11/9/2006



A review board will look into the behavior of two Orlando undercover cops working a strip-club sting


By Jeffrey C. Billman

“In my experience the strippers are, are basically selling a dream,” Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation agent James McGriff told an Orlando Police Department internal affairs interrogator June 13.

McGriff showed up to the interview wearing a hood to conceal his face — he works undercover — even though, according to a transcript, only he and OPD investigator Matthew Fleury were present. “Making it appear like you’re going to get something more than what you’re really going to get.”

That was McGriff’s explanation for why, on a few occasions, he and partner James Carlies, also an OPD officer, got aroused during an undercover assignment at Cleo’s adult nightclub on Orange Blossom Trail that lasted six months in 2004. That investigation resulted in more than 50 arrests in November 2004.

But the agents’ conduct prompted complaints from the club’s entertainers, who’ve said in sworn statements that the men fondled them and exposed themselves (see “Operation Overexposed,” Sept. 22, 2005).

Earlier this year, Cleo’s attorney Steve Mason filed complaints on behalf of dancers Celeste Hall and Olivia Foster with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which turned over the cases to OPD’s internal affairs department in March.

On Aug. 30, internal affairs cleared Carlies of both charges against him. It also cleared McGriff of one charge against him and declared the other “not sustained,” meaning “unproven.” Mason asked the city’s Citizens Police Review Board, a volunteer group that reviews internal affairs’ conclusions, to look at these cases. Normally that would be a formality. But not this time: Mason had filed the original complaints to OPD more than 120 days after his clients’ criminal cases closed, which runs afoul of the board’s policy and meant Mason had to beg the CPRB not to reject it. On Nov. 1, that board agreed in a 6-1 vote to review the case, over the objections of OPD’s internal affairs manager Dwain Rivers, who at one point interrupted Mason’s presentation to the board, calling it “smoke and mirrors.”

Later, Rivers said he had no official position on whether the board should hear the case, and he’s confident internal affairs’ decision in this instance will withstand scrutiny. The case heads back to the CPRB on Dec. 6.

The board can’t reverse an internal affairs decision or punish an officer for alleged misbehavior. It can, however, ask the police department to review the internal affairs suggestions, and make recommendations to Orlando Police Chief Michael McCoy. Rivers says that board reviews usually come down to the question, “Did internal affairs turn over every rock?”

Mason, for one, doesn’t think so. He believes OPD’s internal investigation was a whitewash designed to protect its officers — McGriff and Carlies are both OPD officers assigned to the MBI — and dispose of the case before some of its embarrassing details became part of a federal lawsuit Cleo’s has filed challenging Orange County’s adult-entertainment ordinance.

Police officials told the CPRB that the investigation was “comprehensive.” A review of those findings, however, suggests that OPD went out of its way to discredit the accusers, their lawyers and even a polygraphist who works with area police agencies, all while taking the cops’ word at face value. This despite the fact that on some major points, both the strippers’ and cops’ stories agree.

For instance, McGriff admitted that he and Carlies got erections inside Cleo’s, at least the first couple of times they went in. Hall had also accused McGriff of blowing on her vagina while she gave him lap dances. At first, during his June 13 interview, McGriff denied it. Then he altered his story.

“Well there were times and … it’s not really a glory assignment, believe me,” he said, according to the transcript. “There are times when the girls who dance, all of them at some point whether just … just didn’t smell the best. I don’t know if it was Hall or not. But there were times I fanned [inaudible] it just didn’t smell the best.”

McGriff denied charges that he exposed himself and denied that he had fondled the dancers. He admitted that the agents drank during their three-hour, thrice-weekly visits to Cleo’s, though he said they didn’t get drunk. He also said they spent between $100 and $300 a night on dances, drinks and tips, but that they never encouraged the dancers to violate adult-entertainment codes by showing more than the law allows or asking the agents to buy them drinks, both of which the dancers alleged.

Rivers, a former cop himself, believes OPD’s versions of events. To help dispel the notion that this is a case of cops protecting cops, he points out that Orlando is one of a few agencies in the country that has a civilian — him — running internal affairs.

Foster pleaded no contest to eight charges of violating Orange County’s adult-entertainment codes; the judge withheld adjudication and forced her to pay $300 in fines and $161 in court costs. Hall pleaded guilty to selling a small amount of marijuana and one count of illegal touching and was sentenced to 18 months probation and community service. (She currently has an arrest warrant out for an alleged violation of probation, according to court records.)

Both dancers passed lie-detector tests administered by William Frazier, a polygraphist who does work for local police agencies, though not Orlando’s.

OPD’s internal affairs report tries to discredit Frazier. It says he conducted the tests improperly and that he asked four questions of the dancers when protocol called for three. It says he should have conducted three separate polygraphs per subject, rather than one multi-subject test, and that he didn’t record required sensitivity settings or a necessary time code. The report also notes repeatedly that Frazier isn’t certified by the Florida Polygraph Association. Frazier told investigators that, in one instance, he failed to follow normal procedures because, “I think I got distracted,” according to the internal affairs report.

Mason says he asked the FDLE to administer an independent polygraph test. He says FDLE told him it would, but only if OPD asked. OPD never asked, and the retest never happened.

jbillman@orlandoweekly.com