What happens when the most influential police union in Texas goes after one of Austin's iconic cops?
If you were in Austin a decade ago and could name just one police officer, chances are that the cop's name was Mike Sheffield. The detective wasn't police chief. That would have been Art Acevedo's less winsome predecessor, Stan Knee. But as president of the Austin Police Association, Sheffield represented the local cops in all their business: managing matters with local media, Knee's administration, and policymakers at City Hall. Today Sheffield is particularly revered for his efforts with the latter. In 2001, he talked city management into a collective $40.9 million raise for local officers, making them the most well-paid in the state.
He's 59 now, retired from police work and working as a plainclothes employee at APD's Office of Community Liaison, his third job since stepping down as APA president. In 2012, his first post-APD employer, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), tried to send him to prison for a crime that legal authorities determined never happened. The accusations caused him irreparable harm, he says – inducing stress, a loss of money, and, most important to him, a hit to the reputation he spent years fostering.
Sheffield spent 20 years as a police officer in Austin before taking over the APA in 1998. He succeeded Mike Lummus there, a leader Sheffield and others credit with transitioning the APA from a loose crew of officers into a focused and nimble political player. Like Lummus, Sheffield believed the APA president's job was to consider the wealth of its 1,800 members before investing in any private interest. He championed domestic-partner benefits a decade before the city adopted policies, and negotiated the Citizen Review Panel – a civilian oversight group conceived as a trade-off for the $40.9 million salary bump – such that those sitting on the panel would be close enough to feel involved but just far enough away to have any tangible influence. Onetime Mayor Roy Butler, a modernizer of Austin's police whose name presides over the department's training academy, stood in awe of Sheffield's craftiness. In 2005, after watching Sheffield maneuver that patchy stretch of CRP negotiations, he said the association ought to "put up a statue" of their president for all the work he'd done for membership.
"The key to being APA president is learning how to disagree with people," Sheffield told the Chronicle in 2001. "The APA isn't here to defend people when they're right or wrong, but to protect their access to due process."
Sheffield routinely sparred with Knee, blasting the chief when he played favorites or tried to muscle association members. That was perhaps no more evident than during the Mala Sangre investigation, an eight-year saga that began, in 1995, with a task force charged with breaking up a drug trafficking ring within the city and ended with six officers filing whistle-blower lawsuits against the city alleging that one of Knee's own assistant chiefs, Jimmy Chapman, effectively shut the investigation down in an effort to keep a few APD officers – who had gotten themselves involved with the trading ring – out of trouble. In 2002, Sheffield was transferred off full-time union duty and placed on assignment with APD's Sex Offender Apprehension & Registration unit for publicly addressing doubts that Knee would execute a thorough investigation into the claims that Detective Jeff White, the lone investigator left working Mala Sangre in 2001, was transferred off Mala Sangre and blocked from another assignment in retaliation for calling Chapman out. Four years later, after the city eventually settled with White for $200,000 (therefore quashing any hope of a complete investigation) Sheffield went public with his opposition.
"I think that for Jeff White and his family, [the settlement] brings closure," he told the Chronicle in 2005. "But the settling of this case does not close, or answer, the questions that still hang over this department ... [and that are] still staring the department in the face: What happened? I guess we'll never know, and that's unfortunate."
The totality of Sheffield's tenure gave cause for the Austin American-Statesman to consider in a 2010 editorial that Sheffield was more often regarded as being in charge of Austin's police during Chief Stan Knee's reign than Knee was himself.
Sheffield had detractors. He was believed to be out of touch with local rank-and-file. In 2001 he was accused of "willful neglect of office" after failing to consult with membership on CRP negotiations. In 2004, a group of officers tried to force a recall of his election. The anonymous assembly distributed a brochure alleging that Sheffield was a poor communicator who lacked integrity and failed to support his members.
