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Friday, August 26, 2011

Delay in hearing for police officer accused of insurance fraud

Posted By on Fri, Aug 26, 2011 at 5:29 PM

A preliminary hearing was delayed today in the case of a Pittsburgh police officer whose conduct was the subject of a City Paper report in March. 

City officer Garrett Brown did not appear for a preliminary hearing on charges of insurance fraud and theft by deception -- both third-degree felonies -- and making false reports. The hearing has been rescheduled for Oct. 21.

The allegations stem from a Nov. 19 incident recounted in the City Paper story. During that incident, deliverymen Blaine Johnston and Matthew Mazzie claimed they ran afoul of Brown at around 4 a.m.

After they passed Brown's truck heading the opposite way, the two men contend, Brown did a U-turn and began chasing them down. They allege that Brown subsequently punched the side of their van at a stoplight, and later rammed their delivery truck. Johnston, who says he was afraid of a physical confrontation, drove to Children's Hospital and called police. Only then, the drivers say, did they realize that Brown was a police officer.

Brown's side of the story, as recounted in a report filed by Officer William Kunz, was that he was sitting at a red light when Johnston rear-ended his truck. Brown, who was off-duty at the time of the incident, told Kunz he pulled up to the next stop light "so as to exchange information," according to the report, but Johnston kept driving.

"Damage to both vehicles was consistent with statements by Mr. Brown that a collision ... occurred between them," Kunz wrote in the criminal complaint.

But Brown's insurance company, at least, believes the collision didn't take place the way Brown had described.

According to the police complaint against Brown, Brown filed an accident claim with Erie Insurance on Dec. 1, in which he said "his vehicle was struck [by Johnston's van]." The company initially paid Brown $2,137.24 for damage to his vehicle; Erie also paid $445.80 for a rental car to use while the damage was repaired.

But in January, the complaint continues, an Erie insurance agent "receieved information indicating that Mr. Brown may be committing insurance fraud," which prompted further investigation.

During that investigation, "forensic examination of the two vehicles" suggested "that the truck driven by Garrett Brown struck the van in the front driver's side and that his vehicle was not struck from the rear as he had stated."

Brown, who has been on the city police force for a decade, has been accused of providing false information before. In a federal lawsuit stemming from another roadside confrontation, lawyers for truck-driver Leonard Hamler claimed that Brown had previously been brought up on a departmental charge of "lack of truthfulness."

The charges against Johnston have already been dismissed, after Brown did not show up for four preliminary hearings. And as the Post-Gazette noted earlier this month, the bureau's internal-affairs division determined that the incident took place as Johnston and Mazzie has described. The Office of Municipal Investigations also ruled that Brown had acted unethically, the paper reported.

Johnston was on hand to testify at Brown's hearing before district judge James Hanley this morning, but says the officer did not show up.

"I feel great someone is finally recognizing what happened," says Johnston. "But it's not over yet."

Police bureau spokesperson Diane Richard says Brown is on paid administrative leave while the incident is investigated, and that he "will face disciplinary action per Chief [Nate] Harper."

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