Source confirms FBI involved in Columbia Police Department investigation

(L to R): Ruben Santiago, David Navarro
(L to R): Ruben Santiago, David Navarro

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Sources involved in the investigation into the Columbia Police Department confirm to WIS that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is working with State Law Enforcement Division agents. Both agencies are looking into multiple allegations involving Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago and former Captain Dave Navarro.

Last week, SLED agents and FBI white collar crime agent Chris Garrett spent several hours conducting at least one interview in connection to the CPD case, according to a WIS source. This source did not want to be named.

In an email to WIS Monday afternoon, a spokesperson for the FBI declined to confirm the agency's involvement in the ongoing investigation.

"I cannot confirm or deny our involvement in these allegations, however, it should be noted that the FBI takes all matters concerning "Public Corruption" very seriously," wrote Public Affairs Specialist Denise Taiste.

One week ago, former CPD Captain Dave Navarro went public with his story of a plan to plant drugs and a stolen weapon on the city's assistant city manager, Allison Baker. Navarro said Santiago first approached him "six to eight months ago," asking for help in getting cocaine and a stolen weapon to plant in Baker's car. Navarro was over the department's Drug Suppression Unit and Navarro said he was recruited because he'd have access to such evidence during his unit's drug busts.

After Navarro went public, Santiago accused Navarro of shredding documents and asked SLED to investigate "possible missing or misappropriation of funds from the Columbia Police Foundation." After Mayor Steve Benjamin sent a letter to SLED Chief Mark Keel requesting an investigation, SLED agreed to open a case.

Navarro expressed concerns over whether SLED could objectively investigate the police department given the agencies' close working relationship, as well as the fact that agent Kevin Baker, whom Navarro filed his original complaint with, was a former Richland County Sheriff's deputy. Santiago, former CPD Chief Randy Scott and Navarro had all worked for the sheriff's office and had professional relationships through their work.

Columbia City Councilwoman Leona Plaugh also told WIS she wanted to have "an objective third party" come in and investigate CPD over concerns of possible conflicts of interests. Council members Moe Baddourah and Tameika Devine also told WIS they supported the FBI's involvement in investigating the city's police department.

WIS made multiple attempts to have SLED spokesman Thom Berry address Navarro's concerns and confirm whether the FBI was involved, but Berry continued to issue this statement, "We are conducting an ongoing investigation. While any investigation is underway, we refrain from any specific comments," Berry wrote in emails.

Berry issued this statement in a July 18 email, after further inquiries about potential conflicts of interests in SLED's handling of the investigation, alone: "Since 1947, the S.C. Law Enforcement Division has been called upon to conduct investigations, some of which have involved law enforcement officers and the agencies for which they work. SLED agents are expected to conduct themselves and their investigations in a professional, fair and unbiased manner. Each investigator's case report must go through a thorough internal review process before it can be forwarded to the appropriate prosecutorial authority which will also review the file before moving forward. We are always mindful that our work must stand up to judicial scrutiny. As to the question whether SLED can and will conduct an impartial investigation into the Columbia Police Department, regardless of personal or professional relationships, the answer is yes."

Our source confirms FBI agent Chris Garrett has conducted at least one interview in the CPD investigation. Garrett was one of the lead agents in the 2010 drug corruption case involving former Lee County Sheriff EJ Melvin. Garrett is also heavily involved in investigating the ongoing public corruption case out of South Carolina State University that's resulted in charges for the university's former police chief, Michael Bartley, the university's former board chairman, Jonathan Pinson and Florida developer Richard Zahn.

There is no timeline as to how long it may take the FBI and SLED to finish this investigation.

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