Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008 | 2 a.m.
To understand the sudden resignation of the state’s public safety director, look to Fallon, a small rural community east of Reno that is home to one of the department’s evidence vaults.
Phil Galeoto is stepping down amid severe criticism within the Nevada Public Safety Department that he mishandled an investigation into the disappearance of large quantities of drugs and guns from the Fallon vault. The vault is used by several agencies under his control, including the Nevada Investigations Division and the Nevada Highway Patrol.
Galeoto could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but three weeks ago he told the Sun that he had asked the Nevada attorney general’s office to look at possible criminal violations in the case following his administrative review of what he characterized as lax record keeping at the Fallon vault.
“I have no reason to believe at this point that anybody has done anything criminal, but as a standard procedure, we’ve asked the attorney general’s office to also take a look at it,” he said.
The attorney general’s office assigned a senior deputy in Las Vegas, John Kelleher, to oversee the criminal investigation. “They wanted the leadership in the criminal division to be looking at it,” said Nicole Moon, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.
Investigators in the Public Safety Department say the attorney general should have been brought into the case sooner.
Galeoto started his internal review in late November. In January, he said he was still unable to conclude whether any evidence was missing. He said he had found a lack of “appropriate accounting” of items in the vault, including drugs and weapons.
A source close to the investigation said this week that large amounts of methamphetamine and other drugs and as many as 90 handguns and rifles are missing from the Fallon vault.
There are records of the items going into the vault, but there are no records of them leaving, and the items are no longer there, the source said.
In the past three weeks, rank-and-file investigators under Galeoto’s command have raised numerous questions about his handling of the matter.
“There were a series of bad decisions made,” one veteran investigator said. “It smacks of total buffoonery.”
“There’s a feeling they’re trying to cover something up,” another senior investigator said.
The investigators told the Sun they were concerned that Galeoto had bypassed normal department protocol in conducting his administrative review of the vault.
Instead of assigning the case to the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which handles internal investigations, Galeoto handpicked a team of senior officers to conduct the probe.
And in the middle of the internal review, Galeoto promoted the man whose duties included overseeing the Fallon vault to acting chief of the Investigations Division. John Drew, a veteran lieutenant in the division’s northern command, took over the acting chief’s job the first week in January from Karen Lorenzo, who went on a three-month sabbatical at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.
Galeoto said last month he had no concerns about giving Drew the acting chief’s job in the middle of the inquiry. Drew served as the division’s chief in the early 1990s and as acting director of the entire department from 1998 to 2000.
Before his resignation announcement, Galeoto moved Drew back to his lieutenant position and put Capt. Julie Johnson into the acting chief slot, sources in the department said.
In connection with the vault matter, Galeoto also has angered the leader of the Las Vegas-based union that represents about 100 Public Safety Department employees.
Although Galeoto insisted that no individuals were being singled out, investigators said several within their ranks were formally notified that their conduct was being examined.
One of those under fire is a Fallon state investigator represented by Ron Cuzze, president of the Nevada State Law Enforcement Officers’ Association.
Cuzze alleges that Galeoto misled the governor and the public about the extent of the internal investigation and tried to make the state investigator a scapegoat to protect higher-ups in the department.
“Everybody knows that it has been mishandled from the very beginning,” Cuzze said. “He wasn’t being totally honest with the governor or his chief operating officer about the severity of the missing evidence in Fallon.”
But Melissa Subbotin, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jim Gibbons, said Galeoto’s resignation had nothing to do with concerns about his handling of the troubles at the Fallon vault.
Galeoto was one of Gibbons’ first two appointments, made immediately after Gibbons was sworn in Jan. 1, 2007. But as soon as the appointment was announced, Galeoto’s competency to lead the state agency was called into question in light of the circumstances of his 1999 resignation from the Reno Police Department. After 24 years on the force, Galeoto resigned in the middle of an investigation into why he wasn’t putting arrest warrants into the police computers. The police chief at the time said although he doubted it was an attempt to keep names out of computers, such an oversight could have jeopardized the safety of officers.
Sun reporter Steve Kanigher contributed to this story.