Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Mokwa compelled to testify in whistleblower cop trial

Chet Pleban interviewed former Police Chief Joe Mokwa on the record yesterday in the police board trial of Police Officer Scott Tillis, an African American, who has been suspended without pay for 11 months. Tillis says he was disciplined after he began to investigate citizen complaints against S&H Towing.
Photo by Wiley Price


From tomorrow's St. Louis American newspaper.

‘He rocked the boat on S&H Towing’
Mokwa compelled to testify in whistleblower cop trial

By Chris King
Of the St. Louis American

Mayor Francis G. Slay had plans to vote for himself Tuesday at 9 a.m. Meanwhile, Downtown, just across the street from where he works, a trial was getting underway.

The trial is part of the internal grievance process of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. As police commissioner – the only elected St. Louis police commissioner – Slay shares ultimate authority over this grievance process and the fate of Police Officer Scott Tillis, an African American, who has been suspended without pay for 11 months.

The timing of a police board trial as starting at the precise time the mayor plans to vote for himself sounds political – especially when the guts of the trial promises to give at least a partial airing of the S&H Towing scandal involving the department governed by the police board that has included the mayor as its only elected member for the past eight years.

The police chief whose tenure lines up closely with Slay’s years in the Mayor’s Office is Joe Mokwa. Mokwa resigned last July after the Post-Dispatch investigative team of Joe Mahr and Jeremy Kohler began to break their first big eye-opening stories involving Mokwa’s daughter’s use of vehicles towed by S&H Towing.

A bigger shocker than a scandalous police board trial opening at the same time the police commissioner/mayor has said he will vote for himself: on day two of the trial, which is day one of Slay’s next reelection campaign, the now retired (and, some would say, disgraced) Mokwa takes the stand in a small meeting room at the Police Academy.

Actually, he took a chair – a chair off to itself in the middle of the room. An unused microphone stand, with no microphone, stood beside it, the glint of the metal adding an executioner’s touch.

Why was a retired police chief of a department reported to be under investigation by the IRS, FBI and U.S. Attorney for towing operations conducted under his watch back in the police academy, testifying at a board trial in the grievance process of a plebian police officer?

Because Tillis’ attorney, Chet Pleban, subpoenaed Mokwa and fought to have his subpoena honored.

Why did Pleban want Mokwa on the hot seat?

Like any savvy litigator, he surely wanted to get Mokwa to spill on what he knew about S&H Towing and when he knew it.

And an accusation against Mokwa is at the crux of his defense.

Valentine’s Day dates

The dates in the Tillis case are eloquent.

February 14, 2008: Six vehicles are towed from addresses all near one another on North 10th Street. Officer Tillis lives in a neighboring apartment and hears from his neighbors about what seemed to be a suspicious, wholesale towing operation.

February 16, 2008: Tillis drops by S&H Towing, which towed his six neighbors’ vehicles, to investigate his neighbors’ claims. Tillis says that Greg Shepard of S&H Towing told him that he was "with Joe (Mokwa)" and would cause trouble for Tillis in the police department if Tillis insisted on looking into his business.

February 17, 2008: A minor incident reported (but unsigned) against Tillis on January 9 suddenly resurfaces, and by April Tillis is suspended without pay.

By the end of July, Mokwa has resigned amid the S&H Towing scandal.

Shepard, a former cop, has a long history with Mokwa in the department. He was one of the detectives working under Mokwa when Mokwa was chief of the detectives. Mokwa testified he had known Shepard "for 20 years."

Mokwa testified that he knew Shepard had once worked in Asset Forfeiture, which has direct relation to tow operations.

When Shepard left police work to join S&H Towing – Mokwa testified that Shepard managed day-to-day operations at the tow yard – he and Mokwa maintained friendly relations.

Yesterday Mokwa testified to calling Shepard at S&H Towing on average once a week and visiting him "a half-dozen times a year" – sometimes, with members of his senior command – "for coffee."

Mokwa also testified that as chief of police he did call Shepard regularly at the tow yard about vehicles that had been towed – but, he said, only when he was (as police chief) personally investigating a complaint about an improperly towed vehicle.

Mokwa denied ever working for S&H Towing or accepting payment from the company. He denied having anything to do with the disciplinary action and suspension without pay for Tillis, other than to approve it.

In fact, he testified that he first heard that Tillis’ grievance had ties to the towing scandal recently. His source, he testified, was "gossip."

Mokwa’s attorney tried repeatedly to keep questions about S&H Towing off the record as having no bearing on Tillis’ grievance. The hearing official permitted the questions as part of Tillis’ defense.

"I intend to tie this witness to S&H Towing," Pleban said of Mokwa.

"And I intend to tie Mr. Tillis to S&H Towing. And I posit that the charges against my client were a pretense to getting rid of this officer. A pretense because he rocked the boat regarding S&H Towing."

Then Mokwa’s attorney objected to questions about Mokwa’s severance package – more than $100,000 and paid legal fees for cases involving his tenure in the police department.

"His financial interest in this police department potentially color his testimony," Pleban argued.

Mokwa also denied playing any role in S&H renewing its contract with the police department. He said in his years as chief no one had ever competed against S&H Towing for the contract.

The police chief’s daughter

When Pleban asked if anyone in his family had ever benefited from the contract with S&H Towing, he said, "I don’t think so."

And then Mokwa said he did not know a long string of things.

He said he didn’t know if he had discussed with his daughter whether she bought cars from S&H Towing.

He said he did not know whether the police board had investigated his relationship with S&H Towing, only that he had asked them and "presumed they did."

Even when Pleban reminded Mokwa that Police Commission Chris Goodson had held a press conference about the investigation, Mokwa said he knew nothing about what Goodson announced.

When asked how Mokwa first discovered that his daughter had bought cars from S&H Towing, he said he didn’t know.

He said at one time he saw her with an automobile and "presumed she had purchased it from S&H."

When asked why he presumed this, Mokwa said, I don’t recollect how I knew that. I jumped to that conclusion."

"How?" Pleban asked.

Mokwa said, "I don’t know."

The timing of Tillis long-delayed board trial also comes just as Gov. Jay Nixon was making his decision to replace Chris Goodson on the police board – with Bettye Battle-Turner, an African-American lawyer and municipal judge with a reputation for scrupulous honesty and uncorruptability.
The American’s coverage of the Scott Tillis case will continue next week.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for covering this story! That certainly is an impressive string of "I don't knows" from Mokwa!