'I have been slandered:' FPC chair, under ethics investigation, releases statement criticizing chief

Steven DeVougas

Steven DeVougas, chairman of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, facing an ethics investigation, released a lengthy statement critical of Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales and Mayor Tom Barrett Thursday, Aug. 6 -- DeVougas writing that his own "name and reputation have been dragged through the mud," and while he has "remained silent because he wanted to allow the system to play out, this system was not designed to promote justice."

DeVougas' letter was released hours before and FPC meeting to "vote on the dismissal, demotion, licensing, or discipline of Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales," according to the agenda -- and a day after Mayor Barrett released a statement calling for new leadership in the FPC.

The FPC has scheduled a 3:30 p.m. news conference to discuss Thursday night's meeting:

Letter to FPC from Mayor Barrett calling for "new leadership:"

"Dear Fire and Police Commissioners:

"Now more than ever, the Fire and Police Commission plays an essential role in our city as the oversight body on difficult issues regarding community relations and leadership for the public safety agencies that serve our city.

"As you deliberate your decision on the election of Chair of the Commission for the upcoming year, I ask you to elect new leadership. In the coming weeks and months, the Commission has many important issues to address, including:

  • Orderly review of the directives issued to Chief Morales
  • Disciplinary hearing of Officer Michael Mattioli
  • Investigation of the video leak from the Milwaukee Police Department
  • Compliance and work of the ACLU settlement agreement

"This is in addition to the ongoing work you must perform to allow the Police and Fire Departments to maintain professional and efficient operations. For example, work must be done to establish trust between our residents and our public safety agencies. It is imperative that you conduct a thorough review of the practices of the Police Department regarding use of force. The Commission must focus on these critical issues and not be distracted.

"The Fire and Police Commission must have the city’s confidence that it is executing its duties in an impartial manner. I know you are committed to fairness and impartiality as well.

"Commissioner DeVougas is currently the subject of a City Ethics Board investigation. He and the Milwaukee Police Department are also the subjects of an investigation regarding the video leak. Given these ethical concerns, Commissioner DeVougas should no longer serve in his position as chair.

We must ensure the integrity and independence of the Fire and Police Commission. I believe electing new leadership of the Commission and conducting an orderly review of the directives submitted to Chief Morales are important first steps. I trust that the Commission will make the right decisions on behalf of the City it represents."

Ethics probe involving DeVougas

An ethics probe was launched into the chairman July 20, when the City of Milwaukee Ethics Board voted unanimously to create an investigative committee to look DeVougas' alleged code of ethics violations.

This began as an investigation into a leaked video involving DeVougas. The video, sent to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year, showed DeVougas, a lawyer, alongside Kalan Haywood Sr., a real estate developer, who was a suspect in a sexual assault case.

Again, Haywood was never charged, but Mel Johnson was hired by the FPC to investigate any wrongdoing.

"First of all, I contended Mr. DeVougas was untruthful in saying he was there as corporate counsel for a real estate company and not representing Mr. Haywood. Second, I thought it was ironic and disingenuous for him to be the only witness to refuse to be interviewed when it was an investigation authorized by the commission that he's the chairman of," Johnson said.

Johnson said DeVougas was employed for Haywood's development company. He still maintained his position overseeing all disciplinary issues for the Milwaukee Police Department when he appeared with Haywood. Johnson said that constitutes an aggravated conflict of interest.

"He's got kind of a mixed interest; partly the interests of the department, partly the interest of the client he's appearing as an attorney for," said Johnson.

Johnson mentioned a letter from the Milwaukee city attorney, stating that DeVougas was not in violation of any FPC rules. As it turns out, there are no FPC rules regarding conflict of interest. However, such rules do exist at the city level. It's something the FPC said it is looking to change.

Again, the city is now investigating DeVougas' alleged code of ethics violations.

