Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Ethics Board Launches Probe of FPC Chair

Steven DeVougas will be investigated for ethical conflicts; his lawyer blasts "political gamesmanship" by police union.

By - Jul 20th, 2020 04:27 pm
Steven M. DeVougas. Photo from the Fire and Police Commission.

Steven M. DeVougas. Photo from the Fire and Police Commission.

The city’s citizen-led Ethics Board is opening an investigation into the conduct of attorney Steven M. DeVougas who chairs the city’s Fire & Police Commission (FPC). The investigation is just the latest twist in a saga that involves DeVougas, real estate developer Kalan Haywood, Sr. and Police Chief Alfonso Morales.

The board voted unanimously to create a special committee to investigate DeVougas’ appearance with Haywood before the Milwaukee Police Department on August 13th, 2019 regarding a sexual assault investigation. Haywood has been accused, but not charged in the matter.

DeVougas, at the time, served as a real estate attorney for Haywood’s firm Haywood Group. But in his part-time role as a commissioner on the FPC he oversees the police department and fire department.

Shortly before a hastily-scheduled December vote on awarding Morales’ a four-year contract was to happen a video of DeVougas representing Haywood was leaked to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Morales, who said he would investigate the leaked video but later dropped the investigation, benefitted from its publication.

It helped push the commission to vote on a four-year contract for Morales, with DeVougas submitting one of two no votes. A six-month evaluation of Morales’ performance is scheduled to be discussed Monday night by the Fire & Police Commission.

The complaint was submitted to the ethics board by the Milwaukee Police Association, the union for rank-and-file police officers. It alleges that DeVougas used his outside employment in a fashion that created a conflict of interest and was for financial gain.

An independent report, commissioned by the FPC to review the conduct of DeVougas and the leak of a video, found that DeVougas may have violated the city’s ethics policy in appearing with Haywood. DeVougas said he appeared in his capacity with the firm rather than as a defense attorney, but the police told the investigator DeVougas would have been asked to leave if he identified as such. And the interview transcript shows Haywood interrupted the questioning with comments or questions “as criminal counsel might be expected to do” at least 22 times.

Morales told the FPC investigator that DeVougas indicated he would vote to give him a four-year term if Morales would fire the officer at the center of the Sterling Brown incident. At the time Morales was serving out the remainder of retired chief Edward A. Flynn‘s term.

“There is no evidence that Mr. DeVougas used or attempted to use his position as a commissioner to obtain unlawful benefits for himself or anyone else,” wrote DeVougas’ attorney Jacob Manian of Fox, O’Neill and Shannon in a letter to the Ethics Board. “Following the interview, Mr. DeVougas did nothing to attempt to influence or interfere with the investigation. To the contrary, he immediately withdrew from involvement in the matter and Mr. Haywood retained criminal defense counsel.”

“Unfortunately, one cannot help but wonder whether the MPA is abusing this governmental process for political gain and gamesmanship,” wrote Manian.

In addition to investigating the April 14th issue, the Ethics Board did move forward with investigating the MPA complaint related to alleged discrepancies regarding DeVougas’ source of income on his economic interest forms.

The MPA complaint also alleged that DeVougas violated the state’s open meetings law by appearing on radio station WNOV and discussing FPC business alongside Commissioner Everett Cocroft. DeVougas had appointed himself to every FPC committee at that point, routinely triggering open meetings issues. The Ethics Board ruled Monday afternoon that it did not have the jurisdiction to investigate that complaint.

Copies of both the MPA complaint and Manian’s response are available on Urban Milwaukee.

Mayor Tom Barrett, who appointed DeVougas, but does not have the power to remove him (only the Common Council can do that)  has discussed a possible resignation with DeVougas. “I believe he cares about the Fire & Police Commission and the city, and that it’s in their best interest if he recognizes that the appearances make it difficult for him to continue as a member of the Fire and Police Commission,” said Barrett.

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