Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Arpaio urged to probe calls to witness officer

A Washington-based government watchdog agency has asked the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office to investigate allegations that two Phoenix city councilmen broke the law by contacting a police officer who reported the fatal shooting of an unarmed domestic violence suspect.

In a letter to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Judicial Watch asked MCSO to review any possible felonies committed by councilmen Michael Johnson and Michael Nowakowski in contacting the witness officer in the wake of the high-profile shooting that led to murder charges against south Phoenix patrolman Richard Chrisman, the officer who fired the shots.

The councilmen phoned Officer Sergio Virgillo, who was on scene with Chrisman during the shooting, to offer support to the officer for making the difficult step of reporting what he perceived to be criminal behavior by a fellow police officer.

Nowakowski (far right) told The Republic last month that the allegations are part of a police union attempt to discredit Virgillo as a sound witness in a case against one of the union’s members. He and Johnson have denied any wrongdoing.

In his Monday letter to Arpaio, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said Phoenix officials declined to investigate the allegations that the councilman tried to influence Virgillo to continue with telling his side of the story.

Fitton added that "these contacts also may have run afoul of Arizona criminal laws against obstructing criminal investigations and witness tampering."

Virgillo told detectives he saw Chrisman threaten suspect Danny Rodriquez with a gun to the suspect's head just prior to the fatal shooting on Oct. 5. Chrisman has pleaded not-guilty to second-degree murder, aggravated assault and animal cruelty for allegedly attacking Rodriquez and killing the suspect's dog.

Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the labor union representing Chrisman, has suggested the call could have violated the Phoenix City Charter and that politicians are “possibly trying to exert influence over a criminal investigation," according to a past message on the union's web site.

Virgillo reported the phone calls to his supervisors, telling them he felt uncomfortable receiving calls from elected officials on his cell phone, according to e-mails posted by PLEA.

PLEA has supported the ongoing Judicial Watch lawsuit against Phoenix Public Safety Manager Jack Harris to halt his monthly pension payments three years after his retirement as police chief. Judicial Watch has separately sued Phoenix for release of Mayor Phil Gordon's security logs, though a judge denied release of the records last month.

-- Michael Ferraresi


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