The election was supposed to have resolved all this.
Pima County voters turned Sheriff Chris Nanos, a Democrat, out of office in part due to a scandal over misuse of seized racketeering money.
Republican Mark Napier took over as sheriff, and the page was turned, right?
Turmoil continues to well up in the Sheriff’s Department because the scandal isn’t all the way over — and it’s a useful weapon against the man whose supporters used it to win him the election. Kind of a reverse Pottery Barn rule: You win a fractured department, you own it.
This story, of course, goes back to the controversy over the department’s misuse of seized money. My colleague Caitlin Schmidt broke the story back in November 2015, revealing that a niece of then-Chief Deputy Chris Radtke was running cafes at the department’s headquarters and the jail rent-free and with equipment purchased by Pima County.
The FBI investigated as a result of Schmidt’s reporting, and Radtke ended up charged with eight felonies and convicted of one misdemeanor, for theft.
Chief of staff Brad Gagnepain, who was also being investigated, died of suicide in June 2016. Then-Sheriff Nanos lost the November 2016 election in part because of the controversy swirling around the department’s misuse of RICO funds, which went back more than a decade.
The story might have ended on May 4, when Radtke was sentenced to probation. But instead, that day, the signs of dissatisfaction were in the courtroom. Some deputies in the audience groaned when the judge accepted the plea agreement, and Sgt. Kevin Kubitskey confronted the federal prosecutor on the case after the sentencing, saying justice hadn’t been done.
The steady undertow of grumbling turned into a riptide of rebellion Aug. 31, when KGUN Channel 9’s Valerie Cavazos reported that a lieutenant had secretly recorded Napier in a private discussion about the case. The lieutenant, Joseph Cameron, used the recordings to make the case that now it’s Napier who isn’t doing enough about the RICO scandal.
Most questionable to me from the recordings was Napier’s comment about the RICO scandal that, “A lot of people here did not follow the rules. I’m positive of that. All of my chiefs didn’t follow the rules. Many captains didn’t follow the rules. That is absolute crystal clear.”
But I was curious about Cameron, his motives and his thinking, so we agreed to meet for lunch last week at Bob Dobbs.
Cameron was a supporter of the incumbent, Nanos, in last year’s election, and in 2012 supported incumbent Clarence Dupnik in his winning race against Napier. But Cameron told me his only reason for publicly criticizing Napier was his concern that culpable officials, still high in the department, will never face consequences.
Even Napier’s decision in June to ask the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to conduct a second criminal investigation doesn’t necessarily satisfy Cameron.
“I’ve been telling Napier that I don’t think he went far enough,” Cameron said. “It’s a matter of public trust, restoring confidence in the agency.”
“We’re taught since the academy, when we see wrongdoing, we need to report it or we’re just as guilty,” he said.
Cameron also pointed to passages in the recordings in which Napier seemed to diminish the significance of the AG’s investigation.
But Cameron, a tough cop who leads with his chin when he talks, is not the best messenger for these accusations.
It’s not just that he was a political opponent of Napier in 2016, but that he may have an enmity that he says goes back 21 years. And Napier took Cameron off the patrol duty that he loves and put him in charge of the records division. A desk job — not a treat for a street cop.
Perhaps most importantly, in a detail not mentioned on KGUN, Cameron is the former Joe Harvey, a deputy whom Dupnik wanted to fire so badly, for alleged excessive use of force, that Dupnik went to the Arizona Supreme Court to get him canned. But the high court ruled in favor of the merit commission that gave him his job back, and Harvey returned to work.
But first he changed his name, from Joe Harvey to Joe Cameron, because he didn’t want to be judged or targeted due to his former name and notoriety. Then he won two promotions, first to sergeant, then to lieutenant.
Attorney Steve Portell, who represents local police unions, has been digging into the RICO scandal and acknowledged his client Cameron’s flaws as a whistleblower.
But he said Cameron’s not alone in his unhappiness with Napier.
“What Joe Cameron is saying is consistent with what other law enforcement officers have been saying has been going on for a long time,” he said. “That’s disturbing — to hear this much overlap. You can always discount one or two people.”
He added, “People who have come forward have been uniformly retaliated against.”
Retaliation is something Portell will have to show in court.
In the meantime, Napier is defending his handling of the RICO scandal by saying it’s right to wait until the AG comes back with the results of its probe — the second investigation of these same facts — before considering administrative consequences for those who broke rules.
“I have no reservation about the FBI investigation at all. I’ve spoken with them. I believe the investigation was thorough, complete,” Napier said. “Quite obviously, if the AG were to come back and criminally charge five of my commanders, the administrative part is pretty clear, isn’t it?
“Everybody wants knee-jerk reactions and emotional response, but I’m not going to do that.”
That seems defensible — for now. We’ll know Napier better by how he responds to the AG’s investigation.
If he takes decisive action against anyone shown to have approved the misuse of seized money, even Cameron may be satisfied.
If not, you can expect Napier’s opponents to drape the RICO scandal over him as if he caused it in the first place.
The next election is only three years away.