Too Good to Be True

What's the point of cracking open this Nutt?

Jan 16, 2002 at 4:00 am
The whole Rev. Maurice Nutt flap reminds Short Cuts of an old line from a 1950-ish B-movie about newspapers. The line goes something like this: "Reporters never tell the whole story. When they're young, it's because they don't know the whole story, and when they're old, it's because they do."

Sometimes the "whole story" is blocked by fear of a lawsuit; sometimes it's because the wrong person would get burned by the public attention. Other times, the story is so convoluted that it's just not worth telling. In the case of Nutt's resignation from the city's Board of Police Commissioners, it's at least two of those three. The "whole story" won't be told, and, despite the dunderheaded Jan. 10 Post-Dispatch editorial calling for full disclosure of the "facts," there's little reason to tell the nastier details of this episode, unless it's to satisfy the public's prurient interest in Nutt's Dec. 21 resignation.

What we have here is a popular president of the police board, a board that oversees the budget and promotions of the department, resigning because of complaints about his behavior that were never made public. Even the few who complain about this -- off the record -- tend to focus on the possible ramifications of "sexual McCarthyism," in which rumors and intimations trigger a resignation, rather than arguing about what actually happened.

The out-of-the-blue P-D editorial stated that "allegations of wrongdoing can't be swept under the rug without a loss of public confidence." That might be true if the public could name anyone on the five-member police board or cared who the board president is. When the "public" punches up 911, they want to know help is on the way. When they get pulled over for a traffic infraction, they want a fair shake. Only a salacious few are fretting about why Nutt resigned.

"The community is not demanding answers," says one person who knows the answers but isn't telling, at least not on the record. "The only people chomping on the bit are the media. They all know the story, but they just can't get anybody to confirm it on the record."

There's been enough wink-wink-nudge-nudge to the media coverage that most Enquirer-ing minds can connect the dots on their own. For those truly in need of idiotic invective, the CopTalk Internet Web site provided more than enough in the first few days after Nutt's resignation to give up some clues. One e-mail thread centered on how the board had to "bust a Nutt" because of what the priest had done. Some of the online coppers who deposit their venom on that site actually cut Nutt some slack, compared with their treatment of departing commissioner Eddie Roth, whom they really hate. At least Roth had the decency to get the hell outta Dodge, leaving for Dayton, Ohio. Let's face it: In most situations, cops are in charge, so the concept that they have to report to a board of political appointees getting paid a $1,000 annual stipend -- well, let's just say it makes them grouchy.

When this story went down, there was backchannel talk about the existence of audiotapes. Apparently Nutt left fairly mundane messages on the home answering machines of two patrolmen. The tapes became something like the local equivalent of Monica Lewinsky's blue dress -- the frock supposedly stained by the bodily fluids of former President Bill Clinton. In Clinton's case, there was a clear attempt by a Republican-controlled Congress to use allegations of sexual misconduct to overturn the results of the 1992 election -- a carnal coup d'etat. The Nutt case pales in comparison to the Clinton affair, in part because just the innuendo -- and the say-nothing tapes -- led Nutt to resign. Either the truth behind the allegations or the prospective hassle of presenting a defense against false charges led Nutt to quit.

The tapes were the leverage the two cops needed when they complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission representive in the police department's human-resources department. The possible incrimination provided by the tapes did not involve what was said; rather, the time of the day and night the calls were made, and the fact that they were made at all, was the cause of the fuss. There is no good reason the president of the board would be calling two rank-and-file cops incessantly, or so goes the rationale.

The two officers, weirded out by the calls, complained as part of an internal personnel process that is not open to the public, and Nutt resigned. No one involved is alleging that any criminal statutes were violated, by any stretch of the imagination. No civil suit is planned. Ex officio board member/ Mayor Francis Slay's reference to a need for an "investigation" was little more than a poor choice of words. Politicians at a loss for words usually say they'll look into whatever the flap of the day is.

For once with city police politics, race doesn't seem to be an issue. As with the resignation of another African-American commissioner, Khatib Waheed, there is little talk in African-American media about conspiracies or racism. In the Nutt case, both the priest and the patrolmen who complained are African-American. Waheed resigned because of what he admits is his son's trouble with the law.

What this boils down to is two things: Unless the two policemen who are the aggrieved parties in this fiasco change their minds, the case is closed. In fact, it was barely opened after Nutt resigned two days after they complained. More important, this is yet another example of how that vestige of the Civil War, a board appointed by the governor to control the city police, should be abandoned. The police account for a third of the city's budget, and it's time for Missouri to get over this unpleasantness and let the mayor be responsible for more than just signing off on the department's $124 million budget.

As the recipient of a political appointment by the governor, Nutt looked to be without a liability. Nutt was one-stop shopping for then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, who catered to two significant but largely different city constituencies -- Catholics and blacks -- by appointing the popular African-American priest. Nutt was too good to be true. Gov. Bob Holden knows that now.