Do Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon's text messages show he trampled on a woman's rights?
7:10 PM, Sep 16, 2013
1:44 PM, Sep 20, 2013
DETROIT - Wayne County Sheriff and Detroit Mayoral candidate Benny Napoleon's deputies kicked in the door at the home of an ex-employee – after she says she'd been fired for blowing the whistle on his top brass.
Now the 7 Action News Investigators have uncovered some of Napoleon's text messages that show the raid may have been improper.
The text messages recently came to light in a lawsuit and they have legal experts saying Sheriff Benny Napoleon may have abused his power.
So we wanted to know – why would the leader of a cash-strapped department send several deputies to search a former employee's home?
And did the very people who enforce the law -- break it?
"Did you abuse your power here," asked 7 Action News Investigator Heather Catallo. "Absolutely not," insisted Napoleon.
The Sheriff says he did nothing wrong when his department raided this woman's home – but Renee Newell completely disagrees.
"It was seven or eight officers, they were bamming and kicking on the door," said Renee Newell last summer. That's how she described how Wayne County Sheriff's Deputies burst into her home, terrifying her daughter -- seizing her computers.
"They rushed in here, rushed her into here, and started telling her to get down, and lay down, and you're going to jail," said Newell.
The raid was approved by a magistrate, but the Sheriff's own text messages raise questions about whether the request to approve the raid left out important facts.
At the time of the raid last July, Sheriff's officials told the 7 Action News Investigators they believed Newell authored an attachment on an email that falsely accused Napoleon's right hand man Executive Chief Eric Smith of being a felon.
"Did you send that email," asked Catallo. "No, I did not," said Newell. "What were they really looking for," asked Catallo. "I believe that they were looking for any evidence that I might have to support my whistleblower case," said Newell.
At the time of the search, Newell's attorney was negotiating a settlement of her whistleblower claim. The sides never settled – and Newell later sued the county, claiming she was fired from her job as Director of Jail Compliance last year after she blew the whistle on alleged wrong doing among some of Sheriff Napoleon's top executives.
Even though Sheriff's officials said under oath in a search warrant that Newell sent the malicious email, the Wayne County Sheriff's Department's own internet crimes sergeant has now testified: "I don't know who authored it."
The sergeant also testified that one of the key statements in the search warrant that implicates Newell was "inaccurate. "
So if the Sheriff's own internet crimes experts don't know who sent the email -- why was the search of Renee Newell's home allowed?
"The Sheriff authorized it," said Undersheriff Dan Pfannes. Pfannes told 7 Action News last year that Benny Napoleon gave his investigators the green light to go after Newell. They seized her personal computers, flash drives and cell phones -- a long list of items spelled out in the seven page search warrant.
But days before those deputies kicked in her door and hauled away Newell's computers – the Sheriff himself knew that someone else had sent that email.
How do we know that?
He says so in his own text messages – and we've got them.
Here's a timeline of what the Sheriff knew and when:
On July 20, 2012 - top ranking Wayne County Sheriff's officials start receiving the false email about Chief Smith, who's also a lawyer.
On July 23, 2012 - Sheriff Napoleon engages in a heated text exchange with a man Napoleon thinks is the person actually who sent the email.
Napoleon writes: "that malicious email u sent has been verified to be false by the justice department. I have the letter from the justice dept. clearing atty. smith. Facts never support falsehoods."
The 7 Action News Investigators have also obtained phone records that show Napoleon also called that man within an hour of that text.
Yet three days later on July 26, 2012 – Napoleon does not stop the search of Renee Newell's home – even though he could have put the brakes on the raid.
"If you knew someone else sent that email why did you raid Renee Newell's home," asked Catallo. "Well I didn't raid Renee Newell's home, the Sheriff's office did. There's an investigation that is still pending, there were text messages and emails that implicated more than 1 person… There were several people involved in this."
But that doesn't add up either – especially since Sheriff's officials admit Newell's house was the only one searched.
"Did you abuse your power here," asked Catallo. "Absolutely not!! Absolutely not! No not at all," said Napoleon. "And you're saying everything in that search warrant was truthful," asked Catallo. "I – I did not review – I don't review search warrants, that's not my job… We've done everything within accordance with the law, and we stand by it,"
Renee Newell has not been charged with any crimes – and according to court records, a police investigator has said under oath that she is not the target of any criminal investigations.
"The government can't come in to your home… This is what started the revolution," said Wayne State University law Professor Peter Henning. Henning says if the search warrant for Newell's home was based on false or incomplete information – then the raid may have been illegal.
"So if there's evidence of a lie it shows the investigation was not just misguided or mistaken – it violated the constitution. And it indeed could even be considered a crime," said Henning.
Sheriff's officials maintain they had probable cause to get the warrant to search Newell's home. And very late Monday, they said Napoleon thought he was texting Newell. But he never suggested that in his own interview three weeks ago.
The county also insists Newell is suing because she is a disgruntled employee. As for her whistleblower lawsuit, it is ongoing--but a judge recently ordered that the county return all of Newell's computers.