Thursday, November 18, 2010

3 Officers Indicted in Overtime Investigation: Sgt. Drenth, Ofc. Chrisman were involved, Police Chief says

PHOENIX - A jury has indicted three current and one former member of the Phoenix Police Department on felony theft charges -- and had Sgt. Sean Drenth still lived -- he would be indicted too.

According to the indictment, officers in the South Mountain Precinct billed businesses for off-duty work they allegedly did not do.

This is a story we've been following for weeks now.

It involves a troubled apartment complex in south Phoenix. One of the alleged businesses, Cotton Center Townhomes, suffered the largest hit -- involving a security job contracted with the Phoenix Police Department by three homeowners associations to help reduce crime in the area.

The officers allegedly billed the business for off-duty security work that was never performed. All of the officers work or worked at the South Mountain precinct.

Former Officer George Emil Contreras was indicted on four felony counts, including fraud and theft. Current Officers, Steven Peck, Aaron Lentz and Sgt. Benjamin Sywarungsymun were also indicted on theft charges related to off-duty work. Contreras resigned shortly after the investigation started, just two years away from being able to retire with his full pension.

Contreras is alleged to have committed thefts in excess of $9,000, Lentz $2,000, Sywarungsymun $1,800 and Peck $1,700. According to the indictment, total losses are in excess of $16,000.

During a 3:30 p.m. press conference, Public Safety Manager Jack Harris said that an additional 25 officers were investigated. Those officers did not rise to the level of charging by the Attorney General's Office, but will be turned over the Professional Standards Bureau for a misconduct review. The officers' future with the department will be decided once their investigation concludes.

Sgt. Sean Drenth was part of the investigation and would've met the AG's office's criteria for a criminal charge, Public Safety Manager Jack Harris said. He said that if Drenth had not been deceased, he would be facing a felony indictment.

Sgt. Drenth was killed one month ago and no arrests have been made in the case -- his death is being investigated as a homicide but suicide has not been ruled out.

"I don't know if he knew he was facing indictment, but he knew that he was part of the investigation because all of the employees had been interviewed."

Harris also added that Officer Richard Chrisman is one of the 25 officers being investigated for misconduct -- but the AG's office determined his actions did not rise to the level of a crime. Chrisman has been charged with murder in the death of a suspect.

In spite of the announcement, Harris defended his department largely, saying these bad apples do not represent his department as a whole.

"It's criminal in some cases, it's misconduct, but it's not corruption in the traditional sense... so painting the Phoenix Police department as a corrupt agency is not fair," Harris said. "If we were a corrupt organization I wouldn't be telling you what's going on. I wouldn't be standing up here and explaining to you our position on what has occurred."

Since this came to light, there's been a big shake-up at the precinct with a group of officers being reassigned. Harris also said he will be reviewing the off-duty police officer security work program. The involved employees are suspended from performing off-duty work as of now.

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