Phoenix police kidnap stats whistleblower Sgt. Phil Roberts wins settlement, gets job back

The ABC15 Investigators have learned that a Phoenix sergeant who was fired after blowing the whistle on bogus kidnapping statistics will get his job back after the city offered to settle his lawsuit.

Sgt. Phil Roberts filed a lawsuit in 2011 against the City of Phoenix in federal court, alleging wrongful termination and retaliation.

On Thursday, both parties entered into mediation. The city offered to give Roberts his job back.  

What isn't clear yet is how much the city is going to pay Roberts and his attorneys.

Phoenix officials did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. Roberts also declined to be interviewed.

But the settlement ends an ugly and expensive case that insiders say was motivated by retaliation and clouded by controversy.

Phoenix's Kidnapping Problem

Click here for a detailed explanation, history and breakdown for all of the kidnappings Phoenix Police claimed happened in 2008.

If Phoenix had a ransom kidnapping in 2008, Roberts more than likely led the investigation.

They were the type of kidnappings that police claimed were happening every day – 358 of them.

Police officials routinely cited the numbers to the public and the media, earning Phoenix the title of a "kidnapping capital."

They department also used the numbers to get millions of dollars in federal grants.

In February 2011, an ABC15 Investigation exposed that those statistics weren't true – not even close.

But a year before our story aired, inside the department Roberts had started writing a series of memos alleging police misconduct, including information that the kidnapping stats were wrong.

Those memos would get him fired.

"It's clearly retaliation," said David Kothe, a retired Phoenix officer and union representative.

A Long, Decorated Career

Phil Roberts joined the Phoenix Police Department in 1985.

He worked his way up the ranks from a patrol officer to detective, then to sergeant. He would land in the violent crimes bureau investigating many of the city's worst crimes.

"He bled Phoenix PD blue," Kothe said.

The ABC15 Investigators have reviewed Roberts' entire personnel file. Before the kidnapping controversy, his file shows a spotless record.

Roberts was awarded twice for saving people's lives. He also earned another two medals for bravery.

But Kothe and Roberts' attorney Paul Orfanedes said everything changed after Roberts wrote those internal memos. Roberts alleged kidnapping numbers were inflated to get millions in federal funds.

"A very high level meeting took place in which an order was given to investigate Sgt. Roberts," Orfanedes said in an interview in May.

That meeting happened on August 18, 2010.

The ABC15 Investigators have obtained handwritten notes taken by an assistant police chief who attended the meeting.

Also in attendance:
- Jack Harris – former Phoenix Police Chief
- Ed Zuercher –Phoenix Assistant City Manager
- Gary Verburg – Phoenix City Attorney
- Toni Maccarone – Phoenix City Spokesperson
- Chuck Miiller –  Phoenix Police Commander, now Assistant Chief
- Rick Namark – Phoenix Deputy City Manager
- Elaine Caldwell – Phoenix Assistant City Attorney
- Janet Smith – Phoenix H.R. Director

The directions were clear: "Investigate Phil Roberts."

"It's wrong because it's retaliation. It's wrong because it's abuse of a whistleblower," said Orfanedes, who works for the Washington, D.C., law firm Judicial Watch.

Within weeks, Roberts was placed under internal investigation on five different allegations, records show. He was also reassigned and placed on overnight jail duty.

The Phoenix Police Department would eventually fire Roberts in January 2013 after sustaining three of those allegations: Making untruthful statements and/or assertions; using city material and/or equipment for personal gain; and failing to follow his chain of command.

"It pretty much destroyed Phil's career," Kothe said.

‘Questionable' Investigation

The Phoenix Police Department's full investigative file of Roberts' case has not been released.

But in a case overview obtained through a public records request, Phoenix police investigators would allege that Roberts made untruthful accusations in his memos, including statements surrounding the kidnapping statistics.

But police and city officials have repeatedly given inaccurate, wrong or misleading information. ABC15 also provided the department with several copies of problematic reports in advance of the story in February 2011.

On December 21, 2010, a police commander said that the kidnapping stats were correct and that they had been "fully audited" and "verified" multiple times. On February 25, 2011, a police spokesperson said there was nothing wrong with the kidnapping reports.

Both of those statements were incorrect.

After ABC15 broke the story, City Manager David Cavazos called a press conference on March 3, 2011. He said that his office was just informed that "some of the reports had been mislabeled."

But top members of his staff received memos from Sgt. Roberts several months earlier.

The handwritten notes from that August meeting would also show that his office knew about the kidnapping statistics months before that press conference and that members of his staff had discussed investigating Sgt. Roberts.

Those handwritten notes also raise serious questions about the integrity of Phoenix's investigation against Roberts.  

Documents show that a Phoenix lieutenant may have given wrong information to federal investigators .

The Office of Inspector General conducted two investigations of Phoenix Police – one about inaccurate kidnapping statistics and the other looking at retaliation against Sgt. Roberts.

In the final report of the retaliation investigation, OIG agents stated that a Phoenix lieutenant said that "she made the decision to investigate Roberts before August 2010."

The report also said that the lieutenant claimed "no one in the PPD command staff or other official directed her to investigate Roberts."

The handwritten notes we obtained directly contradict those statements.

Months after the report was released, that lieutenant abruptly resigned from the Phoenix Police Department.

It's not clear if the city has informed the OIG about the conflicting information or if they have provided the documents we obtained to federal agents.

Phoenix investigators would also sustain an allegation that Roberts used city resources for personal benefit or gain.

That finding was based on the fact that Roberts wrote his memos to city leaders using the City of Phoenix "bird" symbol on the letterhead, records show.

The final sustained allegation against Roberts would find that Roberts went outside of his chain of command to report misconduct and caused a disruption within the police department.

"I can't think of a charge of disrupting the organization that reached this result," Kothe said. "I can't."

The Phoenix kidnapping controversy did have an unprecedented impact on the city.

Former police chief Jack Harris publicly attacked the accusations.

At an impromptu early-morning news conference at the scene of an unrelated crime, Harris challenged critics of the kidnapping statistics.

"If anybody wants these stars can come and get them," Harris said. "But I got news for you, I'm not giving them to you. You're going to have to take them."

Harris was removed from his position as police chief the next day.

The city would also launch an investigation, assembling a panel to review the kidnapping statistics.

The city also spent millions to replace its record management system after blaming bad record keeping for the inaccurate kidnapping statistics.

Expensive Case

Phoenix hired outside counsel to handle the Roberts case.

ABC15 Investigators received legal bills from the city that show that the case has been expensive. So far, the city has paid an outside lawyer more than $440,000.

The city could also be on the hook for Roberts' attorneys' fees plus any award or settlement amount.

"Who's paying it? The taxpayers," Kothe said. "When the taxpayers pay the bill, there seems to be this attitude that ‘well it's not my money.'"

But the cost isn't the only thing that should worry citizens, Kothe said. He worries about the integrity of the police department.

"Anybody out there in government, especially on the police department, if there's something else going on and they are aware of it, are they going to put their head in the beehive?," Kothe said. "It just shuts people up."

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