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Cops Who SPY 

Wednesday, Sep 27 2006
This is a story nobody wants you to read.

Not your city government, which has done its best to entomb the basic facts within a mausoleum of official secrecy. Not Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is familiar with the controversial information at issue, but has chosen, at least publicly, not to utter a word about it. Not the region's major daily newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, which has, for reasons that remain unclear, failed to report on a significant story that is, quite literally, in its own backyard.

It's a tale about aggressive journalists, the First Amendment, and a classified probe conducted by a secretive branch of the San Francisco Police Department, a cloak-and-dagger investigation that may have transgressed the department's own rules — and definitely torched the careers of a pair of ethical police officers who dared to air their criticisms of the SFPD.

In many ways, this story echoes the troubles currently engulfing Hewlett-Packard Co., the Palo Alto-based computer behemoth that has stood in the center of a law enforcement tornado since early September. The company, as you're probably aware, is accused of hiring private detectives who, in a bid to discover whether unhappy board members were dribbling confidential information to journalists, engaged in some decidedly unwholesome activities. Allegedly, the detectives illegally obtained the private phone records of board members as well as those of nine reporters, including writers with San Francisco's CNET, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

The allegations against HP have played quite poorly with the authorities. At press time, the California attorney general, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Congress, and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission were all tunneling toward the heart of the scandal. Meanwhile, Chairwoman Patricia Dunn has resigned as a result of the mess.

Here in San Francisco, however, it's the detectives with badges who've been snooping on journalists. Dealing with a leak problem of its own in 2003, the police department used HP-style tactics, covertly examining the phone records — reflecting 2,478 phone calls — of journalists covering the department. By doing so, the SFPD could quickly identify any anonymous tipsters or inside sources within the department who communicated with the reporters.

Stitched together from insider accounts and internal police documents, the story you're about to read examines the collateral damage caused by a cover-up, a noirish tangle implicating at least one high-ranking SFPD officer, Deputy Chief Morris Tabak, and, quite possibly, Chief Heather Fong.

Told of the secret phone monitoring, members of the San Francisco Police Commission, the seven-member board overseeing the force, recently expressed serious displeasure. Commisssioner David Campos, for one, is worried the department may be violating privacy laws and its "own general orders."

"You have privacy issues, you have issues of respect for the press," Campos says, adding, "This needs to be looked into — quickly. I'm not going to stand for it."

It started with those infamous steak fajitas.

It was the early hours of November 20, 2002, and Jade Santoro and Adam Snyder were walking to their cars on Union Street after leaving the Blue Light bar, where Snyder toiled as a bartender. Anyone who follows the news around here knows what happened next. Three young off-duty cops — one of them Alex Fagan Jr., the son of then-Assistant Chief Alex Fagan — allegedly demanded the paper bag of steak fajitas Snyder was carrying home. Words were exchanged. Then the cops purportedly stomped and pummeled Santoro, breaking his nose, speckling the pavement with his blood.

A day later San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken tapped out a story about the incident while sitting at his desk in the dingy third-floor press room at the Hall of Justice. The piece ran on page A-1, and in it Fagan Sr., the No. 2 cop on the force, insisted there wouldn't be "any form of cover-up."

But it quickly became clear the assistant chief's son wasn't exactly facing the sort of scrutiny given to most people accused of felonious behavior. While investigating the beat-down, the department from the beginning refused to hew to basic police procedures — the officers who responded to the scene failed to test the off-duty cops to see if they were drunk; failed to examine the officers' clothes for bloodstains; failed to inspect the truck they were riding in; and, most importantly, failed to allow Santoro and Snyder to ID their assailants and explain which officers had allegedly committed which acts.

Eventually, the melee and subsequent machinations ballooned into Fajitagate, a fully inflated scandal featuring allegations of a cover-up, criminal indictments against 10 officers from the chief on down, a torrent of civil litigation accusing the cops of bad behavior, a major reshuffling of the leadership ranks of the 2,200-officer force, and disciplinary charges against a number of officers — charges that today, nearly four years later, are still pending.

Along the way, Van Derbeken got a hold of a seething memo penned by Fagan Jr.'s supervisor, Sgt. Vickie Stansberry, and published its contents in a February 13, 2003, story. "Officer Fagan," Stansberry wrote in the confidential memo, "has displayed a pattern with lack of anger management, not being respectful of supervisors, not following direct orders from supervisors, driving too fast, and treating the public unprofessionally." The sergeant had typed up the memo after Fagan Jr., while on duty, got into fisticuffs with a man on a Haight Street Muni bus.

Around the same time, somebody slipped the memo to ABC 7 news reporter Heather Ishimaru, who used the document in a TV broadcast.

The leak set off a chain of events that were illustrative of the department's priorities.

With the shot-callers in upper echelons of the department signaling they had no intention of truly investigating the Fajitagate morass, key players within the department directed their energies in a different direction, covertly opening a vigorous criminal probe dedicated to discovering who leaked the Stansberry memo to the media. And during the course of the probe, a secret team, helmed by Morris Tabak, then head of the Special Investigations Division, gathered up a fat stack of documents: the records of more than 2,400 phone calls to and from journalists working in the Hall of Justice press room. In addition to Van Derbeken, reporters with local TV and radio affiliates use the room — and its phone lines — as does the Daily Journal, a newspaper covering legal affairs.

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