The NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau is under fire for introducing false phone records as evidence in a departmental hearing. In March of 2008, the IAB accused a Staten Island Sergeant of misconduct and entered his Verizon and T-Mobile call histories into the official hearing record. PIX News has learned eight of the most critical phone conversations never happened.
Internal Affairs investigators began building a case against Sgt. Bill Lewis in April of 2007 after they got a tip Lewis was contacting the owner of Staten Island's Beer Goggles Bar. In the following weeks, IAB detectives became convinced Lewis was trying to warn the bar about an ongoing gambling investigation. To prove Lewis was attempting to blow the cover of vice cops, internal affairs investigators subpoenaed 13,000 pages of his phone records. That's where the discrepancy comes in.
Lewis's defense attorney, Eric Franz, says he inspected the raw phone data, and it didn't match the evidence document provided by the NYPD in court.
"I went and reviewed the original phone records and compared to the records provided by the police department," said Franz. "Remarkably, shockingly -- those phone calls that they claim occurred between my client and the target of the investigation never occurred!"
When the NYPD requests phone records, telecommunications companies use a software program called "Penlink" to turn tens of thousands of calls into a succinct sheet of relevant conversations. The department initially claimed Lewis called the Beer Goggles bar owner eight times during the vice investigation between December of 2007 and March of 2008. After the discrepancy was raised in court, NYPD lawyer Krishna O'Neal admitted "a review of the original phone records from the respective phone companies indicate that no phone activity occurred between Sergeant Lewis and [the bar owner] from December 2007 through March 2008."
In other words, the Penlink document was wrong.
"That would be extremely troubling to me," said former NYPD Trial Commissioner Rae Koshetz. "As the hearing officer in a case like that, the proceedings would grind to a screeching halt ... I'll tell you, I never heard anything like this in 14 years that I heard cases."
NYPD spokesman Detective Joe Cavitolo explained the false phone records, calling them a result of "human error."
"[It] was brought to the attention of the courts and it had no bearing on the case," Cavitolo said.
Police watchdog groups are raising eyebrows over the phantom phone calls. The NYCLU has long called for more oversight of the Internal Affairs Bureau. Director Donna Lieberman said it's unacceptable that the IAB special investigations unit is the only task force charged with probing internal affairs misconduct.
"This is a classic case of, the police can't be counted on to investigate themselves," said Lieberman. "The Internal Affairs Bureau has to be held accountable to some independent entity."
The Mayor's Commission to Combat Police Corruption has some oversight of the Internal Affairs Bureau. It publishes a yearly report on the effectiveness of IAB investigations. Still, Lieberman and other police critics say the commission has few investigative staff members and no subpoena power. City Council Public Safety Chair, Peter Vallone, Jr. recalls when the Commission was formed it was immediately criticized for being too weak.
"The head of that commission at the time, resigned in protest the day after the hearing, saying that he was not able to complete his investigations because he wasn't getting sufficient cooperation from the police department. They weren't in on every meeting. They weren't being given the information they needed to do their investigations. "
Sgt. Bill Lewis is now awaiting a hearing officer's decision on the charge that he blew the Beer Goggles undercover operation. His attorney still has no answer as to how the Penlink phone document distorted the raw phone records.
"I have no reason to believe that the Penlink software has any defects in it," said Franz. "I think the defects are in the personnel that operate it."