Self-Proclaimed Whistleblower Phil Roberts Wasn't Retaliated Against by the Phoenix Police Department, Feds Say

Phoenix police officials should have more closely examined allegations made by police Sergeant Phil Roberts about falsified border-related kidnapping statistics before deciding to investigate him for making those claims, according to a federal investigative report obtained by New Times.

That message, found in a 33-page report by the U.S. Office of Inspector General, was hardly a victory for the embattled police sergeant who claims he has endured repeated acts of retaliation at the hands of police officials for exposing the department's fake kidnapping statistics.

However, the OIG did not find that internal investigations or reassignments that Roberts faced in 2010 had anything to do with his claims against the police department.

Roberts, who calls himself a whistleblower, wanted the feds to say the reason he was pulled from the unit investigating kidnapping cases, placed under investigation for misconduct, assigned to desk duty, reassigned to jail duty and prohibited from working off-duty jobs was because he shed light on bloated stats.

But they didn't.

At the heart of this specific "whistleblower" matter is a 2009 federal $1.7 million grant that Phoenix police received to help combat the 300-plus kidnapping cases tied to human smuggling or drug running. It's those case where undocumented immigrants or people in the drug trade are taken hostage until family members or shady business associates fork over money or drugs.

As a way to protect tax dollars, these grants come with "whistleblower protection" clause for individuals who expose gross mismanagement, gross waste, or an abuse of authority when it comes to those specific dollars.

For reasons unrelated to his kidnapping stats allegations, things already were looking bad for the 25-year police veteran. Roberts had "a serious suspension and/or termination pending" against him, according to police command staff interviewed by federal investigators.

(What got Roberts twisted up were his nearly 50 memos packed with allegations of corruption and fraud against police officials, which internal city investigators kept finding were riddled with misleading and false statements.)

The feds note in their investigation that Roberts was given notice that he was under investigation and placed on desk duty on August 26, 2010. On October 7, 2010, he was reassigned to jail detail and was prohibited from working off-duty jobs.

Roberts says all of those actions taken against him were because he wrote an August 2010 memo packed with allegations about bad stats.

But the OIG report details that Roberts was given his notice of investigation in August 2010, not because of his kidnapping stats memo, but because he was out on "stress leave" from December 29, 2009 until August 23, 2010.

The city simply couldn't serve him the notice while he was out on leave so officials waited for him to come back.

When he got back on August 23, 2010, he was promptly given his notice and scheduled for an interview on August 31, 2010 by Professional Standards Bureau investigators. Before that interview could take place, Roberts again went out on "stress leave" from August 30, 2010 through October 4, 2010.

If Roberts had not gone out on his well-timed "stress leave," the city would have given him notice that he was under investigation before he wrote his bad stats memo and the Phoenix Police Department would have been spared this federal investigation of retaliation against one of their own.

While this kidnapping stats saga is like a impossibly tangled ball of yarn, the federal investigation -- which Roberts asked for -- gives an outsider's view of his allegations.

Some details from the federal report:

Roberts claimed that he first "exposed" the police department in August 2009. The OIG reported that "the facts gathered in our investigation did not support that Roberts made such a disclosure at that time."

The sergeant submitted a 20-page memo with two sentences mentioning that
statistics are manipulated, but he wrote that it was his "personnel opinion" [sic] and that others might not agree with him. Other than that, Roberts never brought up the statistics during repeated interviews with city officials or in subsequent memos until August 2010, the federal report states.

Roberts claimed that he reported his allegations about the bad numbers to the FBI's local and Washington, D.C. field offices in April 2010. The OIG said the documents provided by the FBI "did not concern kidnapping statistics or the receipt of federal grant monies."

Documents show Roberts didn't raise these concerns with the FBI until after August 2010.

The dates matter because Roberts had to prove that he was blowing the whistle on some grant-related matter before the city started investigating him. OIG investigators didn't find that was the case.

Tacking on a fifth investigative charge to the four other allegations of wrongdoing that Roberts was already facing was the city's misstep, according to the feds.