Statement from DeVougas

"Let me begin by saying that I did not want it to come to this. For the past year, I have been silent, while my name and reputation, as well as the reputation of my associates, have been dragged through the mud. I have been vilified in the media as “unethical.” I have been slandered by the Milwaukee Police Association (MPA), who held a press conference with ex-Sheriff David Clarke as the headliner. Even the Mayor, who appointed me to the Fire and Police Commission (twice), and Chief Alfonso Morales, who I cast the deciding vote for making him Chief, have opted to criticize me in the media, rather than have a civil conversation with me. As a result, I have had to hire TWO lawyers to address the various allegations against me in a position that is supposed to be part-time and voluntary.

"I have remained silent because I wanted to “trust the process” and allow the “system” to play out. However, this system was not designed to promote justice. It was never designed with the best interests of the community and the citizens. The system was designed to protect those in power, at the expense of the citizenry, and hamper effective change. And unfortunately, all of these powerful institutions have come together and are playing their part in holding back the City of Milwaukee.

"However, I cannot and will not remain silent in the face of unchecked corruption, apathy, and benign neglect. My city is hurting. My community is hurting. My fellow commissioners and I recognize this and feel like we are in a unique position to do something about it. This is reflected in the policy changes we have undertaken and most recently in the eleven directives issued to Chief Alfonso Morales.

"From the outside, people have criticized the commission, saying that we should do more to create change. What they do not see is the institutional mechanisms that thwart real change in this City. At the macro-level, I have been very vocal about how the Fire and Police Commission needs to be properly funded and staffed, how we should have more input in the appointment process of commissioners, or even be able to weigh-in on the Mayor’s choice for Executive Director. In the past, I have even asked for independent outside counsel to be assigned to the Commission.

"At the micro-level, people have often asked how did I go from one of the Chief’s main supporters to one of his more visible critics (as described by the media). I am going to set the record straight.

"I joined the Commission in 2013 and was elected Chair in 2015. I served as chair from 2015-2018. In 2018, my term was up and I was seeking reappointment as well. The Mayor waited until the day the Commission was voting on a new chair to tell me that he would put my name up for reappointment. He was upset with me for several reasons, including my deciding vote of Chief Morales.

"State Representative Marisabel Cabrera was also up for reappointment, but the Mayor did not choose to reappoint her. In a show of solidarity, the Commissioners voted Rep. Cabrera as Chair. Chief Morales and Rep. Cabrera did not get along well. So Chief Morales started asking me to come back as Chairman of the Board. He refused to communicate with Rep. Cabrera and looked for ways to not have to deal with her and actively undermine her leadership.

"In 2019, I started my fourth term as Board Chair. In mid-2019, I started hearing reports that the Chief did not trust me. I thought this was unusual, as I believed we had a good working relationship. In fact, on May 25, 2018, the Chief came to an event called the “One Voice Summit” coordinated by my former business associate, where he spoke about his plans for community-oriented policing.

"I was again at odds with the Mayor because I supported the Chief’s personnel picks, which consisted of bringing back retired members of the department. The administration is on record as being vehemently opposed to “double-dipping,” an employee who receives a pension and a paycheck.

"Shortly after our new Executive Director was confirmed by the Common Council, we began the process of the Chief’s reappointment. I spoke to the Common Council, community stakeholders, and others. We also solicited community input and had two community meetings.

"On November 6, 2019, after I compiled my information, I met with Chief Morales. In the first part of the meeting, he retained a law firm to discuss his compensation. He wanted more money. I told him that was between him and the Council, but if he could get them to sign off, I did not have any objection. However, it was the second part of that meeting that gave me pause. He informed me of the Tari Davis incident, which occurred on September 8, 2019, and that “there would be a lawsuit” but that he did not plan on disciplining or firing the officer.

