A 10-second FBI video clip of two top Ramsey County sheriff's aides stashing $6,000 in purported drug money is either evidence of corruption or a stupid practical joke, according to opening statements in their federal trial Tuesday.
"Our criminal justice system fails when those who are charged with enforcing our laws act corruptly," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Dixon said in his 30-minute opening statement to 16 jurors.
St. Paul Police Inspector Timothy Rehak and Mark Naylon, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher's public information officer, face identical eight-count federal indictments for two "integrity" tests in November 2004 and July 2005. Both have been on paid leave since last summer.
They are accused of six counts each of "honest services" wire fraud, depriving state citizens of their honest services. Each is also accused of stealing government money and conspiring to violate the civil rights of a person. U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz said he will push to wrap up the case by next Friday.
Defense lawyer Kevin Short, who is representing Rehak, told jurors the case has nothing to do with police corruption. He admitted that it was "stupid" for the two men to play "a practical joke with search warrant procedure."
However, Short maintained that the two men's act was nothing more than a joke and that they never intended to steal the money.
Rehak, a police officer since 1986, was assigned in 2004 to work for Fletcher's special investigations unit. Dixon said Rehak's friend and one-time neighbor Naylon also worked in that capacity even though he was a public information officer and not a licensed peace officer.
In October 2004, the FBI received information on Rehak, Dixon said. Working with an informant who faced a long prison sentence for drug charges, the FBI designed a test in which officers can either "act corruptly or lawfully," Dixon said.
The informant called Rehak and told him that a drug dealer named Vincent (Vinny) Pellagatti from Chicago was in custody in Wisconsin, but wanted to get at drugs and money stashed in room 503 at the Kelly Inn, near the State Capitol.
Both sides say Rehak responded to the informant by saying, "Let me see if I can't scarf that out of here."
Dixon said the comment was a sign that Rehak was going after the money. Short said it was evidence of an "honest cop" working with a long-time informant to try to make a bust.
In November 2004, federal authorities planted $13,500 in marked bills in a room at the Kelly Inn. They then videotaped Rehak and Naylon pulling the money bag out of a dresser. Naylon motioned to Rehak, who flipped him a fistful of bills. Naylon put them in a pocket. A third deputy was in the bathroom and out of view. When he came out, Rehak and Naylon both helped count and inventory the remaining $7,500.
Later, however, Rehak and Naylon conducted database searches and determined that the alleged drug dealer was fictional. They called the third deputy and told him they had found $6,000 more in a mattress at the hotel, Dixon said. At no point did they tell the man it was a joke, he emphasized.
But Short said the two wanted to mess with the third officer, whom they said had a bloated ego and a penchant for going home early. They wanted to wait until the officer was "home in his footie pajamas" before calling him back to inventory the rest of the money, Short said.
In another integrity check in July 2005, FBI agents placed a large amount of money in a car they recorded as stolen and had the same informant tell Rehak that drugs and money were in the car.
Dixon showed FBI video of Naylon and Rehak entering the vehicle and finding a stash of cash. Rehak is heard on the tape repeating an expletive and saying, "another [expletive] setup."
Naylon says, "Is that what it is? ... So we just [expletive] walk away?"
Rehak says, "They're probably [expletive] watching us."
Dixon and Short both said that Rehak knew a drug dealer wouldn't leave a bag of money and no drugs. They did not take any of the money.
Short said Rehak's behavior was that of a cop looking for a bad guy and that's why he and Naylon conducted surveillance on the vehicle overnight and again the next day.
Paul Rogosheske, who is representing Naylon, did not make an opening statement Tuesday. He said he might wait until today or later in the case. Either way, testimony is expected to begin today.
Schiltz read a list of potential witnesses, including Fletcher, Police Chief John Harrington, former Police Chief Bill Finney and defense attorney Joe Friedberg.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747