Does racism have a statute of limitations? Does news? If something that happened three years ago would have caused a public outcry but only now comes to light, is it still newsworthy?
Each new release of one of Richard Nixon's secret White House tapes attracts headlines, but those revelations are more history than news. After all, Nixon left office 28 years ago.
But what about Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis Jr.? He's still in office. If Leis used racial slurs, as Nixon did, but nobody heard about it until three years later, is it news? The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Cincinnati Post apparently have decided the answer is no.
This is a CityBeat exclusive by default.
Earlier this summer both daily newspapers received a tip about explosive accusations in a deposition given three years ago. The most scandalous accusation is that Leis called a deputy sheriff a "nigger."
The accuser was no cop-basher but rather William Engelman, former chief investigator in the internal affairs division of the sheriff's department. The testimony came in October 1999, in an employment discrimination lawsuit by former Deputy Cavoya Edwards. The county settled the suit by paying $250,000 from its general fund.
Because the case never went to trial, Engelman's testimony went the way of nearly all depositions — nobody noticed it. Then, three years later, someone brought the deposition to the attention of Cincinnati newspapers.
When CityBeat obtained a copy of the deposition, a woman working for the court reporter service said, "That's really become popular lately." After languishing for three years, Engelman's deposition was suddenly in demand among reporters. Both The Post and The Enquirer obtained copies. Neither paper, however, has printed a story about the deposition or about Leis' alleged remarks.
What makes the testimony so tempting but too hot to handle? The allegations go beyond alleged racial slurs, raising questions about pressure to have investigations reach certain conclusions.
Here's an excerpt from the deposition:
"Q: Mr. Engelman, you don't recall who handed you the documents, but do you recall who gave you the order to do the investigation?
"A: That would have been the sheriff.
"Q: Do you recall what he said to you?
"A: Yes, sir.
"Q: Would you please tell me?
"A: He stated, 'I don't like that nigger. Get rid of her.'
"Q: Did he say anything else?
"A: 'Do the investigation and get rid of her.' "
Leis turned down requests for an interview but sent CityBeat a notarized affidavit denying Engelman's accusation.
"The allegation contained in the deposition of William Engelman, a former disgruntled employee, that I used a racial slur in the Cavoya Edwards matter is absolutely false," Leis' affidavit says. "It did not occur."
Engelman testified he refused to let his investigation be steered. But he testified he felt pressured.
"Q: Did you feel like you were being asked indirectly to conduct your invitation in a manner other than objective?
"A: Oh, yes, sir.
"Q: Who do you feel was kind of placing the pressure on you to conduct your investigation in an other than objective manner?
"A: The sheriff."
Did the pressure work? A jury would have decided, but the case never went to trial. Engelman testified he didn't put the racial slur in his report.
"Q: Did you make the sheriff's statement — that 'I don't like that nigger, get rid of her' — part of your investigation?
"A: No, sir, I did not.
"Q: Is there a reason why you didn't?
"A: I was currently employed by the man.
"Q: And you were afraid to lose your job?
"A: Yes, sir."
Two other deputies last week signed affidavits denying Engelman's claim that Leis used the slur in their presence. Leis' affidavit also denies Engelman's allegation that Leis demoted him for investigating a captain who was a friend of Leis — a matter that led to the captain's conviction for theft in office.
BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.