On June 1st, Madison Police officer Kelly Hoeft was arrested for drunk driving. Exactly three months later, on September 1st (the Friday before Labor Day weekend), the Madison Police Department first released the details of her arrest.
Had the Madison Police Department been trying to keep those details a secret? After all, it never informed the public that Hoeft had been arrested until I aired a report on it on August 23rd. More troublingly, the Madison Police Department never placed Hoeft on administrative leave or administrative duty even though she had been criminally charged. Instead, the Department put her right back on patrol.
Story continues below
The arrest, it seemed, was particularly embarrassing for Madison Police because Hoeft was a school safety officer who lectured classrooms about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. The Madison Police Department removed her from this duty after her arrest, but simply moved her to a different patrol instead of taking her off the streets, which is standard procedure for officers charged with crimes.
"I am not aware of a situation in the entire nation where an officer facing criminal charges has been placed 'back in patrol,'" said retired Milwaukee Police lieutenant Steve Spingola, an author who now chairs the Gateway Technical College’s Criminal Justice Studies program and works as an investigator for the Oxygen Network show "Cold Case."
Also strange was the decision not to book Hoeft into the Dane County jail after her arrest. Granted, not all drunk driving arrests result in a jail stay, but Hoeft was charged with two misdemeanors. Why wasn't she booked? Was it because jail records are made public each day and the Police Department wanted this arrest kept quiet?
And was that to avoid embarrassment? Or was it because Hoeft happens to be very politically connected? Her mother, Mary Hoeft, ran for Congress against Sean Duffy in November, and she has bragged to fellow officers that she is related to former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager.
The Madison Police Department has not said why it did not book Hoeft, inform the public of her arrest, or place her on administrative duty pending the results of an internal investigation. It is clear, however, that the Department did not want details of the arrest made public. In delaying my open records request for the arrest report, the Department cited a law that it claimed required it to give Hoeft notice that it was going to release the report.
Conveniently enough, a records custodian claimed to forget about my request when I inquired about it a month after I first made it, and I was told that I would have the report...the day before Labor Day weekend.
An open records law expert told The Wisconsin State Journal that this decision to delay release was questionable at best:
“The law was never intended to give public employees special protection from the release of records that other citizens do not enjoy,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
Lueders said it would be appropriate to give notice before releasing records from the internal investigation, once it happens — but not for the police reports from Hoeft’s arrest themselves.
“I think that is an incorrect interpretation of the law,” he said.
The decision is especially curious in light of the fact that the arrest report makes it clear that Hoeft was rather obviously obstructing her fellow officers' investigation.
Wisconsin Statute 946.41 provides that "whoever knowingly resists or obstructs an officer while such officer is doing any act in an official capacity and with lawful authority is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor." Under this statute, "'obstructs' includes without limitation knowingly giving false information to the officer."
On at least three different occasions during her interaction with the officers who arrested her, Hoeft knowingly gave false information in an obvious attempt at minimizing the severity of her drunken driving. When asked how much she had been drinking and where she had been drinking, Hoeft said "she had consumed four or five drinks" of gin and that she "started at approximately 5 p.m. and ended at 8 p.m." She claimed that "she had originally been drinking at her house but then went over to her ex's house."
All of that was a lie. Hoeft registered a blood alcohol level of 0.27 at 11:45 p.m. Had she really consumed only "four or five drinks" between six and four hours earlier, there is simply no way that her blood alcohol level could be that high. She lied to the arresting officer about how much and how recently she had been drinking.
Hoeft's own five year-old son, who was in the car with her at the time, contradicted her, telling an officer that "he had just come from the [Madison] Mallards [baseball] game with his mommy." A check of the Mallards' schedule reveals that they did in fact play the Lakeshore Chinooks the night of June 1st.
Was Hoeft lying about being at her ex's house to minimize how long she had been driving drunk?
More significantly, Hoeft told the arresting officers "that she had not been involved in a crash that day." In fact, her son told his father when the father came to pick him up that "Mommy hit a sign." A witness who called 911 also reported seeing "a [road] sign flying over the front of a blue colored SUV before landing in the middle of the road and causing other traffic to have to swerve around it." The witness said that "rather than stopping after striking the sign the blue SUV proceeded southbound" and away from the scene.
That SUV, of course, was Hoeft's. She had been in a crash that night but lied when she told the officer that she was not.
A more aggressive pursuit of charges against Hoeft could have easily resulted in an obstruction charge (and with it a maximum penalty of 9 months in jail and $10,000 in fines). What's more, such dishonesty to her own fellow officers could have ended her career as an officer.
"Based on my training and experience, untruthfulness, whether on or off-duty, is generally considered a disqualifier from the police service," Spingola noted.
Indeed, the Madison Police Department's own code of conduct clearly outlines an expectation of truthfulness from officers:
Members of the Department are required to be truthful.This regulation prohibits perjury, withholding of evidence from a judicial proceeding, false public statements, untruthful statements made within the Department, and any other misrepresentations.
Members shall not knowingly make false official reports, or knowingly enter or cause to be entered inaccurate, false or improper information in any Departmental records.
During her arrest, Hoeft clearly made "untruthful statements...within the Department" and "knowingly...cause to be entered inaccurate, false, or improper information."
Yet she was still allowed to immediately return to patrol.
This in itself is a very serious problem for the Madison Police Department, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a line of cases stemming from a landmark decision in Giglio v. United States that prosecutors have a duty to turn over information to a defendant's attorney that a government witness (i.e. a police officer) has in the past not been truthful.
"In other words, under the provisions of the Giglio decision, her acts of untruthfulness would have to be disclosed by prosecutors to defense attorneys, which wold render her useless as a police officer," Spingola said.
This would tend to explain why the Madison Police Department would want to ignore her untruthful statements--because they disqualify her as a credible witness in any and all investigations in which she would take part. Such untruthfulness, then, would be grounds for her termination.
But Hoeft hasn't been terminated. In fact, she hasn't even been placed on administrative duty. The Madison Police code of conduct makes it plain that members of the Department "shall avoid associations or dealings with persons or places that they know, or should know, are under criminal investigation or indictment."
Once she was charged with two crimes on July 5th, Hoeft was under criminal indictment and thus any other officer with whom she interacted while on her patrol was in violation of this provision of the Department's own code of conduct.
This raises a number of pertinent questions for the Madison Police Department: Why is the Department allowing its members to violate this code of conduct by continuing to associate with someone who is under criminal indictment?
Has the Department ever before allowed an officer under indictment to return to patrol before the conclusion of her criminal case?
Why did the Department refuse to inform the public that one of its officers (an officer who was out patrolling the public) had been charged with two crimes until a member of the media reported on the arrest...nearly three months after it occurred?
Had the Department ever before waited so long to inform the public that one of its officers had been criminally charged?
Why wasn't the officer cited for or referred to the District Attorney's office on charges of obstruction since she rather obviously made false statements to her arresting officers?
Why weren't those false statements alone enough to disqualify her from active patrol, at least until the conclusion of her criminal case?
In a statement, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval said:
There was nothing done in this case that would occasion the suggestion of preferential treatment or impropriety.
At no point in time was there ever a scintilla of thought that someone would be "under charged" or sheltered from the consequences of their actions.
Clearly, though, the Department's handling of Hoeft's case thus far has raised far more questions than it has answered.