FBI informant payments derail sentencing hearing for 'best cop money can buy'

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The former police chief in Washington County who called himself "the best cop money can buy" won a reprieve from sentencing on extortion charges Thursday when his attorney suggested that the key informant had been bought for even more.

Donald Abraham Solomon, 57, of East Washington admitted in January to taking around $8,800 from an FBI agent he thought was a drug dealer in return for standing guard over two meetings and supplying two Tasers.

He may try to withdraw his guilty plea, though, following the prosecution's revelation that the informant was paid $31,200 over two years, and was at some point given a job with the FBI. The informant may have had an overwhelming "desire to please the FBI if he has this highly lucrative, ongoing relationship," argued assistant federal public defender Marketa Sims. If the informant's consent to record phone conversations with Mr. Solomon was driven by "excessive inducements," she said, then the evidence gathered in those calls might be challenged.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Cessar called it "a tempest in a teapot" that didn't override the fact that Mr. Solomon admitted to committing extortion. And U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti said the payments weren't "enough money to live a lavish lifestyle, by any means."

At the very least, though, Mr. Solomon bought some time. He remains on house arrest pending a June 14 hearing on whether the payments to the informant were excessive.

"It's not a violation of law to pay somebody" to help accumulate evidence, said Duquesne University School of Law professor Bruce Ledewitz. And news of the payments probably isn't "grounds for withdrawal of the plea, technically." But a judge can say, "You had a right to go to trial a month ago, so if you want to go to trial now, fine."

The case against Mr. Solomon is built on informants, taped phone and face-to-face conversations, video, text messages, witness statements and his own confession. The informant is just one piece.

Ms. Sims lost legal battles throughout the morning, which she said had the effect of raising the guideline sentence beyond 11 years. Had she prevailed, federal guidelines would have called for roughly three years in prison.

But as FBI Special Agent Travis Cooke began to testify to two dozen exhibits, Ms. Sims objected that she had never been provided with requested information on "inducements" provided to the informant. Judge Conti ordered prosecutors to give her the information over lunch.

"Mr. Solomon entered a plea without ever having any inkling" of the payments to the informant, Ms. Sims protested when the hearing resumed. She suggested that his plea to three counts of extortion was "wrongfully induced."

Paying informants "is allowed," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David A. Harris, who specializes in evidentiary issues, but sometimes "the process just goes haywire.

"You get to the point where you're simply offering so great a benefit, whether it's money or something else, where it becomes a real question whether you're offering so much that they would say anything."

At a trial, the amount paid would be used to impeach the informant's credibility. At sentencing, such credibility questions "matter a lot less," Mr. Harris said.

Mr. Solomon earned $40,100 as chief, but was having financial problems. The FBI was investigating his sometime friend, Timothy D. Johnson, for making silencers, and learned that the chief told Johnson to engage in a drive-by shooting of the chief's ex-girlfriend's boyfriend's car.

Mr. Solomon was videotaped sitting at his headquarters desk, in uniform, describing himself as "the best cop money can buy." Mr. Solomon also talked about killing his ex-girlfriend and at least hinted that a borough councilman should be murdered.

Through conversations with the informant, he met the undercover agent. The agent, posing as a drug dealer, paid Mr. Solomon $1,500 to sit in a marked police car with three firearms outside of the first faux deal, said to involve 4 kilograms of cocaine, according to Mr. Cooke.

Mr. Solomon later took $5,300 to keep watch outside of what he was told was a 10-kilogram buy, Mr. Cooke said. He sold two Tasers to the undercover agent for $1,000 each.

Ms. Sims argued that the sentence shouldn't be based on the weight of drugs that didn't really exist. "The government could have said, 'You're guarding a million kilos,' and then we'd be talking about a life sentence," she said.

The undercover agent later asked Mr. Solomon if he could get silencers -- described in a text message as "a shoosh for my boom" -- plus explosives and untraceable weapons. Mr. Solomon's texted responses indicated that he was trying.

Johnson, 42, is serving a five-year sentence for illegal transfers of firearms including silencers and a machine gun. Frank G. Archambault, 65, of West Alexander, who pleaded guilty in January to buying and trading guns with Johnson despite being a felon, was sentenced Wednesday to one day in prison and 10 months of home detention.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter: @richelord. First Published May 16, 2013 1:00 PM


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