The Rock County district attorney believes Sheriff Bob Spoden hampered a recent Janesville police investigation that involved the sheriff’s son.
District Attorney David O’Leary was so concerned that he asked the state Department of Justice to review the case.
“As sheriff, he should know better than to impede the investigation of another law enforcement agency,” O’Leary told The Gazette.
Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore would say little about the episode, referring questions to police reports obtained by The Gazette.
But when asked how he would respond if one of his deputy chiefs acted as Spoden did, Moore said: “My expectation would be that the deputy chief would not involve himself in that type of activity.”
After the state review, an assistant attorney general found no criminal wrongdoing in the sheriff’s actions as he inserted himself into a Janesville police investigation of an underage drinking party in August, according to a state Division of Criminal Investigation report obtained by The Gazette.
Spoden strongly defended himself, telling The Gazette he did nothing wrong and that he was acting on behalf of the party-goers and their parents, who were saddened by the injury of a recent Craig grad at the party. The young man had jumped in a pool and was partially paralyzed.
Spoden told The Gazette he was acting on behalf of the friends of the injured man, including Spoden’s son, who had changed universities so the two young men could go to college together.
“I stand by my actions, and I stand by what I did. Was I emotional? You bet I was. I still am. This is something you don’t anticipate happening to someone you know. They were going off to college, and now that’s all changed,” Spoden said.
O’Leary said he asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate so the community could be assured of an impartial investigation.
Spoden had contacts with Janesville police investigating what they had heard was an underage drinking party involving young adults, including Spoden’s son Joseph, who had graduated from Craig High School two months earlier, reports indicate.
O’Leary said it appears Spoden told people involved they did not have to speak to police and that the investigation was unnecessary because no crime had been committed.
Joseph Spoden had declined to speak with officer Brian Foster, so Foster contacted the sheriff.
“Sheriff Spoden told me that he told his son to tell me that he wasn’t going to talk to me. Sheriff Spoden told me that I did not have any (evidence of) criminal intent for this incident and that I do not have any reason to harass the kids at the party. Sheriff Spoden told me that it was a waste of my time and a waste of the Janesville Police Department’s time and resources to look into the incident. ... (and) suggested I excuse myself from the case because of the prominent people involved and the problems it could cause for me and my family,” Foster wrote in a report.
Three days later in a text conversation, Spoden wrote to Foster “I am offended by you questioning the sheriff of Rock County. If there was anything there, my son would have told me. Has a complaint been filed? What evidence do you have that indicates a crime took place? Beyond gossip you have nothing. It is very hard for all of us. Henceforth, I will speak to Chief Moore,” according to Foster’s report.
Spoden told The Gazette he thought he and Foster had been speaking as friends, but when Foster questioned the sheriff’s ethics, he changed his tone.
“I thought, ‘OK.’ My demeanor changes. ... That’s when I said, ‘I’m just going to talk to Dave (Moore),’” Spoden told The Gazette.
Spoden told Moore many of the teenagers involved were grieving over their injured friend and that the investigation was needlessly upsetting them, according to a report Moore wrote at the request of state investigators.
“He explained that all of the kids involved come from good families and there was no need for an investigation,” Moore wrote. “He stated that we had no complaint and that we were only investigating this matter because of talk on social media.”
Spoden told The Gazette he was acting as a father and a taxpayer who has the right to express his opinions.
“It was compassion. It was caring, and, honestly, I was just trying to be a nice guy. There was no conspiracy,” said Spoden, whose voice expressed emotion in a telephone conversation.
“I understand I’ve got a target on me as an elected official, but my son didn’t sign up for that. He’s a good kid. ...
“It’s despicable that people will try to turn this into some kind of a scandal, when the tragedy speaks for itself,” Spoden added.
Spoden, 54, is a Janesville native who has been with the sheriff’s office since 1988. He has been elected sheriff since 2007. He is up for re-election next fall.
Moore consulted with O’Leary before the investigation began, and O’Leary said he told Moore an investigation was needed to determine whether people should be cited for underage drinking and whether anyone acted recklessly in the pool injury.
“The sheriff continued to question why we need to investigate this matter and offering that it was becoming very difficult for the kids and their families,” Moore wrote in his report about his talk with Spoden. “I explained to the sheriff that this matter needed to be investigated and that if the matter is as innocent as he suggests, the matter should be resolved easily. ...
“I explained that, if a month from now someone were to allege that his son pushed (the man) into the pool or that his son was drinking at the party, he would be thanking the Janesville Police Department for being able to publicly state that we fully investigated the incident and that the allegations are untrue,” Moore wrote in his report.
Few of those at the party talked to police, but those who did speak said they either did not see the man jump into the pool or that he jumped in on his own, according to the reports.
Several party attendees confirmed to police that at least some of the partiers were drinking, and some played beer pong, according to reports.
Three young women were issued citations related to underage drinking.
Most of the guests left the residence before the ambulance arrived, according to reports.
Reports indicate at least two of the families hired lawyers to represent them. Foster wrote that one of the lawyers, Erica Bierma, “told me about the social pressures that the kids in the community are facing regarding talking to me about the incident. Bierma believes that I am being made out to be an evil person and that someone is sending messages telling everyone involved not to deal with the police.”
Spoden noted that the Constitution gives people the right not to talk to police, and O’Leary acknowledged the same.
But Spoden’s actions turned an investigation that might have taken a few hours into one that went on for days, O’Leary said.
The state’s report of its review states: “The reason for the request was documented instances of interference in the investigation by the Rock County sheriff, Robert Spoden, whose son was in attendance at the party.”
The review was assigned to the division’s Milwaukee field office Sept. 8.
The next day, the reports were sent to Assistant Attorney General Randy Schneider.
Schneider decided “the actions did not meet the criteria for misconduct in public office because Sheriff Spoden did not have authority over the officers conducting the investigation,” the report states.
The young woman, who hosted the party of about 20 underage people at her parents’ house, was cited for hosting an underage drinking party, according to police reports.
Two other young women who brought alcoholic drinks to the party were cited for underage person buying alcohol.
O’Leary said he has talked to lawyers for those cited, and he is working on a potential settlement in which they will not be charged, but they will be required to attend an educational program aimed at underage drinkers and would have to submit to a drug/alcohol assessment and comply with any treatment recommended.
“I’d have a hard time prosecuting the three who were truthful about what happened when so many were not,” O’Leary said.
Police inquired but did not find evidence that the parents, who were home, knew of the drinking.
“The sheriff and I have met on this issue,” Moore said. “I’ve shared with him our investigative reports, and although we see this investigation differently, we’ve agreed to move forward, lead our agencies and serve our communities.”
The state investigation also considered another underage drinking party in the town of La Prairie on Dec. 31, 2015, that Joseph Spoden also attended.
Sheriff’s deputies investigated that incident. A parent of a girl who attended that party suggested the sheriff interfered with that case, but state investigators found no basis for that.
Spoden said Joseph’s girlfriend was at the 2015 party, and she asked him to pick her up. When Joseph arrived, deputies were on scene, and Joseph took a preliminary breath test, resulting in a zero reading, the sheriff said.
Joseph’s girlfriend was cited, however, Spoden said.
Spoden said his only participation in that incident was to tell a deputy by phone that if his son blew a zero, his son should get home as soon as he was released.