Did Chief Morales Target His FPC Boss?
Common Council concerned. “Borderline frightening” use of police power, Bauman charges.
Did Milwaukee police leak incriminating information to try to intimidate Fire & Police Commission chair Steven M. DeVougas, who was delaying the award of a new contract to Police Chief Alfonso Morales? There is considerable concern about this among Milwaukee Common Council members, with some calling for an investigation by the City Attorney or Milwaukee County District Attorney.
But there is also evidence that DeVougas used his position as FPC chair to help a business associate facing a sex assault charge. Both Morales and Devougas look bad, as does the Milwaukee Police Department. Rules were broken, corners were cut, and there clearly needs to be some kind of investigation to prevent this from happening again.
The story starts back in July when a woman reported a sexual assault to the police, accusing real estate developer Kalan Haywood Sr. of committing the offense. Haywood’s company employs DeVougas, an attorney, to do legal work related to real estate. This was clearly not such a matter, yet DeVougas accompanied Haywood when he was questioned by police.
Given that DeVougas, as head of the FPC, is involved in hiring and firing the police chief, disciplining police personnel and overseeing hiring and promotion practices, it was an obvious conflict of interest for him to get involved in a criminal matter investigated by police.
But it appears this resulted in special treatment for Haywood. Rather than being grilled at police headquarters Haywood was questioned at the department’s Sensitive Crimes Unit at Sojourner Family Peace Center, “in a room with soft lighting and comfortable furniture,” as a Journal Sentinel story later reported.
This was a flagrant violation of the rules, as this facility includes a domestic violence shelter and is supposed to offer protection for victims of sex assault, and never allow accused suspects into the building, as Carmen Pitre, president and CEO of Sojourner, told the newspaper “Everyone in the sensitive crimes unit is angry this happened,” said a inside source close to the unit in an interview with Urban Milwaukee.
Yet DeVougas seemed in no hurry. On December 13 he told the press there is “no rush to hand out a four year term.” And on December 16 DeVougas told the Journal Sentinel the FPC would not be voting that week on whether to award a four-year contract. DeVougas has denied trying to use his position as FPC chair to get a better deal for Haywood, saying he attended the police interview as a business associate and not a lawyer. But his delay of the contract discussion could have certainly been seen that way by certain members of the police department.
And so someone in the department dropped a bomb on DeVougas, leaking the video of him attending the police interview of Haywood to the Journal Sentinel, which reported the story.
This video is part of a pending criminal investigation of a prominent person in the community and involves a sensitive crime and an alleged sexual assault victim. In short, this is something the police department should have been carefully guarding, to protect the identity of both the accused and accuser. Yet it was leaked to the newspaper. This meant Haywood, who hasn’t been proven to have committed a crime, was made to look guilty in the press. Worse, enough information about the case was reported that the victim effectively lost her anonymity.
“There were enough details in the story to identify her,” says the inside source. “That has never happened before on a sexual assault investigation.”
And yet there is no sense that anyone in the department cared. The police union president Shawn Lauda was quoted by the newspaper calling on DeVougas to resign. And Morales piled on, offering this quote: “When a member of our oversight commission provides criminal defense in a matter being investigated by our department, it places our members in an extremely difficult position and risks compromising the integrity of that investigation.”
If the member of this department who leaked the video had been concerned about DeVougas interfering in a criminal investigation, why did he or she wait months to leak this video? The timing of this suggests it was meant to pressure DeVougas to approve Morales’ contract.
That was the conclusion of Ald. Nik Kovac, who had this to say at a Steering and Rules Committee meeting of the Common Council. “It would appear that whoever released that information was hoping to discredit the integrity and the authority of one of your colleagues,” Kovac told FPC Commissioner Nelson Soler during the meeting. “That came from within the department. The department did not disavow it.”
Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs was outraged that a sexual assault victim’s identify had been leaked. “For a department that is supposed to uphold the law to be the very one that, it appears, leaks information about the potential, possible sexual assault victim to the media, to the public, is alarming. And the fact that (FPC) commission members, the mayor – who also was questioned about it – (and) the chief… have been silent… over that and finding out how that was allowed to happen is utterly disturbing to me.”
DeVougas has rightly been embarrassed by his decision to involve himself in a criminal investigation and was chastised by the mayor in the JS story. “I think there are common sense rules that an individual who is a member of the (FPC) should be very careful to avoid a conflict of interest,” Barrett said.
But Morales, meanwhile, has done nothing to investigate a leak that has compromised a criminal investigation and made his department look bad. “Almost everything that was done violates how you do an investigation like this,” the source says. “There has to be an audit trail of the leaked video.”
And if nothing is done to root out the leaker, the source adds, “you get a reputation as a department no one can trust.”
Ald. Robert Bauman blasts the release of the video as a scary use of police power. “It’s borderline frightening that they can manipulate the criminal investigation process to serve their own ends. On its face that appears to be what this is.”
“We give the police extensive power — to put people in custody, to conduct investigations, they carry handcuffs, they carry guns — and if that power is abused,” Bauman warns, “it can be very problematic for a democracy.”
The message to DeVougas, a citizen appointee whose job is to oversee the police, is don’t mess with us, or all our power will come down on you.
The Journal Sentinel story, Kovac declared, “was full of information that should not have been public… It happened on the chief’s watch. It may have directly benefited the chief’s career. Should there be an investigation into that?”
There have been concerns that the FPC director Griselda Aldrete is too cozy with the police department. Representatives of the department rushed to her defense when questions were raised about her performance.
If the FPC does nothing about this shocking use of police power — countenanced by Chief Morales — then we will know it’s a rubber stamp for the department.
But the buck also stops with Mayor Tom Barrett, who appoints the director of the FPC and nominates commission members. The mayor’s office offered this quote to Urban Milwaukee: “He shares the concern of the timing of the (video’s) release and supports a process to determine the appropriateness.”
Given the stakes here, that’s pretty weak tea. If the mayor doesn’t push for an internal investigation by the police department, with oversight by the FPC, then the message to Chief Morales will be crystal clear: you can use police power any way you want. And that, says Bauman, would be a situation “that should put chills up the spine of every citizen.”
(Note: Chief Morales did not respond to requests for comment.)
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