Former Police Chief Talks About "Shredgate"
A sitting mayor just got trounced -- in the primary. A police chief retired -- under a cloud of suspicion. A city attorney resigned, and several assistants moved on. All these heads rolled because of a scandal called Shredgate. The investigation by the Illinois State Police failed to find anyone who could be charged with a crime. Perhaps in an effort to demonstrate how hard they looked, state police recently released more than 800 pages of documents and hours of audio tape -- enough to reveal not only the mistakes that were made but also clues to the motives behind them.
Listed as the main suspect: Former Springfield Police Chief Robert Williams.
“I tell people all the time that when done correctly, there’s not a more noble profession than law enforcement," Williams says. "But the key word in that whole thing is correctly.”
You can hear how earnest he is. You get a lot of that from Chief Williams. He’s a kid from the projects -- the old John Hay Homes -- where a career in law enforcement seemed so unlikely that once achieved, you pretty much have to take it seriously. Especially if you make chief.
“It was an honor for me to serve. Growing up where I grew up, I saw the police more frequently probably than anybody. And I’m sure no different than most of the kids who live in some of the underprivileged areas of our city right now. They see the police more than anybody," he says. "If anybody knew how police acted or should act, it was me growing up where I grew up.”
This attitude is one reason Williams got assigned to the Internal Affairs Division as a young sergeant, and then twice more as a deputy chief. He was the kind of cop who could be trusted to investigate the bad apples.
How does that image square with his decision to destroy some of those files? Let’s start by getting a clearer picture of Internal Affairs. Not all the cases are about cops getting drunk and shooting off their service weapons around children -- yes, I’m talking about Cliff Buscher, whose IA file was the centerpiece of the shredgate scandal. And not all the cases are filed by citizens who have been mistreated by police. Many complaints are filed by cops against their own colleagues.
“It’s quite common -- especially, I should say -- the more serious violations of the law would be, believe it or not, individual officers bringing forth things that they thought were improper themselves. And the majority of those were also sustained,” Williams says.
In fact, Williams filed one -- and only one -- himself.
“I was hired as the head of internal affairs and I was brought in there by Chief [John] Harris. And Chief Harris had a very high profile case that involved a young lady that eventually led to a lawsuit and most people are very familiar with the [Renatta] Frazier case. And the only complaint that I personally had against anyone was I actually filed a complaint against John Harris. I thought the chief had done something incorrect, so I went directly to the mayor. And that complaint was sustained and it was placed in his personnel file. The chief.”
No matter who filed the complaint, any officer called to answer questions -- whether as a target or a witness -- can be fired for lying. So they generally tell the truth. Until recently, officers knew their statements would remain locked in a vault.
“In Internal Affairs, when we bring them in as a witness, that individual oftentimes will tell us exactly what happened. If we didn’t protect the sanctity of the files, because they have to work with those individuals for 20 or 30 years, if everyone had access to those files, they would also know which officers are basically, for lack of a better word, telling on us," Williams says. "I felt like we needed to protect those individuals. We needed to protect that system.”
If you have ever confided in your lawyer, relying on attorney-client privilege, imagine how it feels to have that protection evaporate. That’s how Williams felt when Illinois adopted a sunshine law, making IA files more accessible to the public. Perhaps because these files had been so zealously guarded, for so long, there was a pent-up appetite to see what secrets they held. One local blogger, Calvin Christian, began requesting the files under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, as former city attorney Mark Cullen told the state police.
“Calvin Christian, in the first part of 2013, when I was still corporation counsel, submitted no less than 50 FOIA requests," Cullen says. "That’s five zero, in case it’s not clear on the recording.”
The City soon lost FOIA court cases under two different judges. And while the police chief and the city’s legal team scrambled to find a way to keep the IA files from being released, one officer got the idea to use the sunshine law for his own interests. On April 5, 2013, Lt. Kurt Banks filed a FOIA request for Deputy Chief Cliff Buscher’s IA file.
“I was not aware that when you file a FOIA request it goes on an email site and everybody has access to see what it is," Banks says. “So now, all the sudden, like the day after I file it, the rumor mill’s going, people are stopping me, ‘Hey, heard you filed a FOIA request,’ you know, ‘Did you really file stuff on the deputy chief?’ ”
Everybody at the police department knew why Banks had filed the FOIA. He was one of the three officers who had gone on that infamous father/son fishing trip with Buscher in 2008. Buscher had been demoted, but in the five years since, he had quit drinking, changed his social circle, and received a promotion. Banks, meanwhile, felt his own career path had been stymied.
