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Review Board approves firing of Roberts police chief

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Ricci Prein is no longer employed as the Village of Roberts Police Chief.

The Police Review Board unanimously voted in open session to approve an order to terminate Prein's employment with the Village, effective today (Friday, Aug. 1).

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The document has yet to be served to Prein. He has the option to appeal the decision to St. Croix County Circuit Court.

The termination stems from a formal complaint filed by the Village of Roberts charging that Prein violated his duty as a police officer and engaged in conduct unbecoming of a police officer.

The hearing against the charges took place on July 28 and 29. Deliberations by the Police Review Board occurred in closed session the rest of the week.

Neither Prein's attorney Roger Palek nor the Village's attorney, Michael Brose, were available for comment on Friday afternoon.

***

As the first day of the hearing was called to order, local people made themselves comfortable for a long day.

The complaint alleges that Chief Prein should be dismissed from his job due to poor conduct with subordinate police officers, the public and Village Board members. The charges also claimed that the chief was present in a local bar after closing time and used his Village issued computer to view pornography.

Before the actual hearing could begin, the Police Review Board heard a motion to dismiss the complaint by Prein's attorney, Roger W. Palek of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.

He argued that proper procedures weren't followed when he requested and then subpoenaed documents from Michael J. Brose, attorney for the Village Board.

After meeting in closed session, the Police Review Board ruled the hearing would continue, and all documents would be made available to Palek.

***

Palek filed for a temporary injunction to stop the day's proceedings because he argued the complaint should have been handled through a different channel, like the public safety committee. Following lunch recess, the Board was made aware that Palek's request to the St. Croix County Circuit Court had been denied.

In opening statements, Brose said the purpose of the hearing was to allow the Village Board to fire an employee, Chief Prein. He said the hearing wasn't to determine whether Prein committed crimes or to harass or embarrass him, but rather to determine if the Village Board has just cause to fire him. He went on to say that the evidence gathered supports the Village's desire to dismiss him from his position.

Palek followed in his opening statement saying that the law requires a fair and unbiased investigation, performed in good faith. He said that did not occur for his client. He commented that he'd never been part of a case where a hearing was based on anonymous complaints and previously dealt with issues. He added that it was especially strange that Village Board President Eric Fisher used to work as a patrol officer under Prein and was now his superior filing charges against him.

***

The first witness called was William Docken, a computer forensic scientist from Galesville.

Docken was called on by Brose to search Prein's computer for pornography and other illegal files on April 2, 2008.

He testified that he secretly made a copy of the hard drive of the computer in Prein's office. He then took the copied hard drive to his lab where he examined its contents for evidence of viewing nude or obscene pictures.

Docken said his search was on the computer's account titled "Ricci." Upon examination, he said that only the day's Internet Explorer history was available, the rest had been intentionally deleted. However, the deleted material was not actually gone from the hard drive. Docken testified he found multiple questionable Web sites, including "Wicked Weasel" on the drive.

Included in his discovery were more than 700 image files that he believed to have material similar to that of "Wicked Weasel" on them. He said whoever the user of the computer was intentionally looked for these types of images due to the search terms he was able to find on the hard drive.

Not found on the hard drive was child pornography, he said.

In cross examination, Palek questioned if Docken could determine if all the 700+ images had been opened files since they were thumbnail photos. Palek said he couldn't determine that.

Docken was not able to answer if other users could log on to the computer or if they could use the "Ricci" account.

The hearing was adjourned for the night at 5:30.

***

Day two began at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 29.

The first witness of the day called by the prosecution was Sonia Kubesh, Roberts police officer since 2000. She was subpoenaed by Brose's office to testify at the hearing.

Kubesh testified she's never seen anyone but Prein use his office computer. She went on to say that she assumes the door is always locked when Prein isn't in the office.

Kubesh testified that in the past she had received numerous phone calls from Prein on her home and cell phones while she was off duty. Those calls occurred about once a week since early in Prein's employment, but stopped once she moved and didn't get a new phone number.