"For those who do not know, on September 8, 2019, an officer was involved in a vehicular pursuit of an individual named Kevin Brown. This pursuit lasted approximately nineteen minutes. Mr. Brown jumped out of the vehicle and the pursuit continued on foot. Mr. Brown ran to the house of Tari Davis. From certain accounts, Mr. Brown called Mr. Davis during the foot pursuit. Mr. Davis told him not to come to his home. Mr. Brown appeared on the porch and Mr. Davis was in the doorway trying to keep Mr. Brown from entering the home. At that point, the officer shot in their direction, missing Mr. Brown, but striking Mr. Davis. The officer claims that he believed that Mr. Brown was reaching for a weapon when he shot at Mr. Brown, however, no weapon was recovered. Mr. Davis was taken to the hospital and into surgery. When he woke up, he found himself shackled to the hospital bed, despite having no involvement in the pursuit.

"On November 19, 2019, I met with the Mayor and asked him to talk to the Chief about the Tari Davis case. I said the City at that time had $25MM+ in lawsuits/settlements related to police misconduct, and counting. I shared my concerns with how the Tari Davis matter was handled and that the shooting was problematic if the officer shot at someone who was running away from them and also into a house with innocent people present. I asked the Mayor to talk to the Chief and impress upon him the importance of handling this situation properly. I heard nothing from the Mayor or his office in follow up to my concerns.

"On December 15, 2019, I began to voice my concerns publicly regarding slowing down the reappointment of Chief Morales, until the Tari Davis matter and various other issues were addressed. In my discussions with him, there was no plan for Community Policing, Risk Management, a timeline for the community briefing regarding the Tari Davis incident; and how the Chief planned to address the overtime/budgetary issue in the Department. Not to mention that there was an open audit regarding the Sterling Brown incident and issues with MPD’s compliance with the ACLU lawsuit. It should be noted that the Chief and I did not speak face to face for nearly eight months after I requested this additional information.

"Five days later, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal ran a story in which they were provided with the entire investigatory file related to a voluntary, non-Mirandized interview of one of my business associates, given in August 2019. This file included police reports, complaints, and video interview.

"When I spoke out about this breach of the public trust and possible criminal act, I criticized the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and MPA for running the story, the system kicked in and the smear campaign began. Former Alderman Donovan filed a complaint against me with the Wisconsin State Bar Office of Lawyer Regulation. Despite already having a memorandum from the City Attorney that I did not violate any ethics rules. Later, OLR declined to investigate the allegations and the Wisconsin State Bar Standing Committee on Professional Ethics withdrew the legal opinion that Ald. Donovan’s complaint was based on. Yet, the powers that be continued with the false narrative that I was unethical, in hopes to discredit me and pressure me to leave the Fire and Police Commission.

"On January 31, 2020, I again met with the Mayor and his Chief of Staff, sharing my concerns about how this investigatory file was leaked. I walked them through the fact that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal article was written largely from the investigatory file, not the taped interview. The Mayor and his Chief of Staff were visibly disturbed at this information. [So when the Mayor is referring to it merely as a leaked video, he is doing so with complete knowledge that this statement is inaccurate.

"I also brought up how whenever I brought him issues, nothing would be done about it. For example, I brought up how nothing happened when I brought up the Tari Davis matter. It later came to my attention at a Public Safety Meeting that there was a discussion about an incident where an officer “pistol-whipped” an individual during a traffic stop. I discussed this with the Executive Director and other Commissioners and I found that no one from the Department informed the Commission of this incident. Hence, I asked for information regarding this incident in the directives issued by the Commission to the chief.

"More recently, on July 9, 2020, I met with the Mayor and I told him that I did not plan to run for Chair, even though I have not done anything wrong and there has been no finding of ethical misconduct against me, but would remain on the Commission. Even though I felt I had been wronged in the situation, I wanted the Commission to move forward and get back to handling the very important issues we were and are facing.

"During that meeting, the Mayor asked me to stepped down. Not because I had done anything wrong, but because “the optics don’t look good.” This caused me to raise several questions:

(1) If the Mayor’s takeaway from reading Mel Johnson reports that the optics don’t look good, why doesn’t he feel the same way about the Chief and the Department’s handling of a sensitive file that exposed an accuser and the accused, and the Chief’s blatant lying to the special investigator?

(2) Why wasn’t he as concerned about the integrity of the Department and the safety of the citizens of Milwaukee?

