Two Las Vegas police supervisors who pushed for transparency from the department’s troubled air unit are now asking the Nevada attorney general to investigate whether Metro brass covered up problems in the wake of an officer’s death.
A lawyer for Lt. Gawain Guedry and Sgt. Leonard Lorusso said the Clark County district attorney’s office, which has been reviewing the officers’ claims since March, has an inherent conflict of interest because of its close relationship with Metro, according to documents obtained by the Review-Journal.
The officers have accused Metro’s administration of intentionally burying their monthslong audit of the air unit last year after search and rescue officer David VanBuskirk fell from a Metro helicopter a year ago.
Today is the anniversary of his death.
“It appears the department has prevented relevant information from the report from being provided to outside investigating agencies such as the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), both of which are conducting or have conducted independent investigations into Officer VanBuskirk’s death,” their police union lawyer, John Aldrich, wrote in a March letter to Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson.
Guedry and Lorusso contend their report, although commissioned months before VanBuskirk died, revealed decades-long culture problems that have plagued the unit, which has about a dozen pilots and about a half-dozen helicopters.
The findings in their report could prevent a similar tragedy, they said.
“Lives are at stake and any softening of the report or minimizing of the report’s findings place officers’ and citizens’ lives in danger,” Aldrich wrote.
The Review-Journal this week obtained correspondence between the police union, Metro, and prosecutors, that shed some light on the motivation behind the officers’ grievance. The two supervisors for months have accused Metro leadership of burying their report — and they aren’t backing down.
In March, they asked Wolfson to investigate whether Metro broke any laws and sought whistleblower status under a Nevada law designed to protect peace officers who report “improper governmental action” by their employers.
Last month, they asked Wolfson to step aside and allow the Nevada attorney general’s office to take over the case, citing a conflict of interest — particularly because of the close relationship between Assistant District Attorney Christopher Lalli and Assistant Sheriff Joe Lombardo, a candidate for Clark County Sheriff.
Aldrich wrote that he feared the DA’s office wasn’t thoroughly investigating the case, possibly because of the alleged conflict. Neither Guedry nor Lorusso had been interviewed in the few months after the officers’ allegations, and a delayed investigation could possibly mean no investigation.
“Time is of the essence because we expect there are numerous emails that may be relevant to the investigation that could be lost in the near future,” Aldrich wrote. “It is our understanding that LVMPD purges emails after one year.”
Under Nevada’s whistleblower law, the AG’s office can investigate if a local DA’s office is compromised by the investigation.
But the AG’s office is not yet involved. The DA’s office is still reviewing the case, Wolfson said Monday, and a spokeswoman for the AG’s office on Monday deferred to Wolfson.
Wolfson said the review would likely be completed in a few weeks. He acknowledged that Guedry hadn’t been interviewed.
“If we want to interview him we’ll contact his lawyer,” Wolfson said.
It’s unclear how the report could have affected the NTSB and OSHA probes into VanBuskirk’s death, which remains largely a mystery a year later.
The officer apparently slipped from his harness while attempting to rescue the hiker, but that’s all authorities have said.
OSHA completed its investigation earlier this year, records show, resulting in no violations or fines for Metro. The NTSB’s final report is pending.
Guedry’s original report, more than 100 pages, has never been released. Metro says it’s not a public record.
It’s clear, however, that Metro doesn’t want it released.
Metro assigned Guedry, a former police pilot, and two others to investigate the air unit in 2012 after a pair of near-fatal helicopter crashes.
In May 2012, a rescue helicopter clipped a Red Rock Canyon wall with its rotor blade during a training mission, millimeters away from killing seven officers. And in September 2012, a $1 million helicopter was totaled after a crash during another training accident at the North Las Vegas Airport. Two pilots received minor injuries when the helicopter rolled over.
But Metro pulled the plug on the investigation the following July, disappointing Guedry’s team.
The supervisors refused to rewrite the report when approached by their bosses a few months after VanBuskirk’s death, the letters said.
“They declined to do so, noting that their reporting of the facts was entirely truthful,” Aldrich wrote to Wolfson. “(They) were then completely excluded from any communications about the assessment. They have heard through various sources that significant changes are being made to the assessment — changes Lt. Guedry and Sgt. Lorusso declined to make.”
Metro later released an eight-page progress report for the unit, listing 70 training, safety, operations and personnel recommendations, using some of Guedry and Lorusso’s suggestions but without their narrative or analysis.
After Aldrich contacted Wolfson, Metro’s lawyer, Liesl Freedman, sent a reply forbidding Guedry or Lorusso from distributing their original report, even to prosecutors.
“Neither Lt. Guedry nor Sgt. Lorusso has the right to distribute the document to anyone. You are directed to stop making copies of and or further distributing the document. You are to return all copies in your possession immediately to my attention,” Freedman wrote.
Aldrich argued that the report was not confidential. In fact, the report had already been leaked to at least one candidate running for Clark County sheriff, Aldrich wrote in his reply. Because the report had been released, Metro waived its confidentiality privilege, he said.
“Lt. Guedry and Sgt. Lorusso do not have first-hand knowledge of the source who may have leaked the report outside the organization, but you can rest assured it was neither of them,” he wrote.
Both Ted Moody and Larry Burns, former high-ranking Metro executives who were running for sheriff in March, denied ever receiving the report.
But Burns argued that Metro, which has preached transparency in recent years, should have released the report already.
“If we’re so darned transparent, ... why on Earth is this not public?” Burns asked Monday. “With the stroke of a pen, the sheriff can release that document. So why isn’t it released?”
Guedry’s initial report was emailed to Undersheriff Jim Dixon, coincidentally, just hours before VanBuskirk died. In his email, Guedry gave a chilling warning.
“Our agency has been incredibly lucky thus far, in terms of not losing a single life to an aviation accident. That luck may not continue,” he wrote.
Metro’s Office of Internal Oversight finished the report because the original was unusable, Dixon said in July.
Guedry’s report “had a lot of personality issues in it. It could not be released, as far as I was concerned,” he said.
Metro didn’t need a report filled with finger-pointing, Dixon said. He simply wanted a fact-finding investigation detailing what wasn’t working in the unit.
“We took the 70 recommendations” and that’s what Metro put online, Dixon said.
Dixon also denied Metro ever broke the law. Guedry’s report was more of a “rough draft,” subject to the “executive privilege,” he said.
Burns said the public expects more from their department.
“There’s a death being investigated. As a regular citizen, I want to know what happened,” he said.
Burns finished second in the primary election and will challenge Lombardo, considered the favorite, in November.
The report was not kind to Metro administrators who oversaw the air unit, including Lombardo, according to several sources who had examined the original document.
If the report is released before November, it could impact the sheriff’s race.
Neither Dixon, Lombardo nor Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie responded to a request for comment Monday.
Contact reporter Mike Blasky at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @blasky on Twitter.