Columbia officials: Police captain fired for recording conversations, not reporting to work

nophillips@thestate.comJuly 16, 2013 

  • Who’s who in Columbia police chain of command

    City manager Teresa Wilson, who has the final say in everything at the city, including the hiring and firing of police officers and approving police policy.

    Senior assistant city manager Alison Baker, a City Hall veteran who oversees the Police Department as part of his duties. He reports to Wilson.

    Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago, who became interim chief after Randy Scott resigned in April, citing post-traumatic stress disorder. Santiago has said he wants to be the permanent chief. He reports to Baker.

    Capt. David Navarro, fired Monday by the city, was a member of the department’s command staff who oversaw the drug suppression team, PACE team, warrant division and K9 unit. He reported to Santiago.

— A Columbia Police Department captain was fired Monday after city officials said he failed to report to duty, secretly recorded a phone call with a supervisor and engaged in spreading rumors.

But David Navarro, the former captain, says he has done nothing wrong. In fact, he has signed a sworn affidavit accusing interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago of asking him months ago to participate in a scheme to frame the chief’s boss on drug and weapons charges. The affidavit was provided Monday to The State newspaper by Glenn Walters, an Orangeburg attorney who is representing Navarro in his dispute with the city. Those who lie on affidavits risk criminal charges if their statements are proven false.

The back-and-forth between Navarro and city officials led Monday to one-on-one meetings between news reporters and City Manager Teresa Wilson, Santiago, the city’s human resources manager and three other city employees. In those interviews, city officials gave almost unprecedented explanations about Navarro’s firing. Typically, city officials only will confirm a firing and then cite a policy of not speaking about personnel matters.

The allegations also have been reported to the State Law Enforcement Division, but that agency has not determined whether a full investigation is warranted, said spokesman Thom Berry.

At least one City Council member, Leona Plaugh, told Wilson in an email that she wants SLED to investigate Navarro’s case: “The city, particularly the Columbia Police Department, cannot and should not be investigating itself.”

Wilson said Monday Navarro’s allegations are false, questioning why he was just now coming forward. She denied accusations that Santiago was scheming to frame his boss at City Hall, senior assistant city manager Alison Baker.

“Let me be crystal clear,” Wilson said. “I have no evidence, statements, witnesses – zero – to support something like that.”

She called Navarro’s statement an “attempt to discredit this organization.”

But Navarro said in an interview Monday it was time to air the facts.

The dispute between Navarro and his bosses at City Hall came to a head July 10.

That day, Navarro was suspended without pay as the department opened an investigation into his actions at the Police Department, according to a letter notifying Navarro of disciplinary action.

Navarro was fired Monday, Wilson said, citing:

His failure to report to his new assignment as commander of the city’s west region in the Harbison area.

• His unauthorized recording of a conversation with Santiago.

• And for engaging in rumors and salacious stories.

“He basically didn’t report to duties as assigned,” Wilson said. “In addition to that, he’s engaging in rumor, innuendo and salacious-type statements and that sort of thing, and we just don’t have time for that here at the city.”

But Navarro said he did report to work at the west region offices with his secretary to plan the move. He also denied the recording, which violates the city’s personnel policy.

Navarro also had been seen July 10 – the day he was suspended – shredding documents at police headquarters, Wilson said.

That was not part of his firing but now has become part of the city’s investigation into problems with Navarro, she said. The shredded papers have been recovered, and there will be attempts to put them back together.

The city is looking into whether Navarro may have misappropriated money, Santiago said.

“My tolerance is very slim for inappropriate behavior with any of our employees with the city, but particularly with our police officers on that level,” Wilson said. “I have had no problem approving the termination.”

As for the shredding, Navarro said it is routine for him and other officers to shred sensitive documents when they are no longer needed. He said he handled petty cash from T-shirt and bracelet sales to buy drinks and other items. All of that money can be accounted for, he said.

Navarro was hired in January 2011 at the Columbia Police Department by former Chief Randy Scott.

Navarro, Scott and Santiago had worked together at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, and Navarro was brought in to be part of Scott’s command staff. He joined Columbia’s department after working less than four months as Fort Jackson’s police chief. Navarro also is retired from the Army.

At the Police Department, Navarro oversaw units that provided specialized community services, including a community policing team and the drug suppression unit.

However, Navarro was reassigned to serve as the west region commander, which includes most of the Harbison area, Santiago said. Navarro would have remained a captain and the move would have been lateral.

Navarro had shown a desire to move up in the ranks, Santiago said Monday, and the move was designed to give him more experience supervising road officers.

Santiago said he first discussed the move with Navarro in January and that it was in the works before Scott resigned as chief. Navarro’s move became official July 5, and Navarro was notified by phone because he was on vacation.

Navarro returned to work July 9 and was supposed to be making the transition to his new post, Santiago said Monday, but “he never really, for all intents and purposes, reported to his new assigned post.”

According to Navarro’s affidavit, he told Santiago July 9 that he was going to report the alleged plan to plant guns and drugs in the car of Baker, who oversees the Police Department.

The affidavit states Navarro made calls to Wilson and the department’s internal affairs office before finally calling SLED July 10, the same day he was suspended.

In the affidavit, which was signed July 14, Navarro said Santiago had approached him six to eight months ago to assist in a “black ops” assignment. At the time, Santiago was deputy chief.

Santiago asked Navarro to call him to the scene the next time he had a bust involving cocaine and a stolen gun, according to the affidavit. It then goes on to state, “We would remove the gun and powder cocaine from that scene and he would then place those into Asst. city manager Allison Baker’s car.”

Santiago asked Navarro to participate in the scheme on three occasions, the affidavit states. Each time, Navarro alleges, Santiago would check his telephone to make sure Navarro was not recording their conversations.

“Santiago stressed to me that he was going to teach me what he called ‘how to play chess, trust him only,’ that he had internal affairs under control,” the affidavit said.

When asked why he didn’t report the “black ops” plan as soon as he was approached about it, Navarro said after he refused to participate that Santiago would say he was joking anyway.

“He would call me at home and reassure me that it was only a joke,” Navarro said.

Then, Navarro said he became worried that Santiago might try to plant drugs in his police cruiser. So he stayed mum, he said — until he was suspended.

Santiago on Monday denied the allegations in an interview. He said he also has called SLED and invited the agency to investigate the claims because he has nothing to hide.

“It’s ridiculous, obviously,” Santiago said. “I would invite SLED to look at it. If he had this information, I would imagine someone in his position would have to come forward and say something about it.”

But Navarro, 52, said he is not lying. He has too much at stake because he is close to retirement age, he said.

“I have everything to lose,” he said. “Twenty years in the Army and 14 years as a cop.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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