Since he first won the APA election in 1998, his most vocal opponent has been Wayne Vincent. Vincent, a sergeant, ran for president of the APA in 2008, as soon as he could win it – after George Vanderhule, who assumed the position upon Sheffield's 2006 retirement, decided to hit the bricks himself. Vincent told the Chronicle last month that he never liked the way "the status quo" did business; how Sheffield and Lummus eschewed "member services" in favor of "going to the Capitol and taking politicians out to lunch."
"They were there predominantly for political reasons, but there was very little in terms of 'Where is my money going?'" Vincent remembered. His big concern, he said, was that officers in the APA didn't have their own home in which to congregate. In Sept. 2010, after months considering prospects, Vincent notified his membership that he and his board of directors would purchase a union hall.
At least that's what the property Vincent settled on would become after renovations. The patch of land just west of Highway 183 was just an unfinished structure upon its purchase. The APA paid $1,200,000 for it, secured through an $800,000 loan from Horizon Bank. Even today, four years after the sale, certain APA members contest its purchase.
Kurt Rothert was the first to take up issue. In July 2011, the lieutenant filed a grievance to the District Attorney's Office alleging that Vincent violated the Association's bylaws with the purchase. The APA budget for 2010, he said, did not include a building or land purchase. Any excess expenditures would require a two-thirds majority vote from APA membership. Vincent never got those votes, he says today, because he didn't actually need them. He classified the purchase as a rearrangement of APA assets – justified, he notes, by an altogether different bylaw requiring only board approval.
Vincent did get those votes; 17 to 1 in favor of the purchase. In turn, he got his building. "No comment"-ing to the press was departed President Mike Sheffield.
Sheffield at the time was working as a field representative and training coordinator with CLEAT, an organization that's best described as an association of police associations designed to provide legal representation and various consultancy services – as well as high-profile legislative lobbying – to dues-paying members throughout Texas. The organization was founded in 1976 and has since built its membership from 400 officers to nearly 20,000.
Sheffield's job with CLEAT was to focus on Central Texas, serving as an adviser to and negotiating consultant for the police associations in Austin, Round Rock, Kyle, Buda, and Temple, among others. His ability to do that locally came into question, however, in March 2011, when his boss, CLEAT Executive Director John Burpo, issued him a written reprimand regarding Sheffield's penchant for meeting with Chief Acevedo without first getting clearance from Vincent. Quote Burpo: "It gives the perception that you are interfering with APA business."
Two months later, in May 2011, as newly seated Police Monitor Margo Frasier was getting comfortable, Sheffield was given a second slap on the wrist for ignoring Vincent's wishes and working with APA Vice President Mike Bowen on a grievance concerning Frasier. The former sheriff had come out firing in her new seat, issuing a series of strongly worded reviews of APD conduct. Many APA members (as well as Acevedo) thought she went beyond her limitations when she recommended disciplinary action for some SWAT team members who'd gone drinking while on call. Bowen believed that the OPM only had authority to recommend disciplines in "critical incidents," those involving death or serious injury.
Vincent had his reasons for not wanting to take up issue with Frasier, telling the Chronicle in September that, at the time, the APA's meet-and-confer agreement wasn't so explicit about Frasier's limits. His issue with Sheffield helping Bowen, however, was that he thought Sheffield was acting in "complete opposition" to his professional duties. "He worked for CLEAT," says Vincent. "That group was to support the APA, not undermine ... its leaders."
Sheffield scoffs at Vincent's perspective, saying that even with CLEAT his responsibility was to the full APA membership – not its president. He told the Statesman at the time that Frasier's actions were in violation of the APA contract; Burpo told Sheffield to keep his name out of the press after that story. The decree came down just as news of the union hall purchase was going public. Asked about the purchase for a July 2011 Chronicle story, Sheffield explained that he wasn't allowed to have an opinion; he'd been instructed to stay hush with the media by his employers, CLEAT and Burpo.
