A Review Board Recommends Firing PPD Sergeant Phil Roberts for Rampant Allegations Against Fellow Cops

Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia is mulling whether to fire Sergeant Phil Roberts, who investigators say lobbed numerous false allegations against fellow cops and city officials — and did so in a very public way.

Roberts gained notoriety in 2010 after accusing former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, former Public Safety Manager (Police Chief) Jack Harris, and others of conspiring to defraud the federal government of grant money in 2009 by exaggerating the number of home invasions and kidnappings tied to drug and human smuggling.

Roberts complained that when he "blew the whistle" on the "corruption and fraud," he became a victim of retaliation. He claimed he was transferred to unwanted assignments, given undesirable work shifts, and wasn't permitted to work off-duty jobs (which can mean lucrative extra pay for cops.)

However, a series of internal, state, and federal investigations revealed there was little truth in the multitude of allegations that Roberts fired off through some 500 pages in the more than 40 memos he wrote between August 2009 and August 2010.

After investigating Roberts' mountain of allegations — and exonerating those he accused of engaging in discrimination, covering up botched investigations, and creating a hostile work environment — the Phoenix Police Department's Professional Standards Bureau turned its attention to Roberts.

An internal affairs investigation completed on October 12, 2012, also revealed that Roberts failed to notify his superiors "when releasing information pertinent to the department" and used city resources and his position "for personal benefit or gain."

A month later, an in-house disciplinary review board recommended that Garcia fire Roberts, and the 28-year police veteran was placed on paid administrative leave.

The investigative report — largely based on 20 hours of interviews with Roberts and, ironically, his plethora of memos — concluded, in part, that Roberts' false allegations "caused irreversible damage to the reputations of the city of Phoenix, the Phoenix Police Department, and the employees named in his documents."

Investigators say Roberts violated a police policy that prohibits employees from revealing official police business "except as directed by a supervisor or under due process of law."

Although Roberts told investigators he was unaware of such a policy, he was warned in November 2009 about "providing memos to unauthorized persons." And his own memos reflect his understanding of the "seriousness of 'leaking' information," according to the report.

Roberts sent his inflammatory memos to many organizations and individuals, including the leaders of police and civilian employee unions, the Department of Public Safety, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, the state Attorney General's Office, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Labor, then-state Senator Russell Pearce, the U.S. Attorney General, and individual City Council members.

He told investigators he sent the memos to various entities because "he believed his chain of command might have been compromised" and so outside law enforcement agencies could "start 'probing around' because there was a cover-up," an internal affairs report says.

City policies don't bar cops from filing complaints through the proper channels, but once reported, employees have to allow appropriate entities the opportunity to investigate, the internal affairs report notes.

"Sergeant Roberts chose instead to bombard them with additional memoranda containing redundant and embellished information," the report states. "Sergeant Roberts' 'facts' were often based upon hearsay, rumor, or innuendo, [and] his conduct was so outrageous that attempts to correct performance would be fruitless."

Investigators also determined that Roberts violated department policies by writing many of his complaints on official city letterhead and accessing criminal databases, not for a "criminal justice purpose" but to build his "defense" against the city and its police department. And, investigators say, he did it while out for several months on voluntary "stress leave."

The investigative report also details eight examples of false allegations that Roberts leveled against police officials. Lieutenant Lauri Burgett was among his primary targets.

A New Times investigation in 2011 traced Roberts' animus toward Burgett to 2008 and 2009 when she twice passed him over for a job managing the Home Invasion and Kidnapping Enforcement unit, which tracks down kidnappers.

Before Burgett became his supervisor, he had headed up such high-profile investigations. He relished the media attention, making more than a dozen appearances on national TV, where he repeatedly cited the same statistics he later alleged were inflated.

When he was in charge, he also pocketed hefty overtime pay associated with working complicated cases that involved trying to locate and rescue kidnapping victims from drug dealers and human smugglers.

City records show that Roberts pocketed more than $150,000 worth of overtime and on-call pay in the four years he worked on kidnap and extortion cases.

His resentment of Burgett only intensified in late 2009, when her team moved to the Drug Enforcement Bureau and out of the Robbery unit, where Roberts was stationed ("The Numbers Game," July 7, 2011).

In his memos, which started a month before HIKE's scheduled relocation, he frequently accused Burgett of felony crimes — and he wrote that then-Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon granted her immunity from criminal or administrative investigations.

He wrote in nine separate memos between February and July 2010 a variation on his claim that Burgett told fellow lieutenants (who in turn told him) that Gordon assured her "she had nothing to worry about."

Roberts later denied making allegations against Gordon and Burgett, but his own memos plainly show he repeatedly did.

Investigation after investigation of Roberts' assertions — dating back to complaints he filed as early as 2008 — has cleared Burgett and others.

In 2010, the Attorney General's Office investigated Roberts' accusations that Burgett had discriminated against him, but it found no evidence to substantiate his claims.

About a year ago, federal investigators concluded that Roberts neither was the whistle-blower he fancied himself nor the victim of retaliation from his superiors. Police investigators determined that "pretty much everything" in Roberts' nearly 500 pages of memos was "untruthful."

Phoenix police officials' lackluster effort to review the veracity of their own kidnapping statistics allowed Roberts to continue his attacks, further damaging the department's integrity. Then-Chief Harris stood by the figures, even claiming they had been verified.

It wasn't until March 2011, when City Manager David Cavazos convened a panel of experts to review the home-invasion and kidnapping statistics that it was made public that the figures actually were grossly under-reported — not inflated, as Roberts alleged.

The panel discovered there were twice as many kidnapping cases than first believed. It attributed the problems mostly to shoddy record keeping.

While the panel vindicated the city against Roberts' allegations, it also criticized officials for failing to call for an audit sooner. The fracas effectively ended Harris' reign — he retired shortly after Cavazos reassigned him to oversee the security of municipal buildings at Sky Harbor International Airport.

A scandal of Roberts' creation caused his colleagues the anguish of fighting false allegations, called into question police and city officials' integrity, and cost a police chief his decades-long law enforcement career.

But, in the end, the controversy he sparked with a yearlong memo-writing campaign may be what ends Roberts' own decades-long career with the PPD.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo