Phoenix faces US Justice Dept probe for inflated kidnapping stats

PHOENIX - The Phoenix Police Department is the target of an ongoing federal probe to determine if they reported inflated kidnapping statistics in order to obtain millions in grant funds, ABC15 has confirmed.

Agents with the U.S. Department of Justice were in Phoenix earlier this month to interview police staff and audit the city’s kidnapping reports from 2008, federal and local officials said.

Read more: Are Phoenix PD kidnapping stats wrong?

If the department fails the audit, Phoenix could have to pay back millions of grant dollars plus incur fines and penalties. A former U.S. Attorney told ABC15 the police department could also face potential criminal inquiries.

Phoenix is often called the kidnapping capital of the United States. And in 2008, police reported 358 kidnappings.

A year later, the police department used those kidnapping statistics on applications to obtain $2.4 million in federal grants. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and Public Safety Manager Jack Harris also testified to similar numbers before congress in the spring of 2009.

This is the second story of a three-part investigation. Tonight on ABC15 News at 10pm, the ABC15 Investigators reveal why Phoenix Police Department officials may have known about faulty kidnapping numbers.

We first told you about a possible federal investigation in December. Since then, the ABC15 Investigators have reviewed hundreds of the kidnapping reports, read thousands of pages and obtained internal memos, e-mails and recordings.

Our investigation found that Phoenix Police had major discrepancies in their 2008 kidnapping numbers, counting at least 100 that legal experts said should not have been counted.

Phoenix Police, the City Manager’s Office and Mayor Phil Gordon have declined to discuss specifics about the reports or federal audit. And while federal investigators are no longer in Phoenix, the DOJ Office of Inspector General confirmed that its case is still open.

“I would feel comfortable arguing to a jury that there was an attempt to pad some stats,” said Attorney Kurt Altman.

Altman is a former prosecutor for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and U.S. Attorney’s Office. He and another former Phoenix city prosecutor David Cantor agreed to review to several of the kidnapping reports.

“These aren’t even close,” Cantor said. “If these were used to get federal grant money, they have a real problem on their hands.”

During our investigation, ABC15 also obtained this e-mail from Commander Brent Vermeer to other police officials , telling them to stop spending any of the grant funds tied to the kidnapping statistics and federal audit.

It was sent Friday, January 28, 2011. It says, “Chief Harris has requested we refrain any of the Project eagle Eye money at this time.”

The grant, named Project Eagle Eye – Combating Criminal Narcotics Activity Along Southern Border , was worth $747,845.

That money was given to fund secret surveillance programs tied to border-related investigations.

The other grant was called ARRA 2009 Competitive Operation Home Defense .

Worth $1,725,349, the grant was used to fund Phoenix Police’s new Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement Unit, or HIKE.

In both grant applications, the Phoenix Police Department wrote that it needed extra funds because of a dramatic rise in kidnappings during recent years.

On both, Harris signed and certified the applications.

For months, Phoenix Police officials said that the kidnapping reports were accurate. But now, Phoenix Police Sgt. Tommy Thompson said the department may review the kidnapping statistics.

That wouldn’t be the first time. In December, we first questioned police about the accuracy of the kidnapping numbers. Commander Chuck Miiller said that the numbers “were not an issue” and that they had already been “reviewed multiple times.”

In an internal memo, Harris assured other city leaders that the kidnapping statistics were accurate and that they had been self-audited.

However, if the Department of Justice determines that police failed the federal audit Attorney Kurt Altman said Phoenix could have to pay the total grant amount back “two or three times over” because of fines and penalties.

Attorney Kurt Altman also told ABC15 the police department could also face potential criminal inquiries.

“If you sign and swear to something on federal documents, you’re generally signing under penalty of perjury,” he said.

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