COLUMBIA, SC — ONLINE
The news that no charges will be filed against the Columbia Police Department’s interim chief does not clear the cloud that hangs over him and the department.
While interim Chief Ruben Santiago will not be prosecuted for an alleged “black ops” plot to plant drugs and a gun in another city official’s car, a prosecutor who reviewed a corruption case against him and a fired officer said the chief was not forthright with state and federal investigators.
Now, city manager Teresa Wilson said she will review the FBI and State Law Enforcement Division case file to determine her next step.
During a Tuesday news conference about the investigation, 13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins, who reviewed the case, said there was insufficient evidence to pursue charges. But he said investigators had been forced to broaden their case after Santiago and a former city crime analyst potentially hindered their work.
The actions of Santiago and former analyst Bridget Caffery did not rise to the level of obstruction of justice or misconduct in office, Wilkins said.
“The conduct of interim Chief Santiago and Miss Caffery caused the FBI and SLED to broaden the scope of their investigation to determine if either party intentionally hindered or impeded the administration of justice,” Wilkins said. “Specifically, there were instances of these individuals failing to be completely forthright with investigators regarding certain aspects of the investigation.”
Investigators also did not find sufficient evidence to charge former police captain David Navarro with a crime after he was accused of shredding documents and embezzling money from a petty cash fund. It was Navarro who in July leveled the corruption allegations against Santiago, which led to the investigations.
Now, the criminal investigation is closed, Wilkins said.
“We have exhausted all avenues that are available to us at this time,” Wilkins said.
Still, the investigation’s shadow looms large over the department as it has called into question its leadership and has affected morale after multiple officers and employees were interviewed by the FBI and SLED.
The investigation also hangs over the city as it searches for a new police chief.
Santiago had applied to be chief but was eliminated after a second round of interviews. He has a vocal group of supporters who believe he should be chief.
And Wilson’s decision about what to do next also means the matter is not yet settled.
It is possible that Santiago’s actions could have violated city policy even though his actions did not rise to the level of criminal charges. Wilson said she will not make any decisions until she has reviewed the file.
“I along with proper subject matter experts, executive staff and legal advisers, will meet to review the file thoroughly to ensure that we have assessed all outcomes of the investigation process,” Wilson said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Wilson and some City Council members have been in a power struggle over the police chief search. Wilkins said some elected officials had tried to get inside information from him during the investigation. He would not say which elected officials had called but said Wilson had not.
“My understanding is there was a lot of political maneuvering going on within the city and they were looking for information,” Wilkins said. “I couldn’t provide substantial information at that time because my investigation was not concluded. I was not here to give any favors to any friends or to punish any enemies.”
Wilkins, a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina, said his job was to review possible criminal charges and to decide whether he had enough evidence to prove someone had committed a crime. His review did not include internal city policy or police professional conduct.
The investigation began in July when Navarro accused Santiago of a plot to plant drugs and a gun in assistant city manager Allison Baker’s car. Baker, who reports to Wilson, is the chief’s supervisor.
Navarro said that Santiago had asked him to participate in a “black ops” plan to steal drugs and a gun from a crime scene. Santiago and then-chief Scott wanted to get rid of Baker so both could move up the ranks within the city’s administration, said Navarro, who signed an affidavit outlining the accusations.
Santiago has denied the allegations.
He said Navarro was retaliating against him because Navarro was bitter about his new assignment to the city’s north region, which patrols the Harbison and Irmo areas. Navarro had been supervising specialized police units such as the drug suppression team and community policing team.
Navarro made the allegations public after Wilson fired him for failing to report to duty, secretly recording conversations and spreading rumors.
Navarro could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and his attorney, Glenn Walters, declined comment about the investigation.
Santiago and Navarro have sued each other.
On Tuesday, Santiago said he was relieved the investigation was over.
“I’ve said it from Day 1 that I was confident there was no wrongdoing on my part,” Santiago said.
As for Wilkins’ statements that Santiago had not been forthright with investigators, the interim chief said he “was kind of puzzled as to some of the statements that were made over omissions and forthcomings.”
“I can’t imagine,” Santiago said when asked why Wilkins had brought that up. “All of the questions that were asked of me, I did the best I could to explain them.”
Santiago said he gave investigators one written statement and was interviewed once. He said he cooperated in both.
Caffery, who resigned from the department last month, also said she cooperated. Caffery told The State newspaper that she gave investigators her personal computer and met with them twice.
“I don’t know what else to say except that I tried to help them the best I could,” she said.
Questions about Santiago’s and Caffery’s actions arose after investigators listened to a secretly recorded conversation between Santiago and Navarro.
Wilkins acknowledged there were issues about the recording but declined to release more details. He said the case file will have more information. That report won’t be released for at least a week, said SLED spokesman Thom Berry.
The problems or inconsistencies investigators found in the recording came to light in mid- to late August, Wilkins said. That led investigators to broaden their scope, which is one reason the case took so long to complete, he said.
“Their omissions and statements caused SLED and the FBI to broaden the scope of the investigation to determine whether they had hindered or obstructed justice,” Wilkins said.
The recording in question was found on Caffery’s personal computer. She would not tell The State how she obtained the recording.
Caffery said she brought the recording to Santiago. And Santiago said he gave it to SLED investigators.
But that original recording delivered to SLED had been altered, Santiago said. He said he listened to an extended version during his interview with investigators.
He declined to give further details about the content of the recording.
When asked if either Santiago or Caffery had lied to investigators, Wilkins responded, “I can’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to that question.”
To prosecute them, Wilkins said he needed to be able to prove that any lies, omissions or misrepresentations affected SLED’s or the FBI’s ability to investigate the case.
“I came to the conclusion that any lie, any omission, any obstruction was not material to the investigation,” he said.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.