Cop Chop

Political squabbling could end the careers of two veteran police officers

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley is threatening the careers of two veteran Valley drug enforcement cops in a political power play that appears aimed at protecting his own investigator who acted questionably in a recent drug investigation.

The controversy, which Romley has been trying to keep secret despite its potentially devastating consequences for the two police officers, is the talk of Valley police and legal circles.

And for good reason. The extent to which the powerful county attorney is pushing what's little more than a typical on-the-job personality conflict is raising more than a few eyebrows.

Bruce Reade

Romley has accused the two highly respected officers -- Sergeant Jim Cope of the Phoenix Police Department and Sergeant Dale Walters of the Chandler Police Department -- of lying, a serious charge that, if true, could put cases in which they are involved in jeopardy and could lead to revocation of their police certifications. Already, Cope has been forced from his assignment as one of Phoenix's top narcotics officers and Walters has hired an attorney to fight the county prosecutor's efforts to remove him from his drug enforcement assignment.

Romley has threatened to "Brady List" the pair -- a blacklist of sorts stemming from a court case called Brady v. Maryland that requires the prosecution to disclose to the defense any information that may help the defense. That includes a prosecutor's belief that an officer has been untruthful or has had other integrity problems in the past.

But documents obtained by New Times through public records requests and interviews with numerous people close to the investigation show that Romley has little, if any, reason to treat the officers in such a heavy-handed manner.

Instead, it is Romley's own investigator -- a retired Phoenix cop named Joe Soto -- who created problems by failing to use a case-tracking system designed to ensure the safety of undercover officers. Police investigators also were concerned that Soto was inappropriately handling a confidential informant in a drug investigation of his own, a probe that later overlapped with Phoenix and Chandler cases. Records show Soto may have allowed his informant to keep cash from drug sales he was involved in, in addition to paying him as an informant. The County Attorney's Office says that allegation is unfounded but says Soto will be disciplined for other lapses, including not using the case-tracking system and for the way he handled the informant.

County attorney spokesman Bill FitzGerald says disciplinary paperwork is still being prepared and that it will be up to Romley to decide what punishment Soto will receive.

However, Soto will not be "Brady Listed" because he didn't lie, FitzGerald says.

When Cope and Walters expressed their concerns to Romley about Soto, Romley struck back with letters to their bosses, saying he would "Brady List" them if they didn't transfer out of the drug enforcement units.

That in itself has led to questions about Romley's motives in his treatment of Cope and Walters. As Chandler city attorney Dennis O'Neill pointed out in a September 12 letter to Romley, lying is lying, no matter what unit an officer is assigned to. "If there is really a truth and veracity issue with an officer, you have an obligation to file a Brady Letter no matter what the officer's assignment," O'Neill wrote.

Romley won't talk about the matter, FitzGerald says.

But Barnett Lotstein, one of Romley's top aides, rejects the implication that Romley is being vindictive because the police officers complained about Soto.

Lotstein maintains that it is his agency's duty to raise concerns about police officers who prosecutors believe may have lied or displayed a lack of integrity, no matter how minor it may seem and even if the police department feels differently. For instance, Lotstein asks, what if he happened to see a cop at a doughnut shop one morning and later remarked to the cop that he'd seen him? But if the officer said, "No, that wasn't me," then, Lotstein contends, he'd have to wonder why the officer denied being there. Lotstein says he would feel compelled to "Brady List" the officer and report the doughnut denial to the defense.

Sometimes, Lotstein says, a lie is "direct and unequivocal."

"Other times," he adds, "you just have a suspicion, a bad feeling in your stomach" about an officer.

Cope and Walters declined to be interviewed for this story. The County Attorney's Office wouldn't allow Soto to be interviewed.

Lieutenant Matt Knowles, president of the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association, which is representing Cope, says it's wrong that Romley has the power to end an officer's career with so little reason and no proof.

"There's no recourse and there's no due process," Knowles says.

Besides the fact that a "Brady Listed" officer would have a tough time testifying in court, Knowles says the Arizona state police certification agency can revoke an officer's certification for lying.

Bob Kavanagh, Walters' attorney, says Romley is overreaching the intent of the Brady case. "They were talking about cases where sustained allegations of lying on the job would impact a case's credibility . . . whether someone was disciplined for perjury or lied and it was sustained in an internal investigation.

"This is simply the county attorney's opinion. I liken it to the fact that a guy's wife puts on a dress in the morning and says, Hey, do I look good?' And he says, Yes' when she really looks terrible. Does he get Brady Listed for that?

"That's how stupid this is."

He calls Soto's misbehavior "much more serious."

Now, the state Department of Public Safety is conducting an administrative investigation into the dispute, at the request of all three agencies. DPS spokesman Frank Valenzuela says it will likely be months before the inquiry is finished.

Personnel files for Cope, Walters and Soto, obtained through public records requests, show all three men have exemplary records and have received numerous commendations for outstanding work.