“Things had already sucked, for me, personally, at the department, since all this happened, even though I don’t feel I did anything wrong," Banks says. "But yet here Cliff gets promoted to deputy chief…”
When a rumor circulated that Chief Williams might retire soon, Banks said he wanted to protect himself from Buscher’s retribution.
“Even if it’s just interim, if they put Cliff as interim chief, I possibly have something to fear…. And if the file’s already shredded, I don’t really have anything to show why I should be in fear,” Banks says.
The City wouldn’t give Banks the entire file -- just a copy of the statement he had made to IA. But he got help from an unlikely ally: Calvin Christian, the blogger.
“He called me, asking me, basically, ‘I saw your name on the FOIA request,’ and I was told that he FOIA’ed my FOIA request. And I don’t know how you do that, but I guess he just FOIA’ed any information that I FOIA’ed, so they gave him, like, my exact statement of what I asked for, and then he filed another FOIA request asking for the same information I asked for.”
Banks wasn’t the only participant in the Missouri trip wanting to get his hands on Buscher’s file. Doug Williamson, a former deputy chief, had been one of Buscher’s best friends, until then.
“I told him that night, I was upfront with him, I said I’m calling the police, I’m getting you arrested, and if there’s any way to get you terminated from the department, I’m going to do so," Williamson says.
Williamson had been demoted in 2010, and then forced to resign in 2011 after using all his sick leave. He didn’t want to file a FOIA because he was trying to persuade the police pension board to grant him duty-related disability for post traumatic stress disorder. So on April 18, he delivered his own synopsis of the Buscher incident to the state police, ostensibly in an effort to make sure Buscher couldn’t get a FOID card.
Williamson told the state police that everybody who went on that fishing trip had been punished for telling the truth about Buscher.
“I’m no longer with the department, and my brother’s in internal affairs, which is not a place that his career path should’ve led him, and Banks spent some time on midnights even though he’s one of the senior lieutenants and he was running our field training program … so that that ought to tell you something.”
OK, but what? The rumor around the police department was that Buscher had “political connections" -- a brother who held a fundraiser for Mayor Mike Houston, so that Houston would make Buscher chief when Rob Williams retired.
“My brother’s never done any fundraising for the mayor, and as far as I knew, I was going to leave before Rob did," Buscher says.
“So everybody thought you would make chief except for you, then?” a state police investigator asks.
“Except for me and the mayor and everybody that could’ve made me chief. Just people under. …," Buscher responds.
They were wrong about the fundraiser, but there was one provable fact that fueled the rumor that Buscher would become chief: Williams considered him second-in-command. Here’s why:
In 2008, after Buscher served a 30-day suspension, the department welcomed him back by giving him the kind of tedious assignments that no one else ever wanted to do -- for example: updating the General Orders -- a book that spells out all the rules and regulations officers must follow.
“I’ll be honest with you, " Williams says, "it was one of those kinds of assignments that if an officer had to get even a little bit of it, if they were injured, they would miraculously get healed. It was almost like a faith healing. You put somebody in there, and they have to do that for about two weeks and they’re miraculously calling their own doctor saying, ‘Hey I think I’m ready to go back to the shift.’
"Cliff Buscher was put up there, and for the first time, that assignment was actually completed. He didn’t do a good job, he didn’t do an adequate job, he did an outstanding job. And that’s just one example.”
Eventually, the chief asked Mayor Houston to promote Buscher to assistant chief. Williams made this request at face value.
“I never wanted Cliff to be the chief," Williams says. "I did advocate for him to be the assistant chief. I felt like I really needed an assistant -- and I don’t want to get into my health problems, but I had some thing that were really deteriorating, and it got to the point where I was coming to work when I probably needed to get something done medically, but I didn’t feel like I could because I needed to know that the police department was in great hands.”
Houston refused; Buscher says he understands why.
“It would be a political nightmare,” Buscher says.
The normal protocol for expunging Internal Affairs files begins with the IA supervisor pulling all the files that have reached their expiration date. Under the union contract, that time was set at five years. With the blizzard of FOIAs, Williams and the legal staff had been in ongoing discussions about how they could possibly prevent the release of these files. They felt they had to act fast because Christian, the blogger, had just filed another FOIA requesting every IA file that existed, and on April 11, the union dropped its Unfair Labor Practices claim, which acted as a hold on some files.
