PHOENIX (CN) – Three Phoenix police officers claim in court that the Arizona Attorney General’s Office used fabricated evidence to criminally prosecute them for alleged theft of services – and that it did so for political gain.
Plaintiff Phoenix police Officers Aaron Lentz, Steven Peck and Benjamin Sywarungsymun were selected in 2005 to work off-duty shifts at the Cotton Center Townhomes, according to their federal complaint. They say the man who appointed them, nonparty George Contreras, was the department’s off-duty coordinator.
The three officers, who were pre-paid for their scheduled shifts, say they followed department policies “in obtaining permission to work off-duty jobs, enabling them to work for private companies in an off-duty capacity.”
But “due to the dynamic and unpredictable nature of police work, officers working the townhomes off-duty job would, from time to time, work more hours than their scheduled shift,” but were not paid for the extra work, the men say in the complaint.
In November 2006, the townhomes terminated the off-duty security arrangement. After this, the Phoenix Police Department “received a complaint alleging that George Contreras had an improper relationship with a Townhomes employee. The complaint also alleged that officers who had worked the Townhomes off-duty job had ‘double dipped’ by being on-duty and answering radio calls for the PPD at the same time they were working the Townhomes off-duty job,” according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs claim the “complainant did not know what hours the off-duty officers were working and based her complaint on second-hand reports that the patrol car assigned to the Townhomes would leave the property with its emergency equipment activated, causing the complainant to speculate the off-duty officers were working on-duty patrol while they were supposed to be providing off-duty security for the Townhomes.”
Paula Veach, an AZ POST [Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training] board certified peace officer, investigated the claims made by the complainant, and found that “none of the officers were working at the Townhomes job while on-duty,” the complaint states.
Despite her findings, Veach continued her investigation and found that “the shift for the Townhomes off-duty job did not begin until the officers arrived at the Townhomes job site, resulting in an appearance that the officers were ‘short’ on their hours worked off-duty,” the officers claim.
They claim that Veach knew Contreras had told them that the job began and ended at the South Mountain Precinct when they picked up and dropped off the patrol car. Veach turned over the investigation to Margaret Hinchey, a special agent of the Special Investigations Unit of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.
In Hinchey’s reports, she “fabricated numerous data sources used to support the charges of theft of services against plaintiff officers,” and “fabricated PPD policies purportedly in effect at the time of the Townhomes investigation,” according to the complaint.
Hinchey also “falsely reported that certain radio activation/deactivation times used in her analysis were considered reliable even when she was specifically notified by the PPD that these radio log times were not accurate,” and “deliberately ignored statements provided by PPD officers who had worked the Townhomes explaining their understanding that the Townhomes job started and stopped at the South Mountain Precinct,” the complaint states.
The officers say that the decision to indict them “was not made until Fall 2010, nearly four years after the end of the Townhomes off-duty job.”
Their total alleged theft of services was less than $6,000, and more than $100,000 in employee hours had been spent on the Townhomes investigation, according to their complaint.
Then-Attorney General Terry Goddard was running for governor, and directed “that the indictments against plaintiff officers be returned before Election Day for his political gain,” the complaint states.
Then-Phoenix Public Safety Manager Jack Harris “was faced with a series of negative media inquiries regarding South Mountain Precinct,” and “arranged for the AGO to pursue charges against plaintiff officers for political gain,” the officers say.
According to the complaint, at the time of Hinchey’s state grand jury testimony against the plaintiffs, the Attorney General Office’s prosecutor was “unaware that certain evidence being presented by defendant Hinchey was deliberately fabricated and that other purported evidence was presented with a reckless disregard for the truth.”
Based upon Hinchey’s investigation and testimony, the grand jury returned an indictment on Nov. 17, 2010 for all charges sought, the lawsuit claims.
After the indictment, the officers were suspended and “placed on the Brady list of law enforcement officers whom the Maricopa County Attorneys’ Office believed had integrity issues that were required to be disclosed to all criminal defendants whose criminal investigation had involved plaintiff officers,” the complaint states.
The officers say they filed a motion to remand their indictment, and Maricopa Superior Court Judge Karen O’Connor granted the remand, citing “numerous fabrications and material misrepresentations” made by Hinchey, and claiming that the officers were denied due process.
A second grand jury declined to indict the officers, and the Attorney General’s Office dismissed the charges on Nov. 23, 2011, according to the complaint.
The officers claim their “likenesses were repeatedly broadcast on all local television news channels at various times between their indictment on Nov. 18, 2010 and when the case was dismissed on Nov. 23, 2011.” They say they “lost thousands of dollars in off-duty and overtime pay as a result of their suspension from active police duty.”
They seek damages for intentional presentations of false evidence to support criminal charges, presentation of false evidence to support criminal charges with a reckless disregard for the truth, malicious prosecution, and other claims.
They are represented by Steven Serbalik of Scottsdale.