Dale Walters has been an officer for 12 years, and with the Chandler department since 1995. He's been the narcotics unit sergeant for the past two years. He has received praise for his work on drug cases including a commendation from superiors for the way he handled a four-month investigation in 2001 that resulted in the indictment of 16 crack dealers and 11 crack buyers. "Your leadership and vision was a catalyst for this investigation," Commander Tom Blaine wrote. "This exceptional investigation resulted in the improvement in the quality of life for this neighborhood."

Jim Cope's personnel file is thick with outstanding performance reviews and special commendations. Since joining the Phoenix department in 1988, he has received 62 written commendations and 13 departmental awards, including being named the outstanding supervisor of the year earlier this year.

Cope has been assigned to the drug enforcement bureau since 1996 and, according to lawyers and other cops, is one of the best narcotics officers the department has ever had, with a knack for putting together complicated conspiracy cases. It was Cope who headed the investigation of Sammy "The Bull" Gravano and other suspects that led to their convictions on numerous charges stemming from an ecstasy trafficking ring. Cope has been at the center of other high-profile drug cases as well, and, earlier this year, in just a two-month period, he led a squad that made 79 arrests while seizing 7,200 pounds of marijuana, several pounds of cocaine and meth, guns, vehicles and more than $1 million in cash.

"The stuff that Jim Cope does is Miami Vice type stuff," says Knowles, the union president. "They do wiretaps, very high-profile stuff. A lot of politics involved, a lot of money involved. I've heard it said that he heads up the best drug squad in the Southwest."

Joe Soto worked for the Phoenix Police Department from 1973 until he retired in 1999. He, too, was highly regarded as a drug enforcement officer and is widely considered to be one of the best in the state when it comes to wiretap operations. In 1998, a supervisor called him "a walking encyclopedia" for information on drug trafficking syndicates in the Valley.

"Joe, without question, the area you excel in most is electronic surveillance," the supervisor wrote. "Repeatedly, I have watched you in action in these types of investigations. I am amazed at your investigative abilities."

Records and interviews show Soto is still working street-level drug cases from scratch, and continues to use a familiar source. Soto's confidential informant told Chandler police he had been working with Soto on drug cases for at least 12 years.

Earlier this year, the source told Soto about drug trafficking that was occurring at the Nogales Auto Body shop, at 920 East Broadway in Phoenix.

But Soto didn't supervise his informant in accordance with generally accepted guidelines for overseeing confidential informants, often people who have been engaging in criminal activity themselves. An informant's credibility is always up for question, so police say they have to be rigidly supervised, including controlling and accounting for any money that changes hands. And officers cannot allow informants to be involved in a crime.

When Jim Cope learned about the case and Soto's informant -- a man who had worked with Phoenix police before -- he decided to back away from the investigation mainly because he didn't trust the informant. He didn't like the way the informant operated, and he was uncomfortable with some of the things Soto was allowing the informant to do, Cope told the County Attorney's Office in an interview.

The informant told Chandler police that Soto allowed him to make money on drug deals, according to transcripts provided by Chandler police and the County Attorney's Office. He told Chandler police that he has told Soto that he takes some of the money from drug sales but that Soto has never asked him to turn the cash over to the authorities. He also gets paid by Soto, he said, to be an informant.

The informant made those statements to Chandler police shortly after the May 23 drug raid. Months later, on September 16, the informant told interviewers from the County Attorney's Office that he meant that it was other officers, with the Phoenix Police Department, who had let him keep money and that it had occurred years ago. The County Attorney's Office used that second interview of the informant to determine that allegations Soto had allowed the informant to take money from buyers during the brokering of narcotics deals were unfounded.

However, Soto will be disciplined for meeting alone with the informant -- officers are always supposed to take a second witness with them -- and because he allowed the informant to have control of a bale of marijuana for several weeks. The County Attorney's Office, in a finding dated October 1, said "it is not permissible to allow illegal narcotics to remain in unsupervised possession of non-law enforcement personnel."

Soto also will be disciplined for his failure to use the MADCAP system when he began a case involving the informant and the Nogales Auto Body shop. MADCAP is a computer system used by police agencies throughout the Valley to track and coordinate drug enforcement actions. The system is designed primarily for officer safety, to protect undercover cops and confidential informants if investigations overlap with other agencies, to prevent "cops pointing guns at cops."

Cope, who was involved with the body shop investigation only briefly, did follow procedure and entered some basic information in the MADCAP system.

Months later, in May, Chandler police learned from their own informant of a major drug operation at the same location and punched the address into MADCAP. Cope's entry popped up, but it was listed as inactive. Soto still had not put his case into MADCAP.

Cope, when contacted by Chandler, told Walters that Soto had been involved with the address months earlier. Chandler decided to go ahead with its own search warrant anyway. Chandler officers relied on their own informant and, the transcripts of the interviews with Soto and his source suggest, did not know until after the raid that Soto was still using that particular informant.

According to a Chandler police report, a Chandler undercover officer had arranged to buy 300 pounds of marijuana from dealers at the body shop.

