Secret tapes linger over Buttigieg's meteoric rise

Source: The Hill | April 15, 2019 | Jonathan Easley

Pete Buttigieg’s meteoric rise as a presidential candidate is putting a spotlight on his years as mayor of South Bend, Ind., including his demotion of an African-American police chief.

An Indiana judge will rule soon on whether to release five cassette tapes of secretly recorded conversations between South Bend police officers that led to the 2012 demotion of Police Chief Darryl Boykins, the city’s first ever black police chief.

The South Bend City Council subpoenaed Buttigieg to win release of the tapes, which were at the center of a police department shake-up and a series of lawsuits.

Buttigieg’s critics say he’s gone to great lengths to conceal the contents of the tapes, which some believe could include racist language by white police officers.

There is roiling anger in South Bend over the allegations of racism. Black leaders in the city say that if there is evidence of racism, it could call into question scores of convictions that stemmed from white police officers investigating black suspects in a city that is 25 percent black.

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The issue has potential ramifications in the Democratic primary. Buttigieg, 37, a Harvard graduate, Rhodes scholar and military veteran, officially launched his presidential campaign from a former Studebaker factory in South Bend on Sunday, saying his policies had revitalized the once-dying Midwest town.

African-American voters will be a force in the primary, where 18 Democrats and counting are battling to be heard. If the judge rules that the tapes should be released, their contents will immediately become a national story.

The Hill dug through court documents and interviewed more than a dozen people to look at the roots of the story, which began in early 2011, before Buttigieg had been elected mayor. The mayor’s office and South Bend Police Department declined to comment.

Secret recordings

In 2011, Karen DePaepe, a 25-year veteran of the South Bend Police Department in charge of the dispatch and communications center, informed Boykins that the desk phone line for Detective Bryan Young was being taped.

A previous police chief had authorized taping the phone line because the detective at the time didn’t want to miss any possible tips. Boykins allowed the taping, now on Young’s phone line, to continue but did not inform the detective that his calls were being recorded.

About a year later, shortly after Buttigieg had been elected to his first term in office at the age of 29, DePaepe discovered recordings on the line that she said revealed racist remarks and a potential criminal conspiracy between officers.

DePaepe took the allegations to Boykins, who confronted the officers.

The officers, upset over the secret recordings, went to the FBI and Department of Justice to ask for an investigation. They contended the recordings were illegal, and their complaints prompted U.S. Attorney David Capp to open an investigation.

Buttigieg steps in

Buttigieg only learned of the investigation into the recordings in early 2012 when the FBI alerted him to the probe.

Buttigieg’s allies say he was frustrated that Boykins did not tell him about the existence of the investigation. The mayor was alarmed by allegations the officers had been improperly recorded.

Though he had initially asked Boykins to remain on as police chief after his mayoral win, Buttigieg, upon learning of the investigation, asked him to resign.

Boykins complied, but a day later, after consulting with legal counsel and hearing from supporters in the community, he reversed course and asked to be reinstated.

In an interview with The Hill, Boykins’s attorney, Tom Dixon, accused the mayor’s office of misleading his client and trying to scare him into leaving. In a court filing, Boykins said he had stepped down under “the false pretense that the Mayor was being directed into this course of action by the U.S. Attorney’s office.”

Buttigieg relented to a degree, removing Boykins as police chief but keeping him on the force with a demotion to captain.

The mayor also fired DePaepe, believing she had intentionally eavesdropped on the officers to dig up dirt on them. DePaepe disputed that characterization, saying in a court filing that she had “inadvertently stumbled upon conversations” between officers.

Lawsuits

The firing and demotion led to a string of lawsuits.

Boykins sued the city for racial discrimination, arguing that the taping policy existed under previous police chiefs, who were white.

In a court filing, Boykins argued that Buttigieg had used the taping scandal as an excuse to get rid of him. Boykins said that since Buttigieg had been elected, the top three ranking African-American officials in the city had retired, been forced out or demoted. The men who replaced them, Boykins said, were white.

“The Mayor seized the ‘tape scandal’ to make a clean sweep of the heretofore African American leadership in South Bend,” Boykins’s tort claim says.

DePaepe sued for wrongful termination, claiming the recordings under wraps contained “racially derogatory statements relating to other ranking officers” and a plot to convince the new mayor to oust Boykins.

A third lawsuit was filed by a group of four police officers and one officer’s wife, who said they had been illegally recorded and defamed.

The city settled with everyone. Boykins received $75,000, DePaepe got $235,000 and the group of officers received $500,000.

At the time, Buttigieg justified the settlements by saying that going to court would have been more expensive for the city’s taxpayers.

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