Embarrassed by the non-quote, Burpo brought Sheffield into his office for a meeting. There, rather than defend himself, Sheffield questioned the legality of the union hall purchase. He also brought up CLEAT's president Todd Harrison, an APD sergeant and member of APA's executive board, and the unorthodox way in which he was receiving his APD salary.
Upon Harrison's 2009 election, Austin's Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald arranged with Vincent for the APA to help fund Harrison's salary: $101,200. Since Sheffield was association president, certain board members have been able to eschew departmental duties to better focus their time and resources on APA business. The president, in turn, forgoes his city salary, instead getting paid through "Association Business Leave," a pool funded by the city out of donated sick leave hours from the membership. (At the time, Austin's civil service employees received 6.08 hours of sick leave credit each period. The ABL pool got funded by officers donating a portion of that sick leave each paycheck. In total, the contributions came to roughly 7,000 hours for Association business, with about 2,080 going to the president.) Harrison's election meant that he'd now be focused full time on CLEAT matters, rather than on APD's. With Harrison off patrol while serving as CLEAT president, the city was intent on recouping his full salary.
The APA board agreed to let Harrison use ABL money for CLEAT business, reasoning that the association benefits when CLEAT is operating on all cylinders. In exchange for the arrangement, CLEAT would pay the APA $50,000 per year.
Back at the meeting, Sheffield asked Burpo if he knew of the arrangement – and wondered aloud if the APA used the $50,000 it received from CLEAT to help secure Horizon's loan. He warned Burpo of an eventual grievance two corporals were planning to file concerning the payments, and told Burpo that he may actually be called in to testify before a jury. (Harrison's payment plan was eventually remodeled in Aug. 2011 with CLEAT agreeing to pay the city $143,000 – the full cost of Harrison's salary and benefits – and pull its $50,000 annual payment to the APA.)
The beginning of the end of Sheffield's time at CLEAT began one week after that, when he received an email invitation from friend and longtime APA board member Wuthipong "Tank" Tantaksinanukij inviting him and his wife to a Thai festival at a Buddhist temple in Del Valle. Sheffield forwarded the invitation to Burpo to ask if he could attend, copying his wife and Tantaksinanukij to the email. Burpo said he could attend, but the request for permission irked Tantaksinanukij. He forwarded the email to Bowen and Acevedo, and asked openly why Sheffield contacted Burpo: "Do you have handlers now you have to check in with before we can do dinner?"
The following Monday, July 18, Burpo asked Sheffield why he copied his wife and Tantaksinanukij. Sheffield responded by saying he wanted them to know that any potential decline "was not my decision but instead it was John Burpo's." Burpo fired Sheffield that morning for continued defiance of CLEAT directives. Sheffield returned to CLEAT's Downtown office the next day to sign his termination papers.
Sheffield filed a grievance with his union, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), alleging CLEAT lacked just cause to fire him. An Unfair Labor Practice indictment went out to the National Labor Relations Board, as well; that one alleging that Sheffield was fired for protected activity (associating with fellow union members) and violating "an overly broad rule" limiting work-related conversations. The IUPAT chose not to hear his complaints, but Sheffield had luck with the NLRB, who notified both Sheffield and CLEAT on Jan. 3, 2012, that it would hear his case in early April.
Burpo informed his staff of the eventual hearing in a letter dated Jan. 4: "The Acting General Counsel of the NLRB is apparently on a tear with regard to private sector employers issuing overbroad employment policies in these areas," he wrote. "Both [CLEAT attorney Rod] Tanner and I are totally bewildered by this decision but this news is offset by the following very positive points.
"1. This step by the NLRP is not a 'victory' for Sheffield in even any remote sense of the word. It is simply a complaint against CLEAT, which means that we will have to defend our decision to fire Sheffield before an independent federal law judge. ... I am confident that our decision to fire Sheffield was sound and there are no second thoughts on my part about doing so.