She alleged the calls would start pleasantly but progressed to criticisms of her performance while on duty.

Kubesh testified that she used to live within a block of Prein. During that time, she claimed he would look to see if there were signs of her being at the apartment if she didn't answer.

She said she had seen Prein violate vehicle laws while she was on patrol duty.

Additionally, she said she had received a citizen complaint about the L&M Bar being open after hours in Dec. 2006, and that the Chief was present. She said she felt there was a conflict of interest if she were to approach the situation, so she asked dispatch to send a St. Croix County deputy to assess the situation.

The second witness was Christopher Stewart, St. Croix County Sheriff's deputy. He answered the call to the L&M Bar that Kubesh had asked of dispatch.

Stewart maintained that he witnessed Prein and Matt Delander, owner, drinking beer after hours through the front windows. He entered the bar with permission after Prein opened the door for him. He then determined both men were intoxicated. He said he didn't perform PBTs because his training had taught him to recognize intoxicated people and he smelled a strong odor of intoxicant on the two.

Stewart said it is illegal for anyone other than employees to be in a bar after the 2:30 a.m. closing time, even if no drinks were consumed. Stewart said Delander told him Prein was his employee and they were cleaning up for the night. Stewart asked for Prein's W-2 to prove employment, which Delander was not able to do that night.

Stewart said he did not write any tickets and allowed Prein to leave. Stewart attested his report was correct and forwarded it to the district attorney, who then chose not to file charges.

The next witness called by the prosecution was Travis Campbell, former Roberts Police Officer from October 2005-April 2007. Campbell testified he saw Prein deleting images of bikini clad women from his computer early in his time with the department. Prein allegedly said his wife was looking for a new swimming suit. He said he wasn't uncomfortable with the situation but didn't feel it was proper.

Campbell agreed with Kubesh that he felt Prein discouraged officers from enforcing laws at the L&M Bar. He said after a few incidents and the staff meeting, he stayed away from the bar.

Campbell also testified he witnessed Prein arguing with Richard Holland, a citizen, in the office. He said he didn't hear the whole conversation but said the citizen seemed to be tearing up and had a shaky voice after the talking with Prein.

Following Campbell, two Village Board members were called to the stand by the prosecution.

Terry Dull said his decision to sign the complaint against Prein was not influenced by Board President Eric Fisher. Dull said he didn't personally do any investigating into the charges, but said it was turned over to their attorney, Michael Brose, to handle.

Board member Charles Pizzi testified that a complaint from a woman in New York about Prein prompted the investigation. Pizzi said he, nor the Board, ever approached Prein to get his side of the charges that he was aware of. Additionally, he said the Board never approved a written complaint against Prein, rather just to investigate the charges. He said he thought the complaint would result in finding out if the allegations were true.

Another former Roberts Police Officer, J.J. Haefner, took the stand. He testified to several incidents that were questionable concerning Prein and the L&M Bar. The first incident occured about five minutes after 2:30 a.m. He found Prein intoxicated in the bar. Hafner said he wrote a report of the incident to send to the district attorney, but it was never sent.

In the second incident, Haefner said it was about 3 a.m when he found patrons still in the bar, including Prein. He said he gave Prein a ride home, but didn't file a report about the incident. Haefner said in cross examination that he told his direct supervisor, Sonia Kubesh, of the incidents and took no other action.

The Village rested after his testimony and Prein's attorney, Roger Palek, moved to dismiss the charges. His request was denied.

When it was the defense's turn, Palek first called Diane Prein, the Cheif's wife, to the stand.

Diane said she used Prein's computer when hers was broken, and that she looked for swimwear between 20 and 30 times. In cross examination, Diane couldn't say what time she typically used the computer or if she sometimes went in the middle of the night.

Board member Scott Gerhardt was called next. He testified that there was a written complaint when the Board voted on it. Gerhardt said the investigation was prompted by officers being uncomfortable with their work situation. He also said he never personally talked to Prein about the charges, but that he assumed Brose did.