One idea was to change the expiration date to three years, which had been previously requested by the union. Another idea was to expunge the statements and notes, everything except the “specs and charges.” A third idea, being openly discussed, was simply giving up and releasing those internal affairs files. Williams hated that idea. As the chief of the capital city, he didn’t want his department to set that kind of legal precedent.
“We didn’t want to be the first department to basically carte blanche turn over all the files with no explanation other than there was a request and we made it. Because we knew that our actions impacted other municipal jurisdictions throughout the state of Illinois,” Williams says.
So in a move he now regrets, he made a quick decision to change the retention time frame from five years to four. It was a deal that the police union, police management and city legal all endorsed, and that’s what Williams liked about it. He felt that all the stakeholders could then go to court to challenge Christian’s sweeping FOIA with a united front.
“If the courts told us to turn them over, we would have no problem turning them over. But at least we wanted to put forth our best argument, and then see if we could possibly win a case and stay the tide or turn the tide,” he says.
So they had Lt. Chris Mueller, supervisor of IA, gather the files that were four years old. In accordance with the usual process, he generated a memo listing all the cases, and sent it to Williams and to the legal department. At this point, Williams says, he realized that Buscher’s file was now eligible for expungement and he singled it out to be preserved.
It’s not an unusual request; every time IA files are expunged, the chief can ask the legal staff to hold certain officers’ records. The ultimate decision, however, lies with the legal team, so that a chief can’t just collect evidence as a vendetta against particular officers. But sensitive to the turmoil in the rank right below Buscher, Williams says he was vocal about this request.
“I repeatedly told them that even though it’s eligible to be destroyed, this file definitely should not be destroyed. Not only, me, I’m a person that’s very honest, I not only told legal, I told Cliff Buscher," Williams says. "I said, ‘Hey, Chief Buscher, I just want you to know: Under the new agreement that we’re entering into, one of the things that’s up is your file, and I’m just letting you and everybody else know, that file should not be destroyed.’ I raised that repeatedly.”
Buscher told state police the same thing, referencing a meeting in the corporation counsel’s office where Williams mentioned the file to Mark Cullen.
“City legal is the ultimate decision on what gets destroyed and what doesn’t. And he brought up at that point about leaving mine. I told him I didn’t care," Buscher says. "I didn’t think it would affect me either way, everybody already knew about mine, I didn’t care.”
Geanette Wittendorf, the assistant city attorney who checked the legality of the expungement, also told state police about the conversation.
“Well on April 25th, Cliff Buscher’s name came up in a meeting in Cullen’s office, and Chief Williams offered, said, ‘You know, we’re going to get some grief for Buscher’s file being in there, and, you know, why don’t we pull it?’ And Buscher’s like, ‘I don’t have a problem with that.’ "
Buscher’s file -- along with more than 20 others -- was shredded later that same day.
Williamson and Banks -- Buscher’s former fishing buddies -- accomplished their goal. Thanks to departmental leaks feeding the mass media frenzy, Springfield knows all about Buscher’s 2008 crime, and he will certainly never be chief (he retired in 2014).
Williams’ early retirement cost him an expected bump in his pension, and he had already been denied the pay raise all other city employees received in 2014. But that’s not the part that bothers him.
“There have been a lot of unfair characterizations about Rob Williams that I would intentionally do something to stack the deck in another person’s favor -- completely false; that I would intentionally not agree with something that the law says and just take it upon myself to do it how I want to do it -- nothing could be further from the truth," he says. "And when I look at this whole scandal, there’s just so much about it that’s not reflective of Rob Williams, that I’ll be honest with you, it hurts, and it’s going to continue to hurt. But I’ll get through it.”
As it turns out, Buscher’s file was not the first IA investigation that got shredded even though it was the subject of a formal request. Megan Morgan, another former assistant city attorney, told the Illinois State Police about a file she had destroyed:
“I’m aware that an alderman requested the Illinois State Police Report of Jim Graham and Paul Carpenter. At the time, I’d already given the destruction order to the lieutenant," she says. "I followed up and tried to make sure it was carried out. I’m not sure all those copies we had are still destroyed, but the alderman was told it was destroyed.”
In case you hadn’t heard about that one, those two officers, who had been detectives in the major case unit, were accused of about 30 violations each. Their supervisors were also found to have neglected their duties. One of those was Doug Willliamson. The two detectives were fired, but Carpenter was later reinstated. Former Springfield alderman Frank McNeil, who believes the detectives have sent innocent people to prison, says he made repeated verbal requests for their file. He never got it.