"2. This hearing will allow us to subpoena Sheffield's telephone records. I had wanted to subpoena telephone records in the contract arbitration, but since the staff union national office [IUPAT] denied the grievance because just cause existed for termination, there was no hearing. It will be interesting to find out what other people Sheffield was communicating with in his continued interference with CLEAT/APA affairs.
"3. The Executive Board has directed me to file criminal charges against Sheffield for deleting files that were the property of CLEAT, which Rod Tanner advises is a criminal act under Texas law. In light of the fact that an NLRB hearing has been scheduled for April 2 and 3, I am going to ask the Board at our February meeting to permit me to delay filing charges until after the NLRB hearing. In this hearing Sheffield will have to testify as to his deletion of CLEAT files and APA-related emails to the Administrative Law Judge."
The files Burpo referenced were part of a collection of documents Sheffield deleted from his work computer the night after his firing. Sheffield later reported that the files he deleted contained family photographs, financial information, "and all my passwords for various accounts." He scrubbed those, along with, he told Carol Whitfield, the CLEAT employee in charge of managing the organization's inventory, "a couple of programs in an effort to make sure I got my passwords off the computer." He says Whitfield told him it was not a problem since she was going to "clean" all the information off the computer anyway. In an affidavit issued the following July, Whitfield said that she was startled to hear Sheffield say that.
"No other employee had ever assumed they could delete their work product from their issued computer, nor had anyone else ever attempted to do so upon their departure," she wrote. "I knew what he had done was in violation of company policy." She said that she was on the phone when Sheffield informed her of his actions and could not follow up with what he told her, but she notified CLEAT corporate counsel John Curtis of Sheffield's clean-out.
Concerned by Sheffield's actions, Curtis commissioned an analysis of the computer by Wes Goodwin at Databank Services. The results came back one month later. They indicated that Sheffield had in fact deleted more than just passwords and family photos; in the time after his firing, he'd also deleted two files referencing Mike Bowen's grievance against Margo Frasier.
Trying to Make a Federal Case
Sheffield was working for APD again when he learned of Burpo's email. In Nov. 2011, he'd taken a job as an evidence control specialist reviewing footage from dashboard cameras.
Sheffield reported Burpo's allegations to his chain of command, who stuck him on administrative leave and brought in a Special Investigations Unit to get in touch with CLEAT's president, Todd Harrison. The SIU tabbed the Travis County District Attorney's Office and had the FBI's cybercrimes unit take a look, as well. Neither those two nor APD found any details worth further considering. "It was neither consequential or proprietary," recollects former Asst. Chief of Police Sean Mannix, now chief of police in Cedar Park. Put another way: "If you create work notes for your stories, I'm guessing your editor's not coming in and trying to have you criminally prosecuted for deleting them after they publish."
Making matters more questionable was the fact that CLEAT failed to provide APD with any information that would substantiate claims of a crime committed. The organization informed police it intended to try Sheffield in Williamson County. (In a memo issued Feb. 27, 2012, Sheffield's lieutenant Joseph Chacon wrote that the Code of Criminal Procedure prescribes APD to have jurisdiction over any criminal investigation into Sheffield concerning CLEAT matters.) When CLEAT went to WilCo, the county contacted APD to investigate the incident. Upon learning of that, CLEAT told officials that it wished to pursue the matter federally under 18 USC § 1030, fraud and related activity in connection with computers, an offense carrying a maximum penalty imprisonment of 20 years.
Sheffield, meanwhile, was engaged in a back-and-forth with the NLRB over whether or not to continue pursuing his grievance. He filed a second charge March 12, 2012, alleging that Burpo's Jan. 4 email was sent in retaliation of Sheffield's first complaint, that moved the April 2 hearing back toward the summer. But he recanted in late April, withdrawing his grievance against Burpo. On May 10, his attorney Sean Breen issued a letter to Burpo indicating that Sheffield is considering other legal options.
