His rap sheet cost city $290G
September 16, 2002
While the nation remains in a swoon over Rudolph Giuliani's Sept. 11 heroics, the meanness of his mayoralty is still being felt.
Two weeks ago, the city agreed to pay $290,000 to James Schillaci.
Schillaci filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Police Department of violating his civil rights by releasing his arrest record after he blew the whistle on a police red-light trap in the Bronx.
His rap sheet was released by Marilyn Mode, the Police Department's former deputy commissioner of public information. Mode was forced to reveal the specifics of her role in a deposition she gave on March 8, 2001.
It all began in August 1997 when Schillaci telephoned Giuliani's call-in radio show to complain of the traffic-signal trap near the Bronx Zoo. Having been caught by the snare himself, Schillaci even made a video showing officers tripping a red light to catch motorists off guard and ticket them.
On Aug. 26, the Daily News ran a front-page story on the red light trap. The same day police arrested Schillaci on a 1984 traffic warrant, which a judge dismissed the same day.
Mode then released Schillaci's rap sheet, including a case in the 1970s in which he was arrested for sodomy and the charge was later dropped.
Her action violated a long-standing - though apparently unwritten - department policy in which only prior arrests leading to convictions are released and only if the arrests are relevant to an issue at hand, such as a crime having been committed.
Mode testified she first learned about Schillaci's arrest record after getting a call from Giuliani press secretary Colleen Roche, who said News reporter Michael Finnegan had asked about it.
Mode said she then had "several conversations" with Bronx Borough Commander Chief John Scanlon, who told her of Schillaci's outstanding warrants.
She added that Scanlon told her they would "follow through" - i.e., arrest Schillaci. Scanlon, who has left the department and now works for Gov. George Pataki, did not return a call.
Mode said she asked whether Schillaci had a criminal record in New York State. She said she or someone on her staff transmitted that request to the Bronx Borough Patrol.
Schillaci's arrest record was faxed to her office and given to her "by a member of my staff. ... I believe it was Inspector [Michael] Collins." Collins, now a chief, was the commanding officer of the public information office. He declined to comment last week.
Mode said she discussed the rap sheet with Police Commissioner Howard Safir. Their conversation "was very simply that he had a very lengthy rap sheet dating back to the '70s," she said.
She then called Finnegan. "It was a lengthy conversation - 10 to 15 minutes," she said. She told Finnegan she had been alerted to his interest in Schillaci by Roche. "I said something to the effect that he has a past history with the department and might not be predisposed to be positive about the P.D.
"I told Mr. Finnegan Mr. Schillaci had a very lengthy criminal record dating back to the '70s. I told him he had been arrested for burglary, sodomy, drug possession," she said.
She said she listed arrests rather than convictions because "The convictions' column - the rap sheet - was so lengthy I couldn't follow what happens in each case in this short period of time."
Mode testified she told Finnegan that Schillaci was merely arrested - not convicted - of sodomy and that Finnegan misquoted her.
"I tried to correct the quote," she said, adding that she told Roche and another Daily News reporter. Finnegan, now a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, said he did not remember the specifics of the story. Roche declined to comment.
But a story on Aug. 30 quoted Mode as saying she had been "misinformed" about the sodomy conviction. She also refused to apologize.
"I have nothing to apologize for," she said.
Mode testified she did not know of any NYPD policy concerning the release of rap sheets. But she acknowledged, "Normally we give out a rap sheet around the time of an arrest."
Asked by Schillaci's attorney whether she recalled releasing anyone else's rap sheet to the media in circumstances other than an arrest, she said, "I can't recall any."
© 2002 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.