Willard Moeri, Village president during many of the incidents, was called next. Moeri said he verbally reprimanded Prein after Stewart filed his report about the L&M Bar incident and told him to stay away from those situations. Moeri also said he didn't discuss the matter with the rest of the Board but felt that he addressed it fully. He said, "I had the best interest of the Village at heart."

***

The last witness in the hearing against was Roberts Police Chief Ricci Prein himself. Throughout his testimony, he refuted other witnesses and charges in the complaint.

Prein denied any unprofessional behavior with subordinates. Prein said he was not acting out of line or harassing Officer Sonia Kubesh with phone calls, as she had told the Police Review Board earlier in the day. He added that he had never called her while intoxicated, to his knowledge.

Prein explained that in order to stay in touch with his staff, he's sometimes required to call them while they are off duty, and visa versa. "They call me at home more often than I call them," he said.

Kubesh testified that phone calls from Prein had been inappropriate, critical and about 80 percent of the time she thought he was intoxicated. She added that when she tried to end calls he sometimes threatened her with insubordination. She said she reported them to then Village Board President Willard Moeri. The calls allegedly ended when Kubesh moved and Prein no longer had access to her phone number.

***

On the charges that Prein wasn't helpful to members of the public, two instances were brought up. One concerned a local resident, Richard Holland, who did not give testimony at the trial.

Former Roberts police officer Travis Campbell said he heard Prein yelling at Holland after asking questions about municipal court. He said when Holland tried leaving the office, Prein yelled at him and followed him out. Campbell testified that after the altercation,Holland was visibly upset with tears forming and a shaky voice.

Prein agreed an incident occurred with Holland in August 2006, but said the facts were different. He said Holland had questions about paying off a ticket and was bothering the administrative assistant. He continued to ask the same questions for about five minutes, getting the same answers each time. Finally, Prein said he left his office to handle the situation by telling Holland, "We don't need that behavior in this office." He denied using profanity but was "stern." Following that comment, Prein said he gave Holland advice on handling his situation.

Prein said Holland and he have had conversations since the incident, and exchanges have been friendly. Prein said no one brought the incident to his attention until receiving the complaint.

***

The other instance was a written complaint from Molly Wakefield of New York state, who had filed a claim with the Village of Roberts Police. In a letter she sent to Village Board President Eric Fisher, she complained that Prein "showed no compassion. I felt completely violated and intimidated by Police Chief Ricci Prein."

Board member Charles Pizzi said the letter was brought to the attention of the Board at one of their meetings. Its allegations caused them to go into closed session where they further discussed it. Pizzi said that he did talk to Wakefield personally.

Prein denied the charges in Wakefield's letter. Further, he said he hadn't even seen the letter until he received the formal complaint. Throughout the investigation for Wakefield, Prein said he took the complaint seriously, and they "took all kinds of steps." In the end, he said Wakefield requested the case be closed, which he eventually did.

***

Another charge outlined in the complaint was that Prein had poor conduct toward Village Board members. Throughout the hearing, members had testified that Prein's dress for meetings wasn't acceptable and he "gets out of control and heated."

Fisher and Prein's previous relationship fell under scrutiny during questioning. From February 2002 to July 2003, Fisher worked as a patrol officer for the Village, thereby Prein's subordinate. Once elected president, Fisher became Prein's supervisor.

Numerous issues between the two were brought up, but the main charge was an incident at Good Neighbor Days in 2007. Witnesses saw Fisher and Prein yelling at each other. Kubesh testified that Fisher approached Prein regarding law enforcement concerns over the weekend, and the discussion became heated. Fisher told Prein he had contacted the St. Croix County Sheriff's Department because of a lack of coverage. Kubesh said Prein was allegedly upset that Fisher had gone over his head and was highly agitated in the public place.

Campbell agreed that an altercation had taken place, but was too far away to know what was going on.