"It is obviously no coincidence that this libelous [Jan. 4] email was distributed the day following the NLRB decision to file a complaint against CLEAT for its wrongful termination of Mr. Sheffield," wrote Breen. "Such false, malicious and retaliatory conduct by CLEAT is the type of outlandish behavior that justifies exemplary damages in many cases. We further believe that upon full discovery, we will find multiple other instances of such defamatory conduct, including but not limited to your briefing of the new board. The conduct described above is defamatory per se and fits both the statutory definition of libel ... and common law libel."
That sprung CLEAT's legal team back into action against Sheffield. On Aug. 21, Curtis drove to Georgetown to meet with former District Attorney John Bradley and attempt to indict Sheffield on the computer crimes detailed in Chapter 33 of the Texas Penal Code (particularly those relating to data theft and unauthorized use). He indicated that he believed Sheffield's conduct cost CLEAT a direct loss of "approximately $10,000." Curtis provided affidavits from Burpo, Vincent, and Whitfield, among others, as well as the Databank Services report on Sheffield's files. Bradley reviewed them and orchestrated an independent investigation from the District Attorney's Office. Upon its conclusion, he determined that CLEAT and Curtis' claim was "wholly without merit." He still decided to present the information to the grand jury. On Sept. 25, the grand jury no-billed Sheffield of any wrongdoing.
Three days after Curtis' visit with Bradley CLEAT filed a civil lawsuit against Sheffield. This time, CLEAT alleged that Sheffield trespassed on CLEAT property, committed a breach of fiduciary duties to CLEAT, and violated the Theft Liability Act. That case got transferred to Travis County, where CLEAT eventually non-suited. On Oct. 18, 2012, Sheffield filed a defamation lawsuit against CLEAT and Burpo.
Today, Sheffield still wonders what he did to infuriate CLEAT. The files were digital, he explains: emails and Word documents, saved to a shared "Z" drive on CLEAT's network, and held in the emails received by local presidents. He could have sent a .zip drive of what remained to whoever needed it.
He remains unsure as to what would drive CLEAT to pursue criminal charges against him, cut off support streams for his wife and daughters, and send him off to prison. He's spent thousands of dollars – more than $50,000, he says – fighting CLEAT since his 2011 firing. (One would assume CLEAT has spent as much or even more. Citing ongoing litigation, the organization declined comment on this story.)
Sheffield's defamation suit, filed in Travis County, alleges CLEAT caused him "damages, including shame, embarrassment, humiliation, and mental pain and anguish." It charges that Sheffield "will in the future be injured in his reputation, good name, standing in the community, and will be exposed to the hatred, contempt, and/or ridicule of the public in general as well as his business associates, clients, friends, and/or relatives."
"There is probably little or nothing more damaging to the reputation of a law enforcement officer than to accuse him of criminal conduct," it reads. "Although Mr. Sheffield has now been reinstated at APD, the damage to his reputation as a result of the allegations has been significant."
CLEAT and Burpo have done their part to try to quash the lawsuit, filing a motion to dismiss the case on Dec. 5, 2012. In it, the two argued that Sheffield's smoking gun – Burpo's Jan. 4, 2012, email – occurred in the context of a labor dispute and was simply a method of passing along advice provided by an attorney. They also suggested that Sheffield cannot demonstrate that Burpo made any false statement of fact with actual malice. And they attempted to invoke the Texas Citizens Participation Act – the Texas Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute – an act established in June 2011 to protect the rights of defendants in civil suits and allow them to associate or speak freely.
Sheffield issued a response to CLEAT and Burpo's motion on Jan. 3, 2013. He presented copies of Burpo's Jan. 4, 2012, email as preliminary evidence, in addition to four additional items: an affidavit provided by Corpus Christi Police Officers Association President Mike Staff alleging that Burpo told him in the summer of 2012 that CLEAT was "still dealing with Mike Sheffield" and his "criminal conduct"; another affidavit from Laredo Police Association President Luis Dovalina alleging that CLEAT Region 2 Director Mark Guerra once told him Sheffield's situation "could go criminal"; "statements allegedly made by CLEAT corporate counsel John Curtis that APD Chief Art Acevedo created a special employment position for Sheffield after CLEAT fired him" (Acevedo denied those allegations to KXAN); and statements Curtis allegedly made to Williamson County D.A. John Bradley concerning Sheffield's alleged criminal activity.
