You Can't Have That!
'Chronicle' sues city to release APD records
At press time, the Chronicle was preparing for a hearing next week in Travis Co. district court to determine whether the city of Austin is required under state open-records law to release a year's worth of Austin Police Department time sheets and off-duty contract logs for two former APD officers who the city says are currently under investigation. The two officers, who resigned from the department earlier this year, are now employed with a private firm specializing in "homeland security" training and questions have arisen about the financial relationship between the APD, the former officers, and that company. The city insists the public documents have been rendered exempt from disclosure because they now involve the "detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime."
At issue in the suit is whether the city can withhold routine and normally public administrative documents such as the weekly time sheets filled out by every city employee, or the monthly off-duty logs filled out by police officers who maintain department-approved secondary employment simply because those particular forms may now be under review during a subsequent criminal investigation. At issue in the documents themselves is whether APD officers may have "double-dipped" in some way by punching the department's clock at the same time they were actually working secondary, private-sector jobs.
On March 29, the Chronicle filed an open-records request with the APD, asking for one year's worth of time sheets and off-duty logs completed by two officers, Sgt. Steve Simank and Cpl. Craig Miller, who until recently were assigned to the department's homeland-defense detail. Earlier that month (on March 19), APD Cmdr. Ricky Hinkle had apparently filed an offense report alleging that two of his unit's officers had "tampered with a government record" specifically, their own time sheets. (In response to our requests for documents, the APD released a version of that offense report as part of a "press release," although the officers are unnamed and it remains unclear how much information was withheld.) Just a week before, on March 12, Hinkle wrote that he "became aware of several time sheet concerns for two homeland [defense] employees as a result of their off-duty employment." The officers, under circumstances yet to be fully explained, resigned from the APD on March 26.
In mid-March, sources were also telling the Chronicle that a supervisor in the homeland defense unit (presumably Hinkle) had discovered a string of disturbing discrepancies in the time sheets and off-duty logs filed by Simank and Miller. Since June 2003, sources alleged, Simank and Miller had been "double-dipping" reporting that they were on duty, working for the city, while simultaneously racking up hours working for Signature Science LLC, a security company where the two officers worked an off-duty job. At times, several sources independently alleged, between the two jobs, the officers reported working in excess of 24 hours a day.
At press time, Miller was in Afghanistan and unavailable for comment, but Simank denied any knowledge of the allegations. "I have no idea about that," he said. "We left [APD] for other reasons and our business [with Signature Science] was doing really well."
On March 26, a week after Hinkle's offense report, the two officers resigned from the department without other administrative action. Sources told the Chronicle that the alleged scam went either unnoticed or unremarked on by higher-ups including former Cmdr. Joe Putman, who was head of homeland defense until late last year when he retired, and former Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman, who, until he retired at the end of 2003, was the administrator in charge of overseeing homeland defense. According to APD spokesman Kevin Buchman, the department is currently investigating the allegations and "can not discuss the details of this case."
Indeed, however clouded the departures of Simank, Miller, and Chapman from their official positions at APD, they seem to have landed on their feet at Signature Science, in positions that appear remarkably similar to those they left. And in the new era of homeland security, both the company and the officers have established profitable relationships with their former city employers performing "training" functions that were formerly in-house at APD.
Signature Science is the for-profit arm of the nonprofit "applied research and development organization" Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. According to their Web site, SwRI specializes in the "creation and transfer of technology in engineering and the physical sciences" research and development that in recent years has focused on technology to combat terrorism. In FY 2002 the company's revenues reached $339 million, 58% of that from government contracts and a healthy dose of "classified" projects. (For example, for several years SwRI has had a Department of Defense contract to test the effectiveness of training honeybees, moths, and rats to "sniff out" explosives, the San Antonio Express-News reported last September.)
Austin-based Signature Science joined SwRI in 2001 as a "multi-disciplinary professional services company" providing, as a "cornerstone" of its services, "scientific services and products" for use by law enforcement "in the battle against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," according to the company's Web site. Among those services are classes for local and federal law enforcement including the FBI about "weapons production, processes, terrorist scenarios and evidence preservation and recovery," the Express-News reported last fall. Last year, the company teamed up with APD to create a radiation-detection system for use with police dogs; also last year, the company sent six people to Iraq including the two former APD HDU officers to aid in the hunt for WMD.
The APD has had a close relationship with Signature Science since late 2001, when the department first entered into a contract with the company to provide officers with chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear awareness training a WMD training class designed for first responders. Since December 2001, the city has paid the company at least $39,000 for these training sessions even though extensive WMD training is available for free through the federal government's Office of Domestic Preparedness. The ODP runs the federal training programs through a "consortium" of entities including the Texas Engineering Extension Service at Texas A&M and has been funded by congressional appropriations since 1998, said Bill May, associate director of operations for the TEEX program and special assistant to the director of ODP. The goal of the federal program is to "maintain quality" in training and to assure accessibility to classes, in part by offering the trainings for free including all course costs, roundtrip travel, lodging, and meals for each participant, he said.
Local agencies like APD may instead choose to use a portion of their homeland defense grant money to contract with a private company for similar training, May said. However, in that case, course curriculum must be submitted to ODP for approval before the expenditure is allowed. May said he could not recall Signature Science ever submitting curriculum for approval.
Of course, the approval process isn't necessary if an individual department like APD wants to spend general budget revenue and not federal grants on private training as APD did, compensating the company with funds from the department's general revenues.
In the interest of providing Austin residents "with the best and most advanced trained officers in the country," APD has availed itself of federal training, Buchman wrote in response to questions submitted by the Chronicle but he did not provide specific information concerning any federal training.
The APD was "made aware" of Signature Science after the department began "searching for an organization that was familiar with" WMD, Buchman wrote. The company has a "national reputation for their expertise" in WMD, and due to their "local tie to Austin, the [APD] felt it would allow for faster training" of officers. The APD "has and will continue to maintain a professional relationship with Signature Science," Buchman wrote, "as long as threats of terrorism continue."
According to several current APD officers, the Signature Science classes they attended were taught in part by the two former APD HDU officers at the center of the current investigation, Simank and Miller. Oversight of Signature Science's law enforcement training programs now belongs to retired APD Assistant Chief Chapman. Chapman is under contract to run a "training program that teaches law enforcement personnel how to fight the proliferation of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," the Austin Police Association newsletter The Police Line reported earlier this year a job that the Line reported he was "uniquely qualified" for, given his supervisory experience of APD's homeland defense unit. According to a company spokesperson, since resigning on March 26, Simank and Miller have also taken full-time positions with Signature Science.
On March 29, the Chronicle filed an open-records request with the APD, seeking time sheets and off-duty logs for four officers. The city promptly handed over the documents for two of those officers, but claimed that the same documents relating to the other two officers Simank and Miller are exempt from public disclosure because they "deal with the detection, investigation, or prosecution" of a crime, and are "internal records ... maintained for internal use in matters relating to law enforcement." The city asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's open-records division for a ruling. Last month the AG ruled that the city may withhold the documents: "We conclude that the release of the responsive information would interfere with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime," Assistant Attorney General W. David Floyd wrote in a June 15 letter.
The Chronicle has appealed that decision to district court; a hearing on the matter is scheduled for July 22.