The additional allegation: "Between August 2009 and August 2010, it is alleged you presented false information/statements related to kidnapping statistics and alleged criminal conduct on the part of Mayor [Phil] Gordon and/or Public Safety Manager Jack Harris."

While adding that sentence to list of other issues that Roberts was facing was called "retaliation," OIG investigators point out that nothing came of it -- it was just a notice of investigation.

It's worth noting that the additional charge wasn't added by the police supervisors Roberts repeatedly complained about, but by someone in the city's Professional Standards Bureau who had waded through the nearly 500 pages of Roberts' memos and found "pretty much everything being untruthful," according to the report.

When the memo about the kidnapping stats came across the PSB investigator's desk, she did the same thing that all the other police officials did when asked how many kidnapping cases Phoenix had in a particular year. She called the police department's Crime Analysis and Research Unit. They gave her a number that contradicted Roberts' allegation of inflated figures, so she added the fifth charge.

Phoenix has since conducted its own audit (better late than never) of those stats and found that non-kidnapping reports were lumped in with real border-related kidnapping essentially because they were being mislabeled by police officers and not properly relabeled by detectives.

And despite Roberts initial allegations that police officials inflated their caseload, an
outside panel convened by the city found there were nearly twice as many cases after carefully looking at individual police reports.

Auditing the figures is what the feds say Phoenix should have done before assuming Roberts was wrong and slapping him with a charge for making a false statement.

[In this report, the OIG was only looking at whether Roberts suffered retaliation for making his allegations that his agency intentionally inflated kidnapping figures. They are separately investigating whether the kidnapping statistics are real or conjured. That report is expected later this month.]

Part of the reason they didn't take a closer look at Roberts' claims, is that he made "many allegations" and was essentially "throwing stuff up against the wall and seeing what sticks," one city investigator whose name is redacted from the report told the feds.

The city investigator told the OIG that she decided to open an investigation against Roberts "based on her experience handling the myriad of allegations filed by Roberts. She had found that Roberts' allegations often were spurious and contained untruths ..."

Roberts is assigned to the South Mountain Police Precinct and an investigation against him is ongoing.

As Phoenix officials move forward with it, they have to tread carefully, making sure their case against him isn't based on kidnapping statistics since the feds say that one memo in August 2010 does qualify as a "protected disclosure" by Roberts.

Even though there was no loss of wages, no demotion, no discrimination against Roberts, the feds say that he did make a "protected disclosure of information which he reasonably believed to be a gross waste" of federal funds.

New Times reviewed all of Roberts' memos, his personnel file, and other documents obtained through public-records requests and would be hard-pressed to agree with the feds assessment that Roberts could have "reasonably believed" that he was blowing the whistle on a great scandal in the Phoenix Police Department.

Read The Numbers Game, a feature story about Roberts and how the Phoenix Police
Department poorly handled this kidnapping-cases controversy.

What complicates this self-proclaimed whistleblower's case is that he used the same figures on national television, in training classes and during interviews with local media.

He is the guy who coined the phrase that touted Phoenix as the "kidnapping capital" of the United States.

And four months before his explosive memo claiming that Phoenix police officials were inflating statistics to improve their chances of getting federal funding, he used the same numbers again in another memo referring to the caseload of the unit he used to oversee.

Read the full OIG report here.

On a side note: Channel 5 covered this story on January 4 and reported a conclusion that was not even close to the one reached by the feds' 33-page investigative report.

From KPHO's story:

  • "Not long after Roberts wrote an August 2010 memo accusing the department of hyping kidnapping statistics, Roberts was placed under administrative investigation. The Office of the Inspector General now says that was retaliation, and it was wrong."

From the OIG report:

  • "The OIG concluded that the personnel actions were not taken in retaliation for disclosures about fraud in the PPD's application for [federal] grant funds" (page 28).
  • "OIG found no evidence to support Roberts' contention that PPD officials had directed the opening of the internal investigation solely in response to the protected disclosure" (page 31).
  • "As we found only one administrative charge of the five charges in the administrative investigation related solely to the protected disclosure, we do not find that the initiation of the investigation can be considered reprisal for a protected disclosure...the OIG does not find that a reprisal had taken place." (page 31).

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