- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—After winning back their freedom and their jobs, five former members of an elite Philadelphia narcotics squad — acquitted earlier this year on federal corruption charges — have set their sights on new targets:

The district attorney, the mayor, and the city’s police commissioner.

The three city leaders unfairly maligned the officers and made accusations that led to their firings and arrests last year, Officers Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, and John Speiser alleged in a defamation complaint filed Friday in federal court.

By deciding in 2012 that his office would no longer accept any cases stemming from their squad’s investigations, District Attorney Seth Williams “started a gigantic, destructive avalanche of severe and permanent wrongs, damages and injustices” that continues to affect the officers today, their lawyer Christopher Mannix wrote.

Representatives for Williams, Mayor Nutter, and Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey all declined to comment Monday on the lawsuit. In a court filing responding to an earlier version of the suit in Common Pleas Court, lawyers for Williams described the officers’ claims as “baseless.”

In his complaint last week, Mannix described his clients as members of “the most accomplished and effective narcotics unit in the history of the Philadelphia Police Department.”

“The public service, efforts, courage, unflagging energy and dedication exhibited by the [officers] could be fairly characterized as heroic,” he wrote.

That’s not how federal prosecutors saw it.

In a high-profile racketeering conspiracy trial that concluded in May, they alleged Liciardello and his squad mates routinely beat drug suspects, pocketed money, and fabricated police reports to cover up their crimes.

Government witnesses, many of them with lengthy criminal records, described being dangled over balconies, threatened with the seizure of their homes, held in hotel rooms for days, or beaten as the officers kept score on who could inflict the most debilitating injuries.

And one of the squad’s own members, Jeffrey Walker, told jurors that he and his colleagues committed dozens of crimes in the course of their duties. He pleaded guilty in an unrelated corruption case and is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday in federal court.

Ultimately, though, a jury found that testimony unconvincing and acquitted Liciardello and his squad mates.

U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger has said he stands by his office’s work on the case.

Mannix, in his court filings Friday, described that federal case as “literally laughable and disgraceful.” The lawyer did not include the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the FBI among the defendants in the defamation suit, though he hinted in an interview Monday that he may be considering a case against them.

“There is a very high bar for a civil suit against federal prosecutors,” he said. “This may be the case where that bar is scaled.”

The real damage, Mannix alleged, began with Williams’ decision in 2012 to stop taking the squad’s cases — a choice that has since formed the basis for dozens of civil rights lawsuits filed against the officers and led to the reversals of hundreds of past drug convictions that had resulted from their police work.

The District Attorney’s Office has never publicly explained that decision. But witnesses at the officers’ corruption trial testified that some in the office had expressed concerns over squad members cutting legal deals with drug suspects without first consulting prosecutors.

Mannix alleged in Friday’s filing that the conflict boiled down to a turf war between the Police Department and the district attorney over which office would receive the larger share of forfeited drug money. Liciardello’s “very blunt, speak-his-mind, get-things-done personality” didn’t help, the lawyer said.

None of that, however, justified the officers’ transfers out of the narcotics squad later that year or the public comments of Ramsey or Nutter after the officers’ 2014 arrests, Mannix said.

Ramsey at the time described the allegations as “one of the worst cases of corruption I have ever heard” and said he would have the officers’ badges destroyed.

Nutter, according to the officers’ lawsuit, publicly referred to Liciardello and his squad mates as “sick scumbags.”

The officers are seeking unspecified monetary damages and a hearing to clear their names. Earlier this month, they won back their jobs along with back pay for the years they were off the force.

Because Williams is still refusing to accept their investigations for prosecution, all have been reassigned to positions outside of narcotics.

Liciardello, Reynolds, Spicer, Betts, and Speiser are joined in their suit by a sixth plaintiff — their former supervisor, Lt. Robert Otto. Otto was transferred as a result of Williams’ 2012 decision, but he was not fired or charged in the federal case.

U.S. District Judge Felipe Restrepo has not scheduled a hearing on the officers’ defamation claims.

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(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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