Prein testified that the altercation took place but that it was Fisher who became rude, not him. Prein said he was working short two officers because one was working on a felony and the other was a part-timer who couldn't be present because of other obligations. Prein said he recorded and transcribed the incident but couldn't find the tape. He did have a copy of the transcription, but the Police Review Board did not accept it as evidence because it couldn't be verified. Prein said Fisher told him his poor job performance would be discussed at the next Board meeting.

Prein said he told other Board members about the incident.

***

One of the most serious charges against Prein were his policies regarding and behavior at the L&M Bar.

During Kubesh's testimony, she said that in early 2006 there was a staff meeting about incidents at L&M Bar. During the meeting, she said Prein told the officers to stay away from that bar unless there was a citizen complaint. She said L&M was the only bar mentioned at the meeting. Kubesh recorded it and provided a transcription for the Review Board. Kubesh did have an original copy of the tape, so the transcription was allowed as evidence.

Campbell agreed with Kubesh's testimony. He said Prein seemed to emphasize to not go to the bar unless called there. Campbell said he knew Kubesh made a tape of the meeting, but hadn't heard it.

Additionally, the incident on Dec. 23, 2006 was brought up. That was the night when Officer Kubesh requested St. Croix County Deputies respond to the L&M Bar because of her conflict of interest. The responding deputy, Stewart, had testified that he saw Prein drink from a beer after closing time through a window. Stewart also said Prein couldn't legally be in the bar after the 2:30 a.m. closing time even if he wasn't drinking, unless he was an employee. Stewart said they could not provide proof of employment through tax forms that night.

Prein testified that he was, in fact, cleaning at the L&M Bar that night and was drinking root beer. He added that the type of beer Stewart said they were drinking wasn't one of the brands that he drinks.

Prein said he did drink two to three beers before closing, but may have appeared incoherent due to lack of sleep. He stated that Stewart wouldn't have been able to smell him since they were never close enough. In cross examination, Attorney Prose pointed out that since Prein said he opened the door for Stewart, they would have been close enough.

The L&M incident was sent to the St. Croix County district attorney who chose not to file charges. Instead, Prein was given a verbal warning of his behavior by then Board President Moeri.

Prein denied telling his officers not enforce laws at the L&M Bar. He testified he had received complaints about officers waiting for intoxicated persons to leave the bar in order to ticket them. He said Roberts was getting a bad reputation because of this. Prein testified he wanted the officers patrolling the neighborhoods, rather than waiting in alleys at bar closing.

During a heated cross examination, Prein was asked about the transcripted staff meeting. Prein questioned the circumstances of the conversation and the contents of the rest of the tape before finally conceding to his words.

***

The final charge of the complaint concerned Prein's computer use. Earlier in the trial, a forensic expert testified that he found Web sites on Prein's computer that contained nude or semi-nude pictures of women. Prein admitted to visiting those sites, contradicting his wife's testimony that it was she who visited them. Prein said he would look at the sites while waiting for appointments while being paid by the Village. He said he's remorseful about his actions and he's happily married.

***

In his closing statement, Brose stressed that no reasonable employer would retain Prein as an employee due to the evidence that had been shown over the two-day trial. He emphasized a statement Prein had made during his testimony -- if any more witnesses were available for his side, he would have subpoenaed them for the trial. Brose said that the bar owner or other potentially helpful witnesses were not called to testify. Brose also brought up credibility issues, and why Prein's testimony conflicted with other officers' who have much to lose by lying.

Palek followed with his own closing. He said he was outraged by the situation, an emotion he said he rarely feels. He said for the complaint to be filed, "Somebody came in and said 'I want to get Chief Prein, what can we get on him.'"

He said the investigation wasn't fair, and the Board was misinformed on the process. He ended by telling the Board to, "get integrity back in the Village and stop all this garbage."

The Police Review Board will meet in closed session to deliberate the charges. They expect to have a written decision by Friday afternoon.

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