One of the fired investigators claimed on his resume he was a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy. The other omitted during employment interviews that he quit the Pima County Sheriff’s Office in lieu of being fired for taking a pornographic photo of himself while on duty in uniform.
Both men were hired after a 2012 law took effect requiring state agency heads to make “documented, good faith efforts to contact current and previous employers” of applicants to make sure they are fit for employment.
The fired employees were Joshua Ekrem and David Neuss, who worked for OCWI for 10 months and four months respectively.
Ekrem could not be reached for comment.
Neuss said his dismissal came from a political spat between Phoenix police detective Greg McKay and the Pima County Sheriff’s Office.
Neuss said the Sheriff’s Office did not want him working at the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center in Tucson, and McKay decided to dismiss him rather than fight for him. Child advocacy centers are places where teams of detectives, social workers and medical workers coordinate on child abuse cases.
Neuss’s employment status allowed for his termination without cause, so there is no disciplinary record available.
Jennifer Bowser, a spokeswoman for OCWI, said none of the cases either former employee worked on were compromised. But attorneys say falsified backgrounds can raise questions of credibility in criminal court and in Juvenile Court, where proceedings are held to decide whether a parent keeps or loses a child.
The revelations come as a work group formed by Gov. Jan Brewer has been meeting to draft legislation to remake Child Protective Services as a stand-alone agency and figure out the role of OCWI. The agency handles abuse cases involving crimes and has access to a police database for digging deep into the backgrounds of parents suspected of abuse.
Early drafts of legislation the work group considered had provisions giving OCWI investigators police authority in some circumstances, but the group agreed to remove the language, at least for now at a March 14 meeting.
Agency moves into spotlight
The agency, which used to operate under the Department of Economic Security and apart from CPS, was little known until November, when one of its investigators discovered CPS had set aside 6,596 complaints of child abuse and neglect without investigating them, a violation of state law. The discovery prompted Brewer to appoint a special team to look into problems at CPS and make recommendations. That led to an investigation by the Department of Public Safety into the decisions not to investigate the cases.
Brewer signed an executive order Jan. 13 separating CPS and OCWI from DES and making them directly accountable to her.
A Brewer spokesman, Andrew Wilder, declined a request for comment.
Jim Belanger, a criminal law defense attorney, said prosecutors are obligated by law to produce the information about the falsified background to defendants in criminal cases and the information can be used to challenge the veracity of the investigator.
“If these guys have issues in terms of prior falsehoods, problems with their employers because of misrepresentations or they were released because of their integrity – that always goes to their ability to be competent witnesses in a case. It always compromises the investigation if they have prior integrity problems,” Belanger said.
Bill Owsley, an attorney with Maricopa County Office of the Legal Advocate who represents children in CPS cases, said the integrity of the investigators could become especially relevant if they gathered facts no one else has or can corroborate. Owsley also serves on the Legislature’s CPS Oversight Committee, which is in the process looking for ways to improve CPS.
The Legislature created OCWI in 2012 on the recommendation of the Governor’s Child Safety Task Force, a panel put together to confront problems within CPS after a series of high-profile child deaths.
McKay, who solved one of the deaths, was tapped as the head of the agency and responsible for building it from the ground up. Investigators with the agency get police investigative training, but they do not have the authority to make arrests.
Without naming Neuss, Bowser said in an email a former Pima County Sheriff’s employee stated “he/she” resigned from the Sheriff’s Office on account of personality conflicts.
“Greg McKay received a suggestion that he look into this employee’s disciplinary history with the Pima County Sheriff’s Office,” Bowser wrote.
A summary of an Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board investigation indicates Neuss resigned from the Sheriff’s Office before he was fired but after admitting to Internal Affairs investigators he sent a cell phone photo of his exposed penis to a girlfriend while on duty.
Neuss said he never offered the information when he applied with OCWI and McKay never asked.
“If he didn’t look into it, it’s his problem,” Neuss said.
Bowser said no one else at OCWI, McKay or new CPS Director Charles Flanagan could comment further on the employees or the circumstances surrounding their dismissals.
Neuss in 2010 went before the training board, which did not take away his peace officer certification. He worked for OCWI as a civilian.
Bowser said she could only legally confirm Ekrem was fired and provide only basic information on his employment. She did say, however, that one dismissed employee provided transcripts from another state certifying him as a law enforcement officer there and a personal letter of reference from a manager in a police agency.
The Arizona Capitol Times has been able to confirm through records that Ekrem is the employee who falsified his background as a deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“Based on conversations with this employee, OCWI Chief Greg McKay began to question the veracity of some of the information this employee shared with him,” Bowser said.
Bowser said the employee was a civilian investigator, so he wasn’t impersonating a police officer in Arizona, but in conversations with the other law enforcement agency “they stated they may follow up on the information provided by OCWI.”
An online resume for Ekrem lists his past employment as a firearms instructor at a California shooting range and a security consultant.