A Moab City Police officer who spent much of the past year on administrative leave during a series of investigations into allegations against him intends to sue two top county officials and a local defense attorney.
Steve Risenhoover’s attorney submitted a “Demand for Litigation Hold and Notice of Claim” last week against Grand County Sheriff Steve White, Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald and attorney Happy Morgan.
Among other things, the notices from plaintiff’s attorney Bret W. Rawson allege that Morgan and Fitzgerald conspired to violate Risenhoover’s civil rights.
In an addendum to his initial notices, Rawson alleges that White has threatened – and continues to threaten – Risenhoover’s employment by contacting the police department and claiming that he will have Risenhoover removed from the scenes of official law enforcement investigations. In doing so, Rawson claims, White is interfering with Risenhoover’s exercise of police powers, and “maliciously” interfering with his municipal affairs.
The county’s outside attorney said that she and her clients adamantly disagree with Rawson’s claims, and she called his allegations of a conspiracy “patently untrue.”
“We don’t agree with any of those statements,” said attorney Heather White, who is not related to Steve White. “We think they’re factually incorrect, and the evidence will show that they’re inaccurate.”
Morgan said in a brief email to the Moab Sun News that her conduct as a citizen has always been consistent with her notions of social justice and fair treatment of all.
“I remain committed to that as a citizen,” she said.
The City of Moab formally reinstated Risenhoover to active duty this month, after investigators cleared him of any wrongdoing, following a series of reviews that began in April 2016.
Rawson said that his client is declining to comment on the allegations he raises in his legal notice.
“With pending litigation, he won’t be making any statements at this time,” Rawson said.
Speaking on Risenhoover’s behalf, though, Rawson said that the now-reinstated officer is entitled to the same due-process rights that all Americans have.
“We feel that Steve needs a process available to him to be exonerated, and he has been exonerated by five independent investigative agencies who have already looked very closely at his dealings as a law enforcement officer,” he said.
Risenhoover plans to ask a judge for injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment in his favor; he is also seeking a jury trial to determine attorneys’ fees and monetary damages of at least $100,000 for alleged defamation.
Year-long investigations began with IRS actions
Former Moab City Police Chief Mike Navarre first placed Risenhoover on leave after the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) began to garnish his wages for failure to file any personal income tax statements between 2005 and 2016, according to a Utah Department of Public Safety Internal Affairs report. The IRS also placed liens on Risenhoover’s house, cars and any other property that it could identify, according to the report, which was first leaked to the City Weekly in Salt Lake City.
An Internal Affairs investigator reported that Risenhoover’s tax attorney said her client owed the IRS “north of $700,000,” although she later said she believes that amount was “overinflated.”
Risenhoover is among thousands of Americans who have followed the advice of a radio talk show personality and self-proclaimed “tax protester” named Dave Champion, who has asserted that the federal tax code violates the 16th Amendment. The officer’s tax attorney acknowledged that Champion was operating a “Ponzi scheme, of sorts,” according to the investigator’s report.
In 2012, the federal government placed an injunction on Champion and ordered him not to have any more contact with people like Risenhoover. At that time, the investigator reported, Risenhoover and his partner in a private business began to seek the advice of another company that calls itself the Freedom Law School.
That company sells anti-tax-themed books, tapes, CDs and DVDs to “tax protesters,” and offers them options like the “Simple Freedom Package” for initial fees of $4,000, or the “Royal Freedom Package” for initial fees of $6,000.
Risenhoover and his business partner paid the company to represent them and handle all of their communications with the IRS. However, it became apparent that Freedom Law School had not been in touch with the agency, the Internal Affairs investigator reported.
Risenhoover ultimately resolved his dispute with the IRS by agreeing to a payment plan. The state’s Internal Affairs investigator reported that Risenhoover was no longer “sure footed” in his position, and wanted to resolve the problem in order to comply with the agency.
However, in a letter to Interim Moab City Police Chief Steve Ross, Fitzgerald said that information from the internal affairs investigation compromises Risenhoover’s ability to testify in a court of law.
It could be used to impeach Risenhoover during a bench or jury trial, based on the reasoning that an officer is being dishonest, and his credibility as a witness is therefore compromised, when he fails to pay income taxes, Fitzgerald wrote.
Another issue emerged in September 2016, when Fitzgerald informed the city that he will not be able to call Risenhoover as a witness in any court case in Grand County.
Among other things, the county attorney based that decision on his belief that Risenhoover likely gave inaccurate, untruthful or incomplete testimony during a court hearing. Fitzgerald ultimately dismissed the case against the defendant because he believed there was a likelihood that the presiding judge could not rely on the veracity of the information that Risenhoover presented on the witness stand.
In addition, he alleged that Risenhoover verbally threatened Morgan and her assistant. According to his account, Fitzgerald claimed the officer said he would “make sure” that Morgan and her assistant went to prison due to Morgan’s involvement in the investigations of two of his former co-workers.
Plaintiff’s attorney claims Fitzgerald tarnishes client’s reputation
By placing Risenhoover on the so-called “Brady/Giglio List” that prevents officers from testifying in court, Rawson claims that Fitzgerald violated his client’s due-process rights, thereby tarnishing his “reputation for truthfulness.”
“This constitutional violation was done maliciously by Mr. Fitzgerald and due to the unconstitutional policy, practice or custom of the County,” Rawson wrote.
On top of those claims, Rawson alleges that Fitzgerald “does not wish” to attend court, and routinely avoids trial.
“(Fitzgerald) ultimately employs a practice of disparaging the good name and reputation of police officers in order to decline otherwise intact cases that would easily lead to the convictions of guilty defendants,” he wrote.
To this day, Rawson wrote, Fitzgerald persists in violating his client’s due-process rights by keeping him on the Brady/Giglio List, while defaming him and subjecting him to public ridicule.
That’s in spite of the fact that five investigative agencies have already cleared Risenhoover of any wrongdoing, he said, based on their extensive reviews of the allegations.
“Given that he has already gone through a detailed process, it defies logic that … any agency such as the Grand County Attorney would seek to have him impaired for doing his job,” Rawson told the Moab Sun News. “He is in fact not impaired and is a fully functioning and respected law enforcement officer.”
Heather White said that even though Risenhoover has been cleared of any wrongdoing, the prosecution is nonetheless obligated under Brady/Giglio to provide specific information that came to light over the past year.
According to White, the law requires prosecutors and police officers to seek out and then submit exculpatory information – or evidence that is favorable to a defendant – that tends to affect the credibility of an officer who testifies.
“They don’t have the ability not to turn over that information, so in cases when a prosecutor is aware of specific information regarding an officer’s credibility, he or she has to turn it over, and that is what happened in this case,” she said.
Under the law, she said, prosecutors retain the discretion as to whether or not they can proceed with a case, depending on the circumstances.
As of this moment, she said, it’s unlikely that the county attorney will call on Risenhoover to testify in court, although that would ultimately be determined on a case-by-case basis.
“From what I understand … at this point, Mr. Fitzgerald does not feel confident that he could put Officer Risenhoover on the stand in the future,” she said.
Risenhoover claims conspiracy to violate his civil rights