On May 23, Chandler served a warrant on the property. But instead of the expected 300 pounds of marijuana and other contraband, the raid netted only 10 pounds of pot. Police suspected someone had tipped off the suspects before the bust.

One Chandler officer interviewed Soto's informant after the raid, and Walters called Soto to discuss the situation with him. The informant had told Soto about the impending deal for 300 pounds and Soto acknowledged he'd talked to his informant who was inside the body shop about 15 minutes before the Chandler search warrant team arrived. Soto told Walters he was sitting nearby and had been planning to follow the buyers after they left with the pot. There is nothing in the record to suggest he knew the buyers were undercover Chandler cops or that a raid was imminent.

On May 27, Romley, who had heard about the concerns over Soto and the informant, called in Cope and Walters, along with their supervisors. The officers related their concerns and thought that was the end of it.

But Romley insisted on a deeper review, one that included numerous follow-up interviews, and one that went beyond just the Chandler drug bust. A county attorney file released earlier this week includes hundreds of pages of transcripts of interviews and a few other documents. Soto was interviewed four times, Walters and Cope just once. Much of the material includes questions from county attorney interviewers about previous cases Cope has worked on. In interviews with the police officers, county attorney Commander Bill Heath suggests Cope was trying to set up Soto's informant to embarrass Romley.

According to a September 4 memo from Romley to Mark Faull, one of his special assistants, Walters told Romley during the May 27 meeting that at the time of the raid, he was unaware that Soto and the informant worked for the County Attorney's Office. But, Romley noted, Cope had told Walters before the raid about Soto and his involvement in a previous trafficking investigation at the body shop.

In a second interview on July 24, Walters told county attorney interviewers he did know about Soto and his use of the informant.

That's enough to warrant a "Brady Letter," Romley believes.

Kavanagh, Walters' attorney, says "Dale's deal is simply a misinterpretation of one little thing."

He says Walters did not know that Soto was working the informant at the body shop on the evening of the raid. Soto had never entered any information into the MADCAP system so Walters assumed the informant, who had been discarded by Phoenix police, was no longer working for Soto either. "It may be splitting hairs," says Kavanagh, "but it's important."

Walters has been officially "Brady Listed" by Romley. Kavanagh says the only way off the list is through a civil lawsuit that would seek to force Romley to remove Walters' name from the file.

Walters is still working drug cases pending the DPS findings and will refer any cases for prosecution through the Attorney General's Office, not the county prosecutor.

Romley's problem with Cope appears to stem from concerns the detective raised earlier in the year about the county attorney's policies for handling confidential informants. He worked with Soto in an earlier case involving the same confidential informant and questioned some of Soto's practices. The Phoenix Police Department had stopped using the informant several years ago, he told interviewers from the County Attorney's Office.

In the August 8 interview, Bill Heath of the County Attorney's Office suggested Cope let the situation with Chandler occur because he was trying to embarrass Soto and the County Attorney's Office.

"Our goal out there isn't to embarrass each other," Cope replied. "It's to put drug dealers away."

Cope agreed to take another non-enforcement position within the drug unit and await the outcome of the DPS investigation. Police officials won't say whether Cope will be given another enforcement position once the DPS inquiry is finished.

Lotstein said last week the county attorney's unhappiness with Cope is "less definitive" -- more a feeling that Romley's office doesn't want to work with the veteran drug officer anymore rather than a problem with the officer's integrity. Romley told Chief Harold Hurtt that, even though he is satisfied with Cope's transfer to another assignment, he will await the outcome of the DPS investigation before deciding whether to "Brady List" Cope. FitzGerald, Romley's spokesman, said earlier this week that is still Romley's position on Cope.

Hurtt and Acting Chandler Chief Dave Neuman declined to be interviewed for this story. Phoenix police spokesman Sergeant Randy Force says he hasn't seen the materials provided by the County Attorney's Office and couldn't comment on the specific problems involving Cope. He notes that cops often have strong personalities and that it's not unusual to have personality conflicts.

"But we work through those conflicts and do our jobs as cops, which is to lock up the bad guys," Force says.

Chandler officials are guardedly critical of Romley in their letters to him over the matter, reiterating their desire to maintain a good working relationship with the county prosecutor.

Still, O'Neill calls Romley's actions against the officers "troubling."

"Please consider your insistence on using a Brady Letter prior to an independent investigation into this matter may give the perception of punishing any law enforcement officer who discovers information during an investigation that might indicate misconduct on the part of one of your investigators," O'Neill wrote.

And Romley's "Brady File" is already large -- and secret. Bill FitzGerald says there are about 50 officers from various police agencies in the file. But he won't say who they are or what they did to warrant a "Brady Letter."

Despite the fact that the letters are routinely handed out to defense attorneys, the County Attorney's Office won't release any information from the file -- including a list of the officers in the file or what other types of actions have generated "Brady Letters" -- unless the police agencies agree the information should be made public.

E-mail patti.epler@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8451.

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