(3) Why hasn’t everyone had the same level of outrage that MPD haphazardly handled evidence in one of the most important and sensitive areas of the Department, to the point the Commission had to issue a directive instructing the Chief to address the issue?

"Yet, after that meeting, the Mayor gave two statements, criticizing my leadership. Most recently, on August 5, 2020, he wrote a letter asking my fellow Commissioners not to elect me as Chair, when I told him a month ago that I was not going to seek reelection. The timing of the Mayor’s recent letter is suspicious, issued the day before a meeting before the Commission is discussing holding the Chief accountable. It has the same signs and intent as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal article that was printed right before the Commission was to take up the Chief’s reappointment. This political “point scoring” is exactly what Director Aldrete was referring to in her letter to the Common Council. This amounts to being opportunistic and disingenuous to the public.

"Chief Morales has also made several untrue statements about me in the media that need to be corrected. He accused me of quid pro quo for his reappointment in exchange for the termination of Police Officer Collins. This is false. I attended that meeting at the invitation of Commissioner Everett Cocroft who wanted to discuss the Chief’s decision to allow Officer Collins to have a last chance agreement. We discussed the Chief’s philosophy on discipline, as well as the need for a discipline matrix.

"The Chief became very defensive and upset. I left that meeting surprised at the Chief’s reaction and his resistance to Commissioner Cocroft’s suggestions. At no time did we bring up the Chief’s reappointment or making it contingent on firing Officer Collins.

"In special investigator Mel Johnson’s report, Chief Morales stated that he was at a meeting with me and my former business associate “just showed up.” The truth is the meeting that the Chief is referring to occurred at my former business associates’ office in his conference room. Chief Morales came to my former business associate’s office for a meeting with me to discuss the Sterling Brown matter and as my former business associate was leaving the office.

"On another occasion, Chief Morales shared with staff that he had an issue with the police firearms being defective, as well as that a vehicle driven by a police officer that resulted in a fatal crash was faulty and that you could hear the car shaking/rattling in the audio recording of the chase. This concerned me because this was not the story reported in the media.

"It has been reported by the media that the actions of myself and the Commission are personally motivated. Let me be clear, any issues I have had with him or the Department have been performance-related. I wanted to work with the Chief to move the Milwaukee Police Department to the next level and make it a model for police reform and show how a Department and citizen oversight board can work together.

"Aside from this, the Chief has stated publicly that the Commission is his boss and that he believes in the concept of team. Yet, the Chief has been openly critical of the Commission and Staff without having the professionalism of having a conversation and addressing the issues. He has resisted any attempts at oversight by the Commission and has been insubordinate on more than one occasion.

"The lack of leadership in regards to the Mattioli matter, the Sterling Brown incident, and most recently, the COVID-19 crisis and the investigatory file leak is astounding. The Chief’s unwillingness to engage with the Office of Violence Prevention (OVP) and other community groups is disheartening, to the point where Chief Morales specifically instructed his command staff not to deal with the OVP Executive Director.

"The fact that the Commission had to take the extreme step of issuing only the fourth directive ever in the City’s history, with 11 items of things that the Commission asked for repeatedly, is proof enough that there is just cause for the Commission to make those changes, whatever that may be.

"Even more disturbing is the Chief’s relationship with the union. Never in my time as a commissioner have I seen the union rally around a chief the way the MPA has Chief Morales. They have taken it upon themselves to be his henchmen and do his dirty work. Whenever anyone is critical of Chief Morales, the MPA is right there to defend him. This is extremely concerning and a sign that something is amiss.

"The fact that Chief Morales is now shadowed by Attorney Frank Gimbel is reminiscent of the same tactics Chief Flynn utilized at the end of his tenure. Frank Gimbel is now standing in the same place for Chief Morales as he did for Chief Flynn. Whose interests are being served here? This is a red flag.

"How I have been treated is a textbook case as to what has been going on in this city for decades. There are no secrets in City Hall. Everything that happens, you can assume someone knows. It just depends on if they care enough to do anything about it.

