Updated with Madison Police Department response
It's a calm, peaceful night in Madison. Suddenly a minivan plows through the intersection of McKenna Boulevard and Raymond Road, slams into road signs in the median, and then takes off.
A woman watching this calls 911, and when Madison Police pull the van over a short while later, officers notice a five year-old child in the back seat. With glassy eyes and slurred speech, the driver says "I've definitely been drinking."
Her name is Kelly Hoeft, and she is a Madison Police officer.
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Arrested after a hit-and-run crash and registering a 0.27 blood alcohol level--more than three times the legal limit--with her child in the car, one would assume that Officer Hoeft's arrest would have been big news in Madison, but it wasn't, because the Madison Police Department never informed the public that one of its officers was arrested...on June 1st.
Today, August 24th--nearly three months after her arrest--is the first day that the public will learn any details surrounding the curious case of Kelly Hoeft. This silence, combined with what some of Hoeft's fellow officers view as the relatively light charges she faces, has led those officers to come forward with their belief that the Madison Police Department and Dane County District Attorney's Office is granting Hoeft preferential treatment.
"MPD has refused to release the information regarding Hoeft's arrest for a month and a half. As a veteran officer, I can tell you from my experiences there that this is an exception to the rule," said a source, who is a veteran officer with several decades experience and is speaking on behalf of the group of concerned Madison Police officers. "In most instances, once an officer is arrested, they are placed on administrative leave if the offense is considered a misdemeanor or a felony.
"The process then will go through until a person is charged," the source continued. "Once the person is typically charged, within 10 days the Department will release their information, telling the community what they've been charged with, the details of the offense, and the fact that they're on administrative leave; in other words, that they're being paid for not working. That hasn't happened in the Kelly Hoeft case."
Hoeft was charged on July 5th with two misdemeanors: First offense OWI with a passenger under the age of 16 and driving with a prohibited blood alcohol level (0.08 to 0.15) with a passenger under the age of 16.
Ten days later, the Madison Police Department still had not said a word about the arrest. In fact, as of today, August 24th, it has still not said whether or not Officer Hoeft is on administrative leave.
When I learned of the charges against Officer Hoeft a short time after they were issued, I filed an open records request with the Madison Police Department for the arrest report from June 1st.
Madison Police Lt. John Radovan, the Department's records custodian, told me that before he could release the report (which is a public record), the Department would need to give Hoeft notice as an employee that the Department would be releasing to the public a record related to her employment.
An arrest record, though, is not an internal disciplinary document; it is a public record. Still, Lt. Radovan was adamant that the Department could not release the arrest record without giving Hoeft adequate notice--a full 12 business days.
"I’ve completed going over the reports and am going to get a notice letter to Officer Hoeft that her Captain is going to deliver to her early next week," Lt. Radovan wrote in an email to me on July 20th. "Once that happens the 12-day notice period will start and I will let you know what date we will be able to release the reports to you on. I anticipate that release date will be the 2nd week of August."
However, in the third week of August--two and a half months after Hoeft's arrest and a month and a half after she was charged--I still hadn't received the arrest report. I emailed Lt. Radovan and, amazingly, he informed me that the Department still hadn't given Officer Hoeft notice and that I would not receive her arrest report until September 1st, exactly three months after the arrest took place. Lt. Radovan wrote:
I apologize for the delay in getting back to you on this. Officer Hoeft has been on leave and her command staff wanted to give her this notice themselves, but were unable to reach her to set up arrangements. I should have notified you about that delay but in the midst of other things forgot to do so, along with my having time off the past month. I did reach out to her today and was able to get hold of her and we met this afternoon, where I gave her the notice along with the records I intend to release to you. She did not waive her notice rights and unless something changes with that I am not able to release the records to you until 12 working days from today, which is Friday, September 1. You will be notified then MPD records staff that they are ready to be delivered to you upon payment for the copying costs.
Friday, September 1st is also coincidentally enough the last day before Labor Day Weekend. Was this going to be a holiday weekend "news dump" designed to make sure as few people as possible knew the details of Hoeft's arrest?
The Madison Police Department insists that it is doing nothing wrong by refusing to release any details about the drunk driving arrest of one of its officers, but could it be attempting to avoid embarrassment? After all, Kelly Hoeft is a school safety officer and routinely talks to students about the dangers of alcohol and of drunk driving.
"It is embarrassing for the Police Department from a number of perspectives," said the source. "The first one is that Officer Hoeft is a safety officer going into schools in Madison and teaching fourth and fifth grade children about the problems that can occur when people use drugs and alcohol."
