Can the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the powerful union that represents Phoenix Police Department officers, successfully derail the case against Officer Richard Chrisman, the Phoenix cop indicted for second-degree murder in the October 5 shooting of an unarmed man?
That's the question I have as interim County Attorney Rick Romley leaves office on November 22, to be replaced with County Attorney-elect Bill Montgomery.
PLEA endorsed Montgomery in his victorious Republican primary challenge to Romley, and PLEA contributed $410 to his campaign coffers, though Montgomery hardly needed the help.
His official sponsor, longtime Romley enemy Sheriff Joe Arpaio, spent more than a half-million dollars on TV ads and mailers bashing Romley. That effort, or at least the cash dropped on the mailers, earned Arpaio a hefty campaign fine of $154,000.
So you could at least argue that Montgomery owes PLEA less than he owes the sheriff, though PLEA's endorsement's worth a lot more that its little donation.
Also, PLEA's reportedly tight with at least one member of Monty's newly announced executive staff. And from day one, PLEA has vigorously defended Chrisman against allegations leveled at him by fellow officer Sergio Virgillo.
Virgillo told investigators that the victim, Daniel Rodriguez, posed no threat to the officers, who were responding to a domestic-violence call placed by Rodriguez's mother.
According to Virgillo, Chrisman, challenged by Rodriguez as to why the cops were in his mom's residence, put a gun to Rodriguez's head, telling him, "I don't need no warrant, motherfucker."
Why would a cop make this stuff up about another cop, thus instantly earning him the enmity of fellow law enforcement officers? If the confrontation went down the way Virgillo said and if he'd kept his mouth shut and backed Chrisman's tale, the whole incident probably would've been forgotten after the initial reports on it.
But PLEA's having none of Virgillo's account. The union ponied up the dough for Chrisman's bail and apparently began planting stories with friendly reporters at CBS 5 and elsewhere (according to my sources), aimed at smearing Virgillo, who's not a PLEA member.
That campaign caught the eye of Romley, who has told me that PLEA and other Phoenix police officers are now under investigation by his office and the Phoenix Police Department for possible witness tampering and obstruction of justice. In addition, Romley said an FBI agent's assigned to the matter.
"I think there's a concerted effort by PLEA and some of its members to obstruct the success of this case going forward," Romley told me. "And they need to know that I'm going to play hardball."
Sadly, Romley won't be playing hardball from the County Attorney's Office, but he's never been quiet on the sidelines, and I wouldn't expect him to clam up after November 22. By informing me of an investigation into PLEA, Romley was sending a message.
"This thing doesn't go away just because Rick Romley has to leave," he said.
I called the FBI, where spokesman Manuel Johnson said, "We're aware of the situation." He specified that the FBI knows about the County Attorney's Office and PPD probes.
Johnson would neither confirm nor deny Romley's statement that there was an FBI agent assigned to the matter. He said that in cases in which law enforcement's accused of alleged misconduct under "color of law," it's not uncommon for the FBI to wait until local investigations run their course. He said there was no active FBI investigation, but he left the door open for that to change.
(Note: PLEA President Mark Spencer hadn't returned a call for comment as this column went to press.)
Romley declined to discuss specifics of the investigation. However, I wondered to Assistant Phoenix Police Chief Andy Anderson, how PLEA had gotten internal e-mails among police officers concerning a phone call from Phoenix city councilmen Michael Nowakowski and Mike Johnson to Officer Virgillo concerning Daniel Rodriguez's death.
The e-mails are posted on PLEA's Web site. When I asked Anderson whether his department was investigating how the e-mails got there, he said he couldn't comment. I asked if the PPD was investigating PLEA, and he said that he couldn't make a statement at this time.
Nowakowski and Johnson have said they were calling only to offer support to Virgillo. The e-mails insinuate that Nowakowski and Johnson may have been trying to get Virgillo to stick to his story — which is what PLEA wants us to believe.
Granted, it's a legitimate news item for the media hounds who've reported on it. As was another item concerning Virgillo's wife, Maria, who was busted in 2008 and eventually caught three years' probation for being part of a drug-trafficking organization.