The trial court chose not to dismiss Sheffield's suit, but CLEAT and Burpo appealed to Texas' 3rd Court of Appeals. There, justices ruled to dismiss three of the claims – saying that Sheffield couldn't prove Burpo's email was false, and couldn't "pinpoint the timing of these alleged communications" – but chose to not to consider CLEAT and Burpo's appeals with respect to the last two points. In Jan. 2014, justices referred those back to the trial court, as well as any questions concerning costs and attorney fees. Most recently, in the summer of 2015, the Texas Supreme Court chose not to hear Sheffield's case concerning the COA's judgment.
That brings the case back to the 353rd Civil District Court in Travis County, where eventually Judge Tim Sulak will hear both sides' arguments. In August, Sheffield filed an 81-point discovery request that was due back to him and Breen in mid-September. Breen says he expects to amend the complaint shortly thereafter, then file for depositions. A hearing date's well off, but Sheffield remains ready for his trial.
"Let's go to the jury," he said when we met Downtown in early September. "Let the people see the whole plot of what goes on behind the doors of two unions."
Eating Our Own
Burpo left his job with CLEAT in late 2013. That December, Sheffield accepted a job to manage APD's Office of Community Liaison. As CLEAT attorney Craig Deats asserts, "These things happened a long time ago," and most of the accusations made throughout the four-year saga have since been withdrawn or dismissed. Sheffield, however, believes a personal vendetta "by somebody in a leadership position" jump-started a coordinated effort against him. "They tried to literally ruin my life and tell people that I was a crook," he said. "They fired me for something else but then hung their whole case on this other deal."
The situation presents an interesting consideration for the Austin Police Association and its membership. In one corner sits CLEAT, the organization built to erect and advocate for their rights and interests. In the other is Mike Sheffield, an old colleague who spent eight years ensuring that Austin's police officers were among the most well cared-for in the state. Making matters more concerning is the idea that CLEAT, which funds its operations through membership dues payments (its website says officers pay the organization $30 each month), is fighting Sheffield in a legal battle with money pooled, in part, from APA membership.
Current APA president Ken Casaday downplayed both the APA's investment and the lawsuit, saying that his relatively young membership isn't concerned with a "dispute between an employer and employee.
"These days, people don't have time to think about anybody but themselves, especially with the national picture in law enforcement right now," he said. "The officers don't have time to get concerned with other people's issues. I've been answering emails all day with spouses concerned [about the safety of their significant others]. Those are their concerns. As long as they're getting a paycheck – and it's a good paycheck – that's all the officers care about."
Sheffield's supporters, however, believe that the APA membership should have some interest, and those unaware of what's going on between the organization tasked with protecting them and the individual responsible for many of their benefits should familiarize themselves with the situation. Tantaksinanukij has been among the most vocal supporters. A longtime friend of Sheffield's, he canceled his membership in CLEAT after the firing, returning only recently, in August, to support CLEAT's ability to "highlight the positive side of reinforcement." (He added that he found it easier to return to CLEAT knowing that John Burpo had departed.)
"You have a former employer who goes after him, really to send him to prison and take the livelihood away from his family," Tantaksinanukij reiterated one afternoon earlier in September. "He was the union president at a powerful time. And now to say the membership doesn't care? I don't think so. With everything that he's done, and Mike Sheffield being one of their own – because he is a retired detective with the Austin Police Department – I would think the membership would care.
"We're supposed to be above par on all this. You have an association that represents officers who does this to one of [their] own? You can understand how the public sees police officers. We're eating our own."