In an email on Monday, though, Lt. Radovan assured me that this was not the case and that Officer Hoeft was not receiving any special treatment:
I believe that once the MPD reports for case # 2017-185163 have been released to you, which I believe will be on September 1, you will see that our officers conducted a thorough and professional investigation into this matter, which resulted in an arrest of an off-duty City of Madison police officer. As long as the minimum BAC level for a charge is met, for MPD’s arresting charge purposes the BAC level is not a factor. The offenses for which citations were issued are fully in line with what the investigation called for and there was no favoritism or preferential treatment given by MPD to this officer. The Dane County District Attorney’s office has decision-making authority on charging decisions that are filed in court and MPD has no involvement with that unless input is sought by the DA’s office. In a case such as this one where a MPD employee is the suspect there is no contact whatsoever between MPD and the DA’s office concerning their charging decision. We had no involvement or input into the DA’s charging decision in this case and have no knowledge of any favoritism involved in the case by the DA’s office either.
But is that true? The Madison Police officers concerned about this case note that while the criminal complaint notes that Hoeft "plowed through the intersection of McKenna Blvd. and Raymond Rd. and had taken out a couple of road signs in the median," Hoeft was not charged with hit-and-run.
"She was apprehended in a hit-and-run accident, which by the way was never charged, with her child in the car and her job has been to protect children and show them how to not engage in such conduct," the source said.
On top of this refusal to charge Hoeft with a hit-and-run that she fairly obviously committed, the Dane County District Attorney's Office charged her with having a prohibited blood alcohol level between 0.08 and 0.15.
Hoeft actually had a blood alcohol level of 0.27.
Madison Police Officers concerned by Hoeft's treatment believe that this seemingly lighter charge is an attempt to obscure Hoeft's actual blood alcohol level if and when she reaches a plea agreement. The concern is that in spite of her 0.27 blood alcohol level, Hoeft would be able to plead to the lesser charge of a blood alcohol level of between 0.08 and 0.15, which carries less jail time and would not require her to use an ignition interlock device--a potentially very embarrassing situation for a Madison Police Officer who lectures children about the dangers of drunk driving.
The Dane County District Attorney's Office's explanation for this apparently blatant undercharging was that it essentially amounted to a typo.
In an email, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Moeser (who is not prosecuting Hoeft and declined to speak about specifics of her case) wrote:
(T)he charging language in Count Two of Ms. Hoeft’s complaint about the .08-15 standard is essentially irrelevant because having a child in the car converted this offense (and Count 1) to criminal offenses. My guess is that the person in our office who put this complaint together did not worry about removing the .08-.15 language for that reason.
The question remains, though: Why was the 0.08 to 0.15 language in the criminal complaint to begin with?
After I spoke with Assistant District Attorney Moeser, the Dane County District Attorney's Office filed an amended criminal complaint that charges Hoeft with having a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or greater.
Was that changed because I had noticed it and started asking questions? Moeser insisted that the charge on the document was irrelevant because a judge would look at Hoeft's blood alcohol level of 0.27 and sentence her based on that, but what if she would plead to a charge of 0.08 to 0.15 and the judge would simply sign off on the deal assuming her blood alcohol level was actually under 0.15?
That obviously isn't possible now, but again, the charge was only changed when a member of the media noticed it...more than a month and a half after it was issued. And if the "0.08 to 0.15" language really didn't matter, then why change it at all?
The Madison Police officers fear that their Department was silent about Hoeft's arrest so that she could quietly cut a plea deal with the Dane County District Attorney's Office that would spare her jail time and an ignition interlock requirement--developments that would embarrass the Madison Police Department.
"A lot of us are suspicious because we believe they're trying to keep this case quiet so that she could walk into court with her attorney so that she could cut some type of plea agreement where the charge of having a child in the car would be dropped and a charge of DUI with a prohibited blood alcohol level of 0.08 and 0.15 would be entered and she would be eventually able to plead out to a civil forfeiture [instead of a misdemeanor] and then return to work after serving a short suspension without having to use an ignition interlock device," said the source.
But a lingering question remains: Why would the Madison Police Department and Dane County District Attorney's Office go to such lengths to protect a lowly police officer?
Perhaps it is because Kelly Hoeft is a member of a very prominent family in Democratic Party circles. Her mother, Mary Hoeft, ran for Congress against Sean Duffy in November, Kelly has bragged about being related to former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager.