"I have served on the Fire and Police Commission for seven years. For seven years, I have acted with integrity. For seven years, I have put the best interests of Milwaukee first. Any decision I have made was because I believe Milwaukee is a great city. My only fault is that I pushed back against a broken system. A system that does not benefit all of the citizens of Milwaukee.

"Evidence of this is that in seven years, I have worked with four Executive Directors. I have seen first-hand the callous indifference these institutions have had to corruption and misconduct. And the response is that “it is just another lawsuit.” Where is the outrage? Where is the stewardship over the public’s resources?

"I have witnessed the system cannibalize some of Milwaukee’s best and brightest minds. Like me, they played by the rules and went to the right schools. But as soon as they try to make a change for marginalized communities, they are threatened, their character is attacked or they are told to “stay in their place.” And then we wonder where the leadership is? Why are things the way they are?

"This system is tone-deaf to the changing times and the needs of the people. But change can and will come to the City of Milwaukee. We are at a crossroads, at this moment, where we must have effective leadership. We can no longer be content to live in filth, to avoid working a shovel. We can no longer tolerate politics that play both sides against the middle, pandering to Black and Hispanic communities, but doing nothing for either. Yet, if we continue to be more concerned with the optics and sensationalism, rather than facts and truth, things will never change.

"Milwaukee is consistently ranked as one of the worst places for African Americans. This is unacceptable, especially as a majority-minority city. However, until we examine and dismantle the institutionalized and systematic racism that has been in place before my grandparents were born, indeed since this Nation’s founding, nothing will ever change.

"I know what I am setting in motion by what I am saying. But I have never done or said anything in my life that I was not prepared to accept the consequences of. I was not raised to “throw rocks and hide my hand.” My family is here. My friends are here. I am raising my son here. Therefore, when I see my City is hurting and on the precipice of lawlessness, I have an obligation to speak out.

"Now that the Community has the facts, I am asking everyone to stand up and hold our leaders accountable.

Truth and Peace,

Steven M. DeVougas"

Alders urge mayor to act quickly in nominating new FPC executive director 

Meanwhile, 12 members of the Milwaukee Common Council Thursday sent a letter to Mayor Barrett, "urging that he move swiftly in nominating a new Executive Director of the Fire and Police Commission." Executive Director Griselda Aldrete withdrew from the reappointment process.

The letter – spearheaded by Alderwoman Chantia Lewis – "notes the overall importance of the FPC’s work and the need for a community engagement process for the nominee."

The letter states, in part:

“The residents of our city, state and country are continuing to call for police reform in the wake of Joel Acevedo and George Floyd’s murders. The inequitable policing practices that exist disproportionately impact communities of color, an idea we know is not lost on you. While the community and local leaders continue to discuss various means of police reform, one crucial part of the puzzle is having steady leadership atop the Fire and Police Commission which is charged with oversight of our city’s protective services. As such, we are renewing our call for you to nominate a new Executive Director of the Fire and Police Commission, and to do so swiftly.”

“It has been nearly a month since current Executive Director Griselda Aldrete withdrew from the reappointment process, and that we have yet to hear who her successor will be is disappointing, particularly given the urgency and interest around the matter.

"Regardless of who you nominate to serve in this post, the vetting process must be thorough and transparent. The Council’s current August recess would be an ideal time to meet with the nominee, host community meetings and gather feedback from the public with the goal of confirmation in early September. Given the current hurdles that exist because of COVID-19, a proper community engagement process will take more time and planning than normal, and we fear that if a nomination is delayed much longer time will not be on our side moving forward.”

In addition to Alderwoman Lewis, the letter was signed by Alderman Ashanti Hamilton, Alderman Nik Kovac, Alderwoman Nikiya Dodd, Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs, Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa, Alderman Michael J. Murphy, Alderman Mark A. Borkowski, Alderman José G. Pérez, Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, Alderman Russell W. Stamper, II and Alderman Khalif J. Rainey.

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