A former undercover agent who sent dozens of blacks to prison on bogus drug charges denied to a sheriff for whom he was working that he had been charged with theft, the sheriff testified Wednesday.
Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart, testifying at the perjury trial of former drug officer Tom Coleman, said Coleman “looked surprised to me when I asked about it.”
“He was pretty upset and adamant he didn’t know what was going on,” Stewart testified.
Coleman faces two felony charges of aggravated perjury. If convicted on both counts, he could be sentenced to 20 years in prison and fined $20,000.
The counts stem from statements Coleman made about his arrest record — including the theft charge arising out of his use of a county-issued gasoline card — during hearings for some drug defendants in 2003.
The theft charge was eventually dropped after Coleman paid restitution, according to testimony.
Stewart testified he told Coleman about an arrest warrant he’d received in early August 1998; Coleman testified in the 2003 hearings that he learned of the theft case at that time as well. Evidence at Coleman’s perjury trial, however, shows his signature was on a waiver of arraignment dated June 1, 1998.
Meanwhile, the judge in the case appointed a lawyer for Stewart after prosecutor Rod Hobson said he intended to try to impeach Stewart’s testimony.
Stewart testified he did not know Coleman had a pending theft case against him when he was hired in early 1998. Outside the jury’s presence, Hobson told the judge Stewart’s testimony about background checks on Coleman ran counter to other statements Stewart has given under oath.
The state rested its case Tuesday after calling nine witnesses.
It was not known if Coleman would testify.
Coleman built cases and made arrests for 18 months in the late 1990s as part of a drug task force. Of 46 people he arrested, 38 — most of them black — were convicted of selling small amounts of cocaine and received sentences of up to 90 years.
The cases drew international attention after civil rights groups questioned whether the drug sting was racially motivated.
Last year, 45 of those arrested split a $6 million settlement of a civil rights lawsuit against Coleman and the 26 counties and three cities involved with the task force.