"I was present when she said she was related to Lautenschlager," the source said. "In Madison, political connections are everything."
Both the Madison Police Department and Dane County District Attorney's Office deny that those connections have granted or are granting Kelly Hoeft any preferential treatment, but the manner in which this case has proceeded raises a great deal of significant questions.
She was arrested on June 1st, but not charged until more than a month later, on July 5th. Granted, in Dane County OWI charges can sometimes take several weeks to process, but what was the reason for such a long delay?
The criminal complaint against Hoeft makes it clear that she left the scene of a drunk driving crash that resulted in property damage. Why was she not charged with this?
Why was she initially charged with having a blood alcohol level of between 0.08 and 0.15 when she actually had a blood alcohol level of 0.27? Was this really mere oversight? If so, how could the Dane County District Attorney's Office be so careless in preparing criminal charging documents? And if, as the Office claimed, the "0.08 to 0.15" language was really meaningless, why was it changed only when a reporter noticed it and started asking questions about whether it would allow for a more generous plea deal than Hoeft deserved, given her actual blood alcohol level?
Why has the Madison Police Department refused for nearly three months to inform the public that one of its officers was arrested for a criminal offense? Why did it conveniently forget about my open records request until such a time that it could release the arrest report to me on Friday, September 1st--the day before Labor Day weekend (when much of Wisconsin is thinking about vacation instead of news stories)? And why hasn't the Department said publicly whether or not Hoeft has been placed on administrative leave?
The Madison Police Department generally informs the public when one of its officers is arrested and charged with crimes. For instance, in December of 2015, it held a press conference the day after an officer was arrested in a sting operation on charges of theft of government property.
Yet today, it has gone months without acknowledging the arrest of another, more politically-connected officer on drunk driving charges. Why is there this discrepancy? Is it because of Hoeft's political connections and/or a belief that if she quietly pleads down to a lesser offense she will be able to return to work without any driving restrictions?
Hoeft's treatment since her arrest has raised such curious questions that her own fellow Madison Police officers are questioning their own Department's behavior as well as the behavior of the Dane County District Attorney's Office. They believe that she is being shielded from public scrutiny in a way that they never would be, and they believe that she is potentially being allowed the opportunity for a plea deal that they never could be.
That's why they have decided to speak out: To force the Madison Police Department and the Dane County District Attorney's Office to fully explain themselves to the public, to fully answer the public's questions, and to justify their curious behavior in the curious case of Kelly Hoeft.
*Update: After this story aired, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval issued the following statement to the Madison media:
On 6/1/17, MPD officers, as well as a street supervisor (sergeant) responded to a traffic complaint regarding a hit-and-run vehicle which had struck some road signs and was driving erratically. Subsequent investigation led officers to the offending vehicle and driver, who was then placed under arrest for operating while impaired (first offense with a passenger under 16 years of age), operating with a prohibited alcohol content, and hit-and-run. The driver is a current Madison Police Officer (Kelly Hoeft) awaiting final adjudication of the charges that have been filed.
Once MPD learned of the arrest of Hoeft, the information was turned over immediately to MPD's Professional Standards and Internal Affairs Unit to conduct an internal investigation. That investigation has continued and is awaiting resolution of the criminal case before actively proceeding. A determination was also made that Officer Hoeft would not remain in her assignment (Safety Education), and that she would be reassigned to Patrol, provided that she was able to obtain an occupational driver's license (which she did obtain).
Madison Police Department Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) dictate that in cases of officer involvement in felonies or serious misconduct, the Chief, the PSIA Lieutenant, and the officer's Commanding Officer must be provided a timely notification. This occurred in the immediate case. One must also remember that fundamental due process also applies to off-duty police officers; one cannot/should not be "sanctioned" unless/until a court decision would warrant such a step. An officer's employment status while a case progresses is made on a case-by-case basis, taking a broad view of the circumstances.
As Chief, I must be concerned with ensuring the public's confidence that those who are entrusted to serving our community understand that there is an expectation of being held to a higher standard. When an officer makes a bad decision off-duty, it reflects poorly on all of us. I have spoken with this officer and I know how she deeply regrets what this incident has meant to both her personal reputation as well as that of MPD.
There was nothing done in this case that would occasion the suggestion of preferential treatment or impropriety. A timely investigation, conducted by a Sergeant and two officers, led to the arrest and filing of three charges in the immediate case. Indeed, the officers who responded to the incident acted with exemplary ethics and professionalism. 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.