Two months ago, Pete Buttigieg cut ties with the Chicago city lawyer who blocked the release of videotape showing police culpability in the fatal 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Buttigieg returned political donations the lawyer had brought in and his campaign told the New York Times, “Transparency and justice for Laquan McDonald is more important than a campaign contribution.”
But Buttigieg has also taken money from the law firm now fighting the release of secret South Bend police audio tapes, The Young Turks has learned. Unlike the Chicago tapes, these involve Buttigieg himself, and the tapes' contents could prove politically damaging to him.
For years, speculation about the tapes has focused on whether white police used racist rhetoric, but TYT revealed in September that police allegedly also discussed using Buttigieg's donors to get him to oust Darryl Boykins, the city's black police chief.
That's according to secret legal documents that Buttigieg's attorneys have had for years. Police in the documents quote Buttigieg during his 2011 campaign as saying that he would remove Boykins.
The city is no longer in court blocking the tapes, but a lawyer whose firm has donated to Buttigieg still is.
In 2012, four officers and one spouse sued the city, claiming invasion of privacy and defamation after being illegally recorded by the South Bend Police Department (SBPD). Dan Pfeifer, their attorney, got an undisclosed share of the $500,000 settlement that he won from the city in that case. As mayor, Buttigieg signed off on that settlement.
Those officers also fought to block the release of the tapes. They lost their court case, but Pfeifer now represents a new group of officers seeking to block the tapes because, he says, “I felt morally and ethically obligated to continue to see the case through to the very end.”
Asked whether he is working for free, Pfeifer did not dispute it, but told TYT he views it not as pro bono work but as a continuation of the case he began years ago.
Pfeifer also said he did not seek out the new group of officers to keep the litigation going. “I can’t do that, that’s unethical,” he said. However, because so many people were unknowingly recorded, any number would have standing to challenge the release of the tapes if the current officers lose their legal battle.
“There’s a lot of people that stand ready, willing, and able to intervene,” Pfeifer said. He also questioned the motives of Karen DePaepe, whom Buttigieg fired from the police department after she listened to the recordings and transferred some to tape. The city's documents consist of her account of what she heard.
Referring to bad blood between some of the officers and DePaepe’s husband, who was also an SBPD officer, Pfeifer said, “Guess who did the investigation of her husband for the internal bad things that he did? Steve Richmond and Brian Young. Vendetta is written all over everything that Karen DePaepe talked about.”
Pfiefer said he had not known about the DePaepe documents prior to TYT's report. (The documents were part of a suit in which Pfeifer’s clients were not involved. In a radio interview Tuesday, DePaepe did not discuss TYT's reporting about the tapes’ contents but did confirm that she told Buttigieg’s lawyers what she heard.)
Buttigieg has refused to say whether he has or will release his campaign-finance forms from his 2011 mayoral race (the county clerk destroyed its copies in accordance with state record-retention laws). But a copy of one filing obtained by TYT shows Buttigieg got a donation from Pfeifer's firm, and from partner Richard Morgan individually, before he won the mayoral primary.
Pfeifer says the firm is not backing Buttigieg, “It’s Morgan,” Pfeifer said.
Although the filing obtained by TYT shows one $500 donation by the firm to Buttigieg in 2011, that appears to be the last from the firm itself.
Their support has continued since then, with $450 going to Buttigieg’s 2017 campaign to be chair of the Democratic National Committee. Another $500 went to Buttigieg’s mayoral committee last year, and Morgan donated $500 to the presidential campaign on the day Buttigieg officially launched it.
Asked about the firm’s 2011 contribution, Pfeifer said, “Maybe we did, I can’t even tell you. But we did that because you support local Democratic politicians. If you take a look at every other Democratic candidate that has run for a city office, you will undoubtedly find contributions from Morgan, from my office, from me, supporting their campaigns. Because that’s the way things work in this city: You support the Democratic candidate.”
He said, “You have to contribute to certain people in the community if you want to be a productive member of the community from a business standpoint."
Pfeifer described himself as a friend of Tim Corbett, the former commander of the county homicide unit who has drawn the most attention for his role in the tapes issue. TYT reported in April — and Pfeifer strongly denied at the time — allegations by others in law enforcement that Corbett had used racial epithets on the job.
Last week, Pfeifer told TYT that Corbett has two black son-in-laws. Pfeifer said, “That’s not fake news, that’s real news. But you know what? Tim Corbett also didn’t want to play that card at any point in time.”
Pfeifer said, “What you’ve gotten wrong is this, or what everyone’s ignoring is this: Take a look at the release that was signed by Chief Boykins… In his release he acknowledges in the tapes that there are no racial slurs in those tapes.”
None of the DePaepe documents seen by TYT supports rumors that police used the n-word on the tapes. But Pfeifer also said he was unaware of an October radio interview in which Capt. Dave Wells, another officer on the tapes, said, “That TYT story says I was talking in ebonics or some — whatever that means — uh, maybe. I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
Pfeifer also addressed the claim that officers wanted Buttigieg's donors to help get rid of Boykins. Pfeifer said he “did not hear that in any way in any of the litigation that I’ve been involved in that is subject to confidentiality provisions… I am not saying what was there. I am saying what was not there.”
Addressing the possibility of such conversations, Pfeifer said, “You have to understand that this — and I put this in quotes, ‘getting Boykins’ job,’ and I close the quote — any time there is a change of administration in the city, there is always going to be jockeying for the chief’s position. It was known that Richmond was actively interested in the chief’s position. It was known…one of the other ones was actively interested in the chief’s position.”
Pfeifer said he could not confirm that the other one was Corbett, who is said to have interviewed for the job during Buttigieg’s mayoral transition. However, Pfeifer said, “My bigger point is: These guys are always jockeying. There will probably be jockeying for the chief’s position right now, with [Mayor-elect James] Mueller taking over… Just because there’s conversation and jockeying, that doesn’t mean that there is anything that is nefarious in conversations.”
Both donors named in the documents told TYT they deny the account. But one of the donors, Buttigieg's 2011 campaign finance chair, Bob Urbanski, backed a $45,000 loan to Corbett’s campaign last year, along with Pfeifer and attorney Rich Hill. Hill, another Buttigieg donor, had served as Buttigieg’s outside counsel on the tapes issue when Boykins was demoted.
TYT asked the Buttigieg campaign and members of the city's Common Council about the political implications of a law firm that has given him money now working for free to block the release of tapes that could hurt him — after he approved a legal settlement financially benefiting the firm.
Only Councilmember Oliver Davis, an outspoken critic of Buttigieg, responded with a comment, saying, “The South Bend community needs an immediate resolution to this entire process which has harmed our City for too long and has decreased the people’s trust of our City Administration.”
One attorney with an interest in the tapes called the donations “not surprising” and suggested they were inocuous. Brian Coffman represents the family of Eric Logan, a black man shot and killed by South Bend police after allegedly attacking an officer with a knife. Coffman is seeking the tapes and additional information as part of his effort to argue that Logan’s death was a consequence of a city pattern of turning a blind eye toward racism in the department.
Coffman echoed Pfeifer’s characterization of the donations as routine. “Pfeifer Morgan, you know, they’re pretty well known… South Bend is a pretty small town, also.”
On Tuesday, a judge barred the Logan family from joining the legal battle to release the tapes. Coffman said he will be allowed to argue at a Jan. 22 hearing against Pfeifer's motion to destroy the tapes.