Dennis Reeves Cooper, Ph.D

Dennis Reeves Cooper, Ph.D

Because I edited Key West The Newspaper (KWTN) for 18 years before retiring last year, the new editors have asked me to periodically look back at some of the more sensational and/or unusual stories we covered back in the “old days.” Today, I will re-report to you the story of how controversial Key West Police Chief Bill Mauldin was tricked into resigning.

Mauldin resigned on April Fool’s Day 2008 in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal, but he had been involved in controversy for months. He had been caught lying to the press about charges he had trumped up charges to try to fire Officer Tom Neary because he feared that Neary might be ready to go public with allegations of corruption, incompetence and favoritism inside the police department. Mauldin had also been instrumental in planning a “September Surprise” to try to discredit City Commissioner Mark Rossi just weeks before the    October 2007 city elections.

It was well known that Mauldin and Rossi didn’t like each other one bit. Back in 2007, it was apparent that longtime City Manager Julio Avael was finally going to be forced to retire– and Mauldin wanted the job. But when he attempted to lobby Commissioner Rossi, Rossi told him, “I don’t think you’re qualified to be police chief, much less city manager!” I know that’s what Rossi said because, later, Rossi told me about that conversation. Well, that did not only not go over well with Mauldin, it also didn’t sit well with certain influentials in town who would have been perfectly happy with a continuation of Avael’s Bubba-style city management. And make no mistake about it, Mauldin was Avael’s boy. (You may recall that, a few months later, during Avael’s last week on the job, he slipped Mauldin a five-year extension on his contract and a $10,000 raise!)

As  election day approached, there was chatter inside the police department that Mauldin still had a strategy to become city manager– even though Jim Scholl, the retired commander of the Navy base here, had just been hired into that job. Reportedly, Mauldin had been told by some city commissioners that Scholl was “temporary.” It was not known what support Mauldin may have had on the commission, but it was known that he did not have Rossi’s support. So he reportedly told a selected number of his special operations officers to “get something on Rossi.” Since Rossi owns a nightclub with a “rough” reputation, Mauldin and his special operations officers concentrated on trying to fabricate a story that Rossi was in the drug business. Such a story would not need to have real merit– just enough false testimony by a couple of officers to persuade a judge to sign a warrant to search Rossi’s home and businesses. If a warrant could be obtained, Mauldin’s plan was to break that story just before the election.

One of the reasons that Officer Neary was in trouble is that Mauldin had learned that Neary was warning other officers that what Mauldin was doing was illegal and that somebody needed to go public. In fact, one of the charges against Neary was that he discussed a “confidential investigation” with other officers– which happened to be the bogus investigation to try to get something on Rossi. Go figure.

As it turned out, however, whatever “evidence” the cops came up with was not persuasive enough to get any judge here to sign a warrant and the election came and went and Rossi was reelected.

But whatever ambitions Mauldin may have had to become city manager went down in flames early in 2008 when allegations emerged that he had repeatedly sexually harassed Christie Phillips, the police department’s public information manager. We were first to break the inside story. Here is the first paragraph of that story, published on March 28, 2008: “Police Chief Bill Mauldin’s pomposity balloon has been popped. He has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation of sexual misconduct that Mayor Morgan McPherson called “serious.’ Sources close to City Hall tell us that the allegations, if true, may go beyond routine sexual harassment; they may approach the level of  ‘sexual battery,’ a criminal offense.” In that story, we quoted Phillips saying that she had complained to City Manager Scholl, but she refused to provide any details.

Mayor McPherson named City Attorney Shawn Smith and Human Resources Director Sandy Gilbert to investigate the allegations. Smith and Gilbert interviewed Phillips, Mauldin and two witnesses– and concluded in a one-page report that there had allegedly been “four to five specific encounters of alleged sexual harassment by Chief Mauldin.” Of interest: Although the incidents had reportedly occurred between September and November 2006, Phillips had waited more than a year to complain to Scholl– and, then, Scholl simply sat on the complaint, taking no action until one of the witnesses reportedly went directly to City Attorney Smith. Although Mauldin told Smith and Gilbert that he had done nothing improper, he resigned on April 1, the same day that the Smith-Gilbert report was sent to City Manager Scholl. Here is why he did that:

As we were covering this story, one of the pieces of information we immediately requested after we received a copy of the Smith-Gilbert report were copies of the notes they took during the interviews. The very brief report did not reveal details of any of the testimony. When we were told that they didn’t take any notes, we were flabbergasted! How could that be true?! That we were suspicious is an understatement. But City Attorney Smith later told me that they did not take notes for a reason. Here is what he told me. The quotes are based on my memory, but this is the gist of our conversation:

“Keep in mind that Christie Phillips was not overly cooperative,” Smith said, “and while she did confirm that she was repeatedly sexually harassed, I was not absolutely sure, if Mauldin got fired and if this thing went to court, that we had a really strong case. Also keep in mind that while Mauldin knew what he had done, he didn’t know what Christie and the witnesses were telling us. Had we taken notes, those notes would have been available to Mauldin and his attorney.”

So, apparently assuming the worst, Mauldin resigned to avoid getting fired, as well as to avoid any more public revelations.

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