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Police detective declines to plead guilty Picks formal hearing for talking to reporter

A Buffalo homicide detective brought up on department charges for talking to The Buffalo News about a Williamsville South High School student accused of assaulting a classmate pleaded innocent during an informal hearing Wednesday in Buffalo Police Headquarters.

Detective Mark J. Lauber was informed that if he pleaded guilty, he would likely get no more than an official reprimand, according to James Schwan, an attorney with the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association.

"The penalty would be a reprimand, and he's not taking it," Schwan said.

By pleading innocent, Lauber is now entitled to an administrative hearing.

Schwan acknowledges that Lauber spoke to a News reporter in April without first getting approval from department brass, but the police union says the department is practicing selective enforcement. Other officers have talked to the media without prior permission and have not been brought up on charges, Schwan said.

"There's even a police officer who has a radio show talking about community matters," he said.

Police Department spokesman Michael DeGeorge declined to comment on Wednesday's proceedings because the case is ongoing, but he did address some of the issues surrounding Lauber's case.

Lauber spoke to a reporter in April, but the department didn't file charges until this month -- about five months later. "Each case is different, some take longer," DeGeorge said. "Plus, it depends on what other cases are in front of that case that have to be cleared."

DeGeorge also said the department's initial decision to ban officers from talking to the media without permission likely reflected the fact that a new administration was in place and planned to hire a spokesman to handle media calls.

DeGeorge also discounted reports of the policy being dubbed the "John King Rule" by some police officers.

Lt. John King, now retired, recalled a busy night in August 2006 when, as the lieutenant on duty, he was called to a homicide scene, then rushed to a home invasion, then to a car that flipped on the Kensington Expressway.

"And while we were on the 33, a call comes in of a cab driver robbed on Amherst Street," King recalled.

As lieutenant, King said, he was authorized to speak to the media. When a television reporter caught up with him at the end of the evening, King said, he talked about the homicide and other crimes that had occurred.

Shortly after that, King recalled, he was summoned to City Hall to meet with Mayor Byron W. Brown. The mayor asked him about his television interview, King said.

King recalled Brown saying: "You made it sound like the 'Wild, Wild West.' "

Within a week, King said, on Aug. 30, 2006, the directive was issued prohibiting officers from talking to the media without permission from a chief or higher-ranking police official.

On March 6, 2007, when the department hired DeGeorge as spokesman, another directive was issued requiring permission from the commissioner, deputy commissioner or police spokesman.

"The troops gave it a nickname, the 'John King Rule'," the retired lieutenant said.

"I am not aware of any 'John King Rule'," DeGeorge said. "These are the rules of the department."

Peter K. Cutler, a spokesman for Brown, denied that any meeting between King and Brown took place. "There's no indication that any such meeting ever occurred," Cutler said. "For anyone to suggest that happened is inaccurate. To suggest there is a 'John King Rule' is ridiculous."

"The department, from the commissioner, through his leadership team, made a decision on how they wanted to handle media relations -- not the mayor," Cutler said.

Lauber was among several police officers and firefighters -- among them Buffalo Fire Commissioner Michael S. Lombardo -- who talked with The News about Curtis Byers' past convictions when Byers was arrested in April 2009 for assaulting one of his classmates at Williamsville South.

The police and firefighters talked about Byers' August 2007 armed robbery in Buffalo, as well as a June 2007 arson that almost cost Buffalo Firefighter Mark Reed his life. Lauber was the only police officer quoted in the article.

"Everyone was completely shocked" to learn Byers was accused in the Williamsville incident, Lauber said at the time. "Everyone I talked to assumed he had been incarcerated."

By talking with a reporter, department administrators charged, Lauber disobeyed Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson's order that no member of the force below the rank of deputy commissioner talk with the media without first getting permission.

In addition, the department charges Lauber endangered Byers' chances of getting a fair trial in the high school attack. Byers' rejection of a plea deal Wednesday means he will go to trial.

e-mail: sschulman@buffnews.com

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