COLUMBIA, SC — Mayor Steve Benjamin on Tuesday afternoon asked the state’s top police agency to broaden its investigation of city police to include allegations that the interim chief schemed to plant evidence on his boss to clear a career path for himself and his predecessor.
Benjamin’s letter to SLED chief Mark Keel comes a day after interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago wrote the agency seeking an inquiry into allegations that former Capt. David Navarro might have shredded documents and misappropriated money from the Columbia Police Foundation.
The mayor wants the State Law Enforcement Division to look into Navarro’s contentions about Santiago, who has made no secret of his ambition to replace Randy Scott as chief. Scott resigned April 22 after disappearing from public view for three weeks only to resurface, announce that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and leave the job.
SLED said Tuesday it has opened an investigation, but would not say precisely what its agents are looking into.
Spokesman Thom Berry declined to say if the probe deals with allegations Navarro made public over the weekend against Santiago or merely is limited to what the interim chief requested.
“We are refraining from any specific comments,” Berry said. The mayor asked that SLED work “as quickly as you can.”
The police department Tuesday afternoon released Santiago’s letter to SLED dated Monday. In it, the interim chief asks agents to investigate “the suspicious actions of David Navarro.”
Later in the day, Benjamin also released his letter, dated Tuesday.
Navarro has told reporters that Santiago asked Navarro about six months ago to help frame senior assistant city manager Allison Baker. Baker’s duties include overseeing the police department.
The scheme, according to a sworn statement Navarro released through his attorney, was to plant cocaine and a stolen gun from another case in Baker’s car. Navarro’s duties included supervision of the department’s drug suppression unit, so he could oversee those kinds of crime scenes.
The goal, according to Navarro, was to remove the veteran Baker from his position, which would make room for then-Chief Scott to be hired at City Hall. That would elevate Santiago to the chief’s post, Navarro said.
Santiago was appointed to manage the long-troubled department until a full-time successor is named by city manager Teresa Wilson. She is working on what city leaders have said would be a national search.
Navarro, 52, and an Army retiree, has said he’s willing to take a polygraph test to support his allegations. His attorney, Glenn Walters of Orangeburg, did not return a message Tuesday for comment.
Questions about police foundation
Santiago’s request for a probe of foundation money opens a door on a group that has received little public attention and has had organizational troubles.
An independent audit, which Santiago said he requested, has not been released despite requests by The State newspaper. Santiago directed a reporter to the foundation, and the foundation directed the reporter to the police department.
In the most recent twist, the S.C. secretary of state’s office said it sent a letter on Tuesday notifying the foundation that it is in violation of a state law that requires registration of tax-exempt fundraising organizations.
“We did not get their registration today,” deputy general counsel Shannon Wiley said of the back and forth between her agency and the foundation. “So the (delinquency) letter is in the mail.”
The letter gives the foundation 15 days to comply before the secretary of state suspends its registration, Wiley said. That can lead to a fine of up to $2,000 or, in aggravated circumstances, the prospect of being taken to Administrative Law Court for a judge to order the foundation to cease its fundraising, she said.
Established in 2011 as the police department’s fundraising arm, the foundation solicits money to buy equipment for the department or to support officers during a crisis. It had $18,526 in its First Citizens bank account as of May 31, according to documents provided Tuesday by Tyler Ryan, the foundation’s new vice president.
In January, the foundation spent $18,000 to buy two police dogs, according to account statements.
Foundations are common among law enforcement agencies.
Chief Scott brought the idea of a foundation from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, where Scott worked for more than a decade. The sheriff’s department established its foundation in 1997 when Sheriff Leon Lott first was elected.
Rick Patel, president of the foundation, said it is not under investigation.
“It’s totally different from the investigation that’s happening at the police department right now,” Patel said.
Instead, police are investigating a petty cash box that Navarro managed, Patel said. That cash was raised by selling T-shirts, stickers and other novelties with the police department logo on them. Money raised through those sales was used to purchase more merchandise to sell, he said.
Navarro never handed over that cash to the foundation, Patel said.
“We don’t mess with T-shirts and stickers,” Patel said of the foundation’s board. “We’re all business owners. We don’t have time for that.”
Typically, foundations are managed by a board of directors, who approve all purchases, and officers do not have access to cash or checks.
When asked why the foundation’s paperwork at the secretary of state’s office had not been filed properly, Patel said he was not aware that there was a problem. He said that paperwork is handled by a Columbia law firm.
Ryan, the board’s vice president, also said he did not know why the paperwork was not in order. He said he has been on the board for two weeks.
Navarro, in the sworn statement he released to the public, said Santiago approached him three times about a “black ops” plan.
“When, each time, I told him I was not going to be involved, he would then say he was just joking,” Navarro wrote. “But he proposed the same illegal plan on theses (sic) 3 separate occasions.”
The details of the scheme involved the two police leaders taking control of a crime scene where cocaine and a stolen gun were present, according to Navarro. They would send other officers away, take the evidence and “he (Santiago) would then place those into asst.(sic) city manager Allison Baker’s car.”
“Santiago said he could claim that an anonymous tip led him to direct other officers to search Allison Baker’s car,” according to the affidavit. “Baker would be fired, allowing Scott to take the job. Once Scott left, Santiago would become chief.”
Navarro, hired in January 2011, did not spell out what his reward would have been for his role in the scheme.
Santiago denies Navarro’s allegations, calling them “ridiculous. I would invite SLED to look at it.”
City manager Wilson said Monday she has “no evidence, statements, witnesses – zero – to support” Navarro’s allegations.
Navarro said in the affidavit he told Santiago on July 9 that he was going to report Santiago’s scheme to Baker. Navarro also said he called the department’s internal affairs unit and the city manager before calling SLED on July 10.
City Hall leaders suspended Navarro without pay on July 10 after an internal investigation of his actions. Wilson signed a termination letter last week, citing Navarro’s failure to report to his newly assigned duties, recording a conversation with Santiago in violation of city policies, and engaging in what the city manager called rumors, innuendo and salacious stories.
Navarro received the termination letter on Monday.
On that day, SLED would say only that allegations had been reported to the agency but that it had not decided whether to formally start an investigation.
Asked Tuesday if SLED plans to request that Navarro take a lie-detector test, Berry said, “In any investigation, we will go where it takes us.” He declined to elaborate.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664. Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.