawyers did.

He said he's trying to expose a conspiracy against Horne by demonstrating a history of coverups within the department, and he isn't worried because his actions are "within the ethical boundaries of being an attorney."

It's an ugly strategy. But the case against Horne -- involving issues of race, as did the Tawana Brawley and Duke lacrosse team cases -- is ugly, too.

That's all the more reason to be sure before making sensational allegations.

If you don't believe me, ask Mason, Maddox and Nifong.


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