HOUSTON --- The I-Team discovered troubling evidence at the Galena Park Police Department, including racist photos, secret tape recordings, and even allegations of a cover-up.
One photo shows a white man squirting an African-American boy with a hose, with the caption: "Go be a nig**r somewhere else." Another image is photoshopped to show a co-worker in a sombrero, on a donkey, apparently to ridicule Mexicans.
All of them, critics claim, were circulated among a police force troubled by all sorts of discrimination.
Consider what former Police Chief Robert Pruett was caught saying on tapes secretly recorded by some of his staff. In one case, he is heard criticizing an older cop who recently had heart surgery.
Robert Pruett: "It’s only a matter of time, because that son of a bit** is a walking dead man… the city insurance has probably spent, uh, half million to $750,000 on his ass."
"By far it’s age discrimination," said Rick Bates, the officer in question.
Bates, 55, is a 17-year veteran of the department.
"It’s way over the top especially when he’s, you know, got a betting pool going on whether I’m going to die or not," Bates said.
You heard right.
Recording of Robert Pruett: "I knew that he was on borrowed time, we’ve been taking bets for the last couple of years, you know, how long it would be."
I-Team: "This is your supervisor, this is the Chief of Police?"
Bates: "It has no business in the workplace at all."
So while on medical leave, Bates fired off a job discrimination complaint. But after returning to work, Chief Pruett fired him. He cited a variety of reasons, including threatening a suspect with deadly force and a history of making derogatory comments.
But Officer Rodney Chersky, who heard Chief Pruett’s remarks, believes the firing was really about canning a cop who got too old.
"It just doesn’t belong, it’s wrong," Chersky said.
Chersky claimed Chief Pruett approached him to help with a cover-up.
"He expected me to lie to protect him in order to keep my job," Chersky said.
"I was shocked. I wasn’t going to lie for him or anybody," he added.
Turns out, Chersky too, had it all on tape. When Chief Pruett found out that he did, Chersky said he was terminated just three days later.
One of the official reasons was ironic: violating department rules on professional conduct.
That brings us back to those photos.
"If you have those images and you foster that kind of environment, then how are they looking at the citizens of Galena Park, is it through that same racist prism?" said attorney David Tang.
Tang represents both of the fired officers, one of them in a federal discrimination lawsuit filed against Galena Park. He said he found other red flags during the course of that litigation. At one point during a videotaped deposition, Pruett admitted to questioning a job candidate about his sexual orientation.
"I joked with him and said, ‘You’re not queer are you,’ just to throw him off," Pruett said.
So with all of that going on, was the police chief demoted, given days off, or disciplined at all? No. In fact, just the opposite happened. Galena Park’s City Commissioner promoted Robert Pruett to City Administrator. It’s a job that carries a $6,000 pay raise.
"They promote this guy?" said Robert Chersky. "It baffles me."
The I-Team talked to Galena Park Mayor Bobby Barrett about the situation.
I-Team: "You’re comfortable with that?"
Barrett: "Yes, I’m very comfortable with that, very comfortable with that."
Other city leaders admitted, like Commissioner Danny Sims, that they didn’t even consider the allegations before promoting the chief.
Simms: "Sir, as far as that, I don’t know what transpired there with that."
I-Team: "Well shouldn’t you know? You sit on the council."
Simms: "Yes, sir I should."
I-Team: "Well why wouldn’t you take that into consideration before you promoted him? That’s a fair question."
Simms: "Yes, it is."
I-Team: "Can you answer it?"
Simms: "Not, not really."
The I-team also talked to Pruett.
I-Team: "What kind of behavior is that from a chief of police?"
Pruett: "It’s all under litigation and we can’t talk about it."
Pruett referred us to his personal attorney, Paul Lavalle.
"The choice of words is unfortunate, and the choice of words is inappropriate," Lavalle said, referring to the comments caught on tape about Bates.
But Lavelle said Bates and others also made insensitive remarks. As for the photos, he claimed Pruett never saw them on the job, but that the former chief does find them offensive.
"He is one of the most honest and honorable people I’ve ever met in my life", Lavalle said. "He’s very plain spoken, he’s a little rough around the edges, but he’s always focused on doing the right thing."
Lavalle also said his client denies he fired Officers Bates and Cersky because of age or retaliation. He also explained that when then Chief Pruett asked an officer if he was "queer", he was just testing to see if the officer could keep his cool. Lavelle said Pruett did not mean to offend anybody, and even if the officer answered "yes," it would have had no effect on the officer’s employment.
Lavalle added that Pruett said he’s seeking a copy of the racially insensitive photo using the n-word. He says the former chief wants to look into the picture in his current position as city administrator.