COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A Columbia Police Department employee is risking her job defending former Captain Dave Navarro as a State Law Enforcement Division investigation continues. Verna York, who has worked for the department since 2003, told WIS she'd likely be fired for speaking out.
York worked alongside Navarro as his administrative assistant during the pair's time in CPD's Drug Suppression Unit. York was there the morning interim chief Ruben Santiago suspended Navarro, after Navarro reported an alleged conspiracy scheme to SLED.
For York, the story of Navarro's firing started Tuesday July 9. She said the day started normally with Navarro just getting back to work off vacation. He walked into the office after a meeting with Santiago. "He came back down, his whole demeanor was sullen," York told WIS, "I could tell immediately that there was something wrong. I could see that he visibly could not breathe. He was visibly shaken and he was taking short breaths and he said, 'Verna, I've been asked to do something that I think is unlawful' and he said, 'I just can't believe it.' He began to go on and I asked if he was okay, if he needed anything and he said, 'I'm just going to have to contact SLED and Teresa Wilson and notify them that Chief Santiago has asked me to plant drugs and a weapon on Allison Baker."
"It was very upsetting because I knew what he was putting on the line when he was going to SLED and when he was going to go to speak to Teresa Wilson, I knew that would really open him up to a lot of discrediting; they were going to begin discrediting him," York said.
Wednesday morning, Navarro said he placed a call to SLED agent Kevin Baker; a call York said she could hear from her desk outside Navarro's office door. Navarro told Baker that Santiago wanted him to help in planting a stolen gun and cocaine inside assistant city manager Allison Baker's car. The plan was to get Baker fired and city manager Teresa Wilson would hire former CPD Chief Randy Scott for the job, according to Navarro. That move would allow Santiago to become chief and Navarro said his pay off would to become the deputy chief.
When Navarro finished his call to agent Baker, he said Santiago asked him to report to the chief's office. Santiago placed Navarro on unpaid suspension and took his gun and badge. Navarro was escorted out of the department. Before he left, Navarro handed his keys over to his assistant, Verna York.
One of the keys fit a petty cash box that Scott gave Navarro. York's statement shows CPD public relations director Jennifer Timmons and CPD officer Marvin Willis wanted Navarro to hand York the key. The cash was donated to the Columbia Police Foundation and went to purchase community outreach items Navarro's department used in community events around the city. York's records show there was exactly $908.16 the day Navarro was suspended.
There was never more than $2,000 in the box, according to York's accounting records.
After Navarro left the building, York said she was "coerced" into signing a statement concerning the petty cash. None of the command staff, according to York, would allow her to take an accounting of the petty cash before taking the petty cash box away.
"I cannot be held accountable for anything I was not allowed to verify. That cannot hold me accountable or Captain Navarro accountable when they would not let us verify the contents of the safe, the utility trailers or the storage unit," York said.
The concern: York wanted to be sure the department's money and equipment was accounted for before it left her care and control. York said she felt she and Navarro could be framed. "I became really distressed thinking that something was up," York said. "That they were going to try and do something to really discredit him and they were trying to use me to do it."
The department's standard operating procedure, according to York, required CPD commanders to take an accounting in front of York so any discrepancies could be put on the record, "That's what they teach you to do," York said. "They teach you to be meticulous in your paperwork, to be above board in everything. That's just what they teach you to do, but they don't always follow those rules."
When Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson fired Navarro Monday, she accused him of secretly recording former Chief Scott and of shredding documents, but Wilson was not specific as to what records Navarro is accused of shredding. York said Navarro was never in charge of shredding; that was her job as his administrative assistant.
"There's a shredder in every single office at that department," York said. "There's a $3,000 shredder inside the Telephone Response Unit." York said the Drug Suppression Unit she and Navarro were assigned to dealt with confidential drug tips, CrimeStopper tips and other records that they were required to destroy in order to protect the safety and lives of the department's tipsters and informants.
York assumed the city could be concerned over old emails she shredded as she and Navarro prepared to move to their West Region offices last week. "If you were shredding emails and other documents, those were the hard copies, there's still an electronic copy on the city's servers?" Barr asked York, "Certainly, the City of Columbia can get any of those emails at any time," York said, "Do you think this was an allegation made up to discredit Navarro?" Barr asked. "I do, I really do because they're really pulling at straws here," York said.
"You have a Captain here, Captain Navarro who's decided to do the right thing and now he's being attacked for it," York said.