COLUMBIA, SC — Two secretly recorded phone conversations involving the Columbia Police Department’s interim chief do not contain any mention of a “black ops” plot to frame another city official by planting drugs and a gun in his car.
The scheme was alleged by the now-fired captain, David Navarro, and launched a state and federal investigation when he hurled the allegations against interim Chief Ruben Santiago in July 2013.
But the audio recordings do involve profanity-laced conversations among Santiago, Navarro and one other police department employee about strategies for promoting and transferring people within the department, gossip about officers and their concerns about a former chief’s personal problems.
The city of Columbia released the audio recordings late Wednesday afternoon after the FBI and State Law Enforcement Division on Tuesday concluded their investigation into the allegations against Santiago and Santiago’s subsequent accusations against Navarro. They decided to charge neither with a crime.
The city obtained the recordings from investigators who had questions about their contents and also wanted administrators to know what had been discussed among employees, said city manager Teresa Wilson. The recordings were released with SLED’s permission because The State newspaper and several other media outlets had filed Freedom of Information Act requests for documents related to the investigation, Wilson said.
The tapes are part of the FBI and SLED case file on the investigation. There could be more audio recordings once the entire investigative report is released next week by SLED.
Wilson said she has not received the full file and is waiting to review it before deciding her next step. But she told The State newspaper the two recordings are troubling.
“It causes me concern about leadership. Clearly, there’s a standard we hold city employees to, particularly department heads,” Wilson said. “These tapes give me pause and some disappointment when I listen to that type of language and discussions with subordinate employees.”
One recording is a 20-minute taped phone conversation between Santiago and Navarro. In that conversation, the two men begin by talking about their concerns with former Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott’s alleged drinking problem. The conversation then slides into a discussion of a decision made by Scott and Santiago to reassign Navarro to the city’s west region, which covers the Harbison and Irmo areas.
The second recording is a taped conversation among Santiago, Navarro and Bridget Caffery, a crime analyst at the department who resigned last month. Once again, a discussion of Scott’s personal problems leads off the conversation. But the discussion evolves over the course of an hour and a half as they talk about Navarro’s reassignment, relationships with other officers and strategies for Scott, Santiago and Navarro to rise through the ranks of city administration.
Throughout that longer conversation, Santiago talks about wanting Scott to move into an assistant city manager slot at City Hall, in part to relieve the former chief of mounting stress.
“My only motivation for getting him promoted is so that we can reduce the stress level,” Santiago said. “Get him in an area where he can manage things and we can take care of him. There will be less eyes on him, you know, professionally.
“(Expletive) being police chief, you know that,” he continued. “Obviously, I want it if he goes up. That (expletive) us all if some stranger goes up.”
On Wednesday, Scott, now a Richland County sheriff’s deputy, told The State newspaper that it was against the sheriff’s department’s policy to speak to the media without permission from the sheriff or public information officers. He said he would ask the department for permission to speak but didn’t call a reporter back.
In both conversations, it is clear that Navarro was not happy about his new assignment, which would have him supervising patrol officers. He had commanded specialized units such as the drug suppression team.
The conversations also illustrate the once-tight relationship among Santiago, Navarro and Scott, who all had worked together at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department before joining the city’s department when Scott was named chief in 2010. Repeatedly, Santiago and Navarro call each other “brother” and talk about their love for each other and Scott.
But the relationship was splintering, and Navarro was threatening to leave the department because of his new assignment. Navarro said he believed that Scott and Santiago had planned his transfer without his knowledge.
At one point in the second recording, Navarro told Santiago that he would go wherever they wanted.
Santiago asked, “Why you making it feel like it was a bad thing?”
Navarro answered, “I didn’t say it was a bad thing. I said it was handled very, very unprofessionally, though. I never would have done that to you. I never would have done that to Randy, not being part of the (expletive) A-team. The dream team.”
It is unclear when the recordings were made. There was no time stamp on the compact discs provided by the city.
Santiago told The State on Wednesday he could not remember exactly when the conversations were held, but he said they would have taken place more than a year ago. Most likely, they were held in late December 2012 and early January 2013, Santiago said, when Scott took an early retirement and then re-applied for the chief’s job 15 days later. Santiago was running the department in the interim.
In April, Scott went on an unexplained leave of absence and then resigned, citing post-traumatic stress disorder.
While Santiago said he regretted the tapes, he said they support his claims that he never plotted the so-called “black ops” scheme.
When people listen to the recordings, they “will find there were no unethical or unlawful discussions or anything malicious toward anyone,” he said.
But the recordings are not something that Santiago is proud of, either. He said he regretted the foul language.
When asked what the public perception might be when people hear two police commanders hold those discussions with a crime analyst who is not an officer, Santiago said, “There are going to be people out there who are going to see negative where they want to see negative. We’re not talking about sports or anything unrelated to the department.”
As for the goal of moving Scott into an assistant city manager’s position, Santiago said those conversations were being held as former city manager Steve Gantt was retiring. Everyone in the city knew that several assistant city managers were applying for the job and that one of those positions likely would become vacant, Santiago said. He had hoped Scott would apply and be hired to fill that spot and then he could get Scott’s job.
“I had ambitions to be the police chief one day,” Santiago said.
Navarro insisted to The State on Wednesday that his report of a “black ops” plot was true even though 13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins determined there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Santiago.
“I didn’t make anything up,” Navarro said.
Navarro also said he had not heard either recording and that he did not secretly record anyone’s conversation.
However, he was fired last summer by Wilson, who said he had secretly recorded conversations, spread rumors and failed to report to duty. It is against city policy to secretly record conversations between city employees, Wilson said.
Santiago said Navarro recorded their 20-minute conversation. The recording begins with Navarro’s voice saying to an unidentified person, “Is your phone off? That one. Sitting on your lap.” The next sound is a ring tone and then Santiago answering his phone.
When pressed to answer more questions, Navarro referred a reporter to his attorney, Glenn Walters. However, Walters’ voice mail box was full Wednesday night.
After Navarro’s dismissal, Santiago had asked SLED to investigate the former captain for alleged mishandling of a petty cash fund and for shredding documents. Wilkins also said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Navarro.
Caffery made the other recording of the three of them, Santiago said.
Efforts to reach Caffery Wednesday were unsuccessful. She resigned last month from the police department.
For months, city officials had hoped that Wilkins’ decision on whether to prosecute anyone would clear the air and allow the police department to move forward and focus on crime fighting.
However, questions remain open, including how forthcoming Santiago and Caffery were with investigators.
On Tuesday, Wilkins said their actions had caused investigators to broaden their scope. He could not prove either had obstructed justice or committed misconduct in office but he was clear that they had not been forthright with investigators.
While Wilkins would not offer more details about their actions, the audio recordings most likely are involved in those accusations.
On Wednesday, Wilson, the city manager, said she had heard one version of the conversation between Navarro and Santiago last summer when the allegations were first raised.
“It turned out that the investigators ended up bringing us an extended version of that tape,” she said.