Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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In a move that soils representative democracy, Oak Creek Police Chief Russ Caterinicchio issued a gag order to the Oak Creek Town Board Trustees and threatened criminal charges for violations of his command.
This week, in an e-mail to the board, the chief ordered:
"Effective immediately, August 18, 2008 at 0935 hrs., be advised that Commissioner Wisecup is being assigned to act as the official Public Information Officer for the police department. ANY and ALL requests for information from any parties, including the press, concerning ANY DIRECT and INDIRECT matters and/or issues in reference to the People v. Rodeman case must FIRST be referred to me for follow-up with Commissioner Wisecup. No information of any kind shall be released to anyone (including any internal police documents and/or manuals) without my permission. Any violation of this advice shall be considered a serious breach of confidentiality which could jeopardize the on-going criminal investigation of the People v. Rodeman case. No one is authorized to meet with or to discuss anything relating to the Internal Affairs investigation associated with the People v. Rodeman case. Anyone who breaches this advice may compromise the integrity and fairness of the investigation. This entire matter falls under my discretion and shall be considered a confidential police matter. There are serious liability issues that must be protected."
Additionally, Chief Caterinicchio met with trustees Chuck Wisecup and Dave Ege, Oak Creek's police commissioners. During the meeting, the chief threatened to criminally charge Mr. Ege, or any trustee other than Mr. Wisecup, with official misconduct if they discuss anything about the Rodeman case with anybody.
When a subsequent inquiry to Chief Caterinicchio was made, requesting that the chief provide the precise Colorado statute, the chief cited Colorado Revised Statute 18-8-404 First Degree Official Misconduct.
That statute addresses a public servant who intends to obtain a benefit for the public servant or another or maliciously causes harm to another.
The public policy issues raised by the chief's gag order and threats should be important to all who value representative democracy conducted by elected officials with transparency. These issues impact us all, not just the citizens of Oak Creek, and as Americans, it is our heritage to protect jealously the rights no government can take from us.
First, it is a conflict of interest for Mr. Wisecup to "act as the official Public Information Officer for the police department." Mr. Wisecup, as a trustee and police commissioner, has the responsibility to conduct oversight of the police. If the chief's order stands, Mr. Wisecup will be the spokesperson for the police concerning the Rodeman case at the same time he is a trustee with responsibility to examine and vote on issues surrounding the case.
Quite simply, if Mr. Wisecup remains the police public information officer, he must remove himself from all board matters involving the police to cure the apparent conflict of interest.
Second, Chief Caterinicchio's directive is a gag order intended to thwart elected officials from discussing anything about the Rodeman case with their constituents or the press. For the chief to issue an order denying the people's representatives the right to discuss matters surrounding the Rodeman case, including process questions, is to turn the American system of government upside down.
While it is perfectly within the authority of law enforcement to withhold certain documents that are protected statutorily as a result of legislative bodies enacting laws, it is not within the authority of law enforcement to issue gag orders against those very same legislators. Gag orders in criminal cases are the purview of judges and rarely are issued. If issued, they apply to the prosecution and defense - not to elected officials.
Third and most serious of all is Chief Caterinicchio's threat to bring criminal charges against Mr. Ege - or any other elected representative of Oak Creek - for violation of his dubious gag order.
The chief's threats are nothing more than a transparent attempt to shift the focus away from the legitimate questions raised about the conduct of his department, while simultaneously blocking elected officials from exercising their duty to communicate with their constituents and the press.
But, contrary to the chief's edict, it is the duty of Oak Creek Town Board members to deny Chief Caterinicchio's attempts to thwart their rights and responsibilities, and to protect all citizens of Oak Creek from a police chief who shows little understanding of civil rights and civil liberties.
The Oak Creek Town Board would be well advised to revisit its oath of office. That oath does not include being subservient to the police chief.
- To reach Rob Douglas, e-mail Douglas@privacytoday.com.