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— An attorney for a veteran police chief suspected of political sign theft has warned township officials they may be sued for unlawfully obtaining information about the ongoing probe, according to documents obtained under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

In letters obtained by The Detroit News, Chief Daniel T. McCaw's attorney warns Township Supervisor Gary Wall of "unauthorized, improper and potentially unlawful" obtaining of law enforcement data.

The information in question includes a patrol car video that shows McCaw, in civilian clothes and driving an unmarked vehicle, being stopped and questioned by an officer who reportedly spotted him acting suspiciously late at night on July 19.

Signs that disappeared included those opposing a public safety millage. The tax renewal subsequently was approved by voters in the the Aug. 4 primary.

In early September, McCaw was put on paid administrative leave pending outcome of a Michigan State Police probe of the alleged sign thefts and ordered to turn in his badge, gun and keys. A state police representative said Friday that the investigation continues.

If wrongdoing is determined, the investigation could ultimately result in misdemeanor criminal charges or possible internal disciplinary action for McCaw, a decorated veteran officer who was appointed Waterford's top cop in 2006.

Beside the state police inquiry, the township has hired an attorney to conduct its own investigation.

McCaw initially said the sign probe stemmed from a disgruntled employee but has declined to be interviewed.

One of his attorneys, Lawrence B. Shulman, wrote to the township, saying officials overstepped their authority in the early stages of the investigation and due to "potential litigation" and demanded they "take specific steps to preserve and prevent the destruction of potentially relevant evidence."

In a nine-page Sept. 12 letter, Shulman insisted McCaw did nothing wrong in removing signs that he said were placed in violation of township ordinances.

The chief's attorney also said in the letter that obtaining confidential passwords for the police data storage system was a breach of departmental policy and violated state and federal law because it was not authorized by McCaw. At issue is an information technology employee obtaining access to the information at Wall's request.

Township attorney Gary Dovre disputed Shulman's interpretation in a Sept. 22 letter, saying there was "no factual or legal basis for those claims, they are defamatory ..."

A patrol car video obtained by The News shows the officer driving past a dumpster where McCaw had reportedly been seen driving with his headlights off.

In the video, the officer follows the vehicle to what appears to be a gas station lot. McCaw — dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and a baseball cap — is seen stepping out of the vehicle. He appears to remove something from the ground and toss it inside the vehicle.

The footage then shows the chief getting back into his vehicle, at which point the cruiser's emergency lights are activated. McCaw gets back out of his vehicle and walks back to the cruiser, out of the camera's view.

According to a police union head, McCaw reportedly told the afternoon-shift officer who stopped him that he had been talking to sign owners and was given permission to remove the signs. The brief encounter was never documented in an official report.

The conversation is muddied by music playing inside the police cruiser but ends with a voice, believed to be McCaw's, saying, "Talk with you later." The chief then walks back to his car and gets in.

McCaw has told others he was simply enforcing the township ordinances because the removed signs were too close to the roadway.

One angry sign owner, Kyle McGrath, said removal was selective. In an interview, he said other signs, which supported the millage, were left untouched.

Among correspondence obtained under the FOIA were several emails McGrath sent to Wall beginning on July 19 complaining that his "No New Taxes" yard signs had been disappearing. McGrath said the missing signs included one from an abandoned lot, where a pro-tax sign was untouched, and one at a gas station corner, where six political signs were undisturbed but McGrath's was gone.

Three days later, McGrath complained to Wall that someone had vandalized a similar sign on his front lawn, crossing out "Vote No" and scrawling over it "Vote Yes."

McGrath, who is a high school government teacher, noted he had seen patrol cars parked in front of his house the day before the incident.

Wall, who responded that he had forwarded McGrath's email to all township board members and to McCaw, wrote in his own email: "Malicious destruction of property is a police matter and I asked Chief McCaw to keep their eyes open — it's their job."

Waterford Police were well aware of sign theft, according to a Fred Timpner, a police union spokesman who said officers had been advised to be on the lookout for such activity while on patrol. The Michigan Association of Police represents 55 officers on the force. A July 16 police report had been made by a citizen who saw a truck with two men in it going around stealing signs.

A candidate for state representative reported on July 25 that four of his signs were taken from outside an Elks Lodge on Scott Lake Road, a Kmart on Highland Road and another address on Crescent Lake Road.

McCaw himself had issued a press release two years earlier that such behavior wouldn't be tolerated after his officers had arrested a woman and her son involved in the theft of an Obama re-election sign.

"The Waterford Police Department receives complaints about stolen election signs during every election cycle," McCaw said in the 2012 press release. "It is unfortunate that some people don't respect every citizen's right to support their candidates and the ballot proposals and resort to stealing signs in hopes of one less voice being heard."

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319

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