Karen DePaepe had been waiting all day for a call back from Pete Buttigieg.
It was March 2012, and the 30-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, had just decided to replace the city’s first African-American police chief over complaints that he illegally wiretapped police officers’ phone calls.
DePaepe, who oversaw the department’s phone system, had called the mayor to try to talk him out of removing the popular chief. She wanted to tell him the situation was not that simple. It was DePaepe who discovered a mistakenly recorded phone line, and, she says, heard white police officers making racist comments. She said in an interview with The Associated Press that she reported what she heard to the chief, and the recording continued.
Buttigieg — who’s now competing for the Democratic nomination for president — never called her back. When DePaepe’s phone finally rang, she says, it was the young mayor’s chief of staff, who told her she, too, had to go. Federal prosecutors, he told her, had suggested that she and the chief could be indicted if they weren’t removed.
DePaepe hung up, crying and in disbelief. She called one of the prosecutors, who she says told her she was not in trouble and should not quit.
“Who do I believe? I’m being told two different stories,” DePaepe recalled thinking, adding, “Someone is lying to me.”
Buttigieg’s demotion of Chief Darryl Boykins and firing of DePaepe has shadowed his presidential campaign, giving rise to complaints he has a blind spot on race and raising questions about whether he can attract the support of African-Americans who are crucial to earning the Democratic nomination. It’s also reinforcing skepticism that the 37-year-old former mayor has the wisdom or experience to handle the demands of the Oval Office.
Black Lives Matter activists have been protesting at his campaign events in recent days, spurred in part by his handling of the case.
Buttigieg has defended his actions, saying he was responding to a “thinly veiled” message from federal prosecutors. In his telling, he saved two people from criminal charges and took the political heat for getting rid of a well-liked chief.
But interviews with more than 20 people with direct or indirect knowledge of the events, along with a review of documents and contemporaneous news reports, paint a more complicated picture that is not as flattering to Buttigieg. While some said they believed the young mayor was trying to do the right thing, others told the AP that his lack of experience led him to take actions that weren’t well thought out, and that his explanations don’t ring true. His subsequent failure to include African-American people in positions of power further damaged his standing in the community.
“It left a really, really bad taste in my mouth,” said Pastor Wendy Fultz, who is black and a leader of the local chapter of the activist group Faith In Indiana.
Recorded calls, alleged racism
The story begins before Buttigieg was elected.
The South Bend Police Department had a long-standing practice of recording certain telephone lines, including front desk lines, 911 calls and the phone lines of most division chiefs. In 2010, some of those phone lines were switched, and a detective’s line began being mistakenly recorded, according to a federal investigation.
DePaepe said she learned of the mix-up in February 2011. She was troubleshooting a problem when she says she heard what she describes as racist comments by officers and discussion about something she considered possibly illegal.
She reported it to the chief weeks later. He was shocked, she recalled, but didn’t immediately tell her to do anything, and the recording continued.
Just before Christmas, the chief asked her to make tapes of what she heard.
Boykins, who did not respond to messages seeking comment, listened to at least one tape and made copies of some of them. He confronted an officer about his “loyalty,” then told him he would take the tapes to the mayor, according to a November 2012 FBI report on the case obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information request.
A 2015 investigation by a special prosecutor in Indiana found Boykins’ motivation for continuing the recordings was to gather evidence of disloyalty, rather than to expose racism. However, the prosecutor declined to bring charges.
Shortly after Buttigieg was sworn in, multiple officers complained to the U.S. attorney’s office in northern Indiana, alleging that their phone calls were being illegally recorded and that Boykins had threatened to use the information to fire or demote them, according to FBI records obtained by the AP. The FBI launched an investigation of possible violations of the federal Wiretap Act.
The tapes have never been released, despite repeated calls from the community. Buttigieg says he hasn’t heard them, and DePaepe won’t discuss details of what she heard, citing a settlement that bars her from doing so.
The South Bend Common Council — the community’s city council — sued to release the tapes, and the lawsuit is pending. The next hearing is Jan. 22. At the heart of the lawsuit is whether the calls were recorded legally.
Boykins and DePaepe, who is white, denied wrongdoing, and no one was charged.
A lawyer for several officers who sued the city says the tapes were made illegally and were an invasion of privacy. He says his clients made no racist comments, and some had their jobs threatened by the chief.
But Buttigieg, within months of becoming mayor, was faced with the dual challenge of a federal investigation into the police department and officers accused of racism.
Buttigieg was sworn in on Jan. 1, 2012.
In his memoir, he writes that he believed there were problems with the management of the police department and that cleaning it up would be a major task. Still, he reappointed the chief, who had the support of both the Fraternal Order of Police and the NAACP, and was known for his work with youth and in city neighborhoods.
“He is liked and respected for very good reasons. And I have a lot of respect for him,” Buttigieg told the AP last month.
But the decision to keep him on, Buttigieg wrote in his memoir, became his “first serious mistake as mayor.”
Weeks after Buttigieg took office, three officers complained to his chief of staff, Mike Schmuhl, that Boykins was recording and listening to their phone conversations, according to a 2013 deposition of Schmuhl obtained by the AP through a public records request and first reported by the website The Young Turks. Schmuhl relayed the information to Buttigieg.
A few days later, then-U.S. Attorney David Capp called Schmuhl to say his office was looking into it, Schmuhl said in his sworn testimony. Soon after, Schmuhl told Buttigieg about the investigation, campaign spokesman Sean Savett said.
But what Schmuhl told him didn’t seem to make an impression.
“I remember there were rumors going around about the internal politics inside the police department, and it might have had something to do with people recording each other, but not a way that I really understood and pieced together until that meeting with the prosecutors,” Buttigieg told the AP.
On March 23, 2012, at Capp’s request, South Bend officials met with federal law enforcement.
Buttigieg sent Schmuhl, a high school friend who is now managing his presidential campaign, along with acting city attorney Aladean DeRose and Rich Hill, an outside lawyer Buttigieg hired for advice.
Capp brought then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Schmid, two other federal prosecutors and an FBI agent.
What happened at that meeting is hotly contested. It’s also the key to much of the acrimony that arose in the days and weeks afterward, and it has raised questions about Buttigieg’s management style and his forthrightness.
Three days after that meeting, according to a lawsuit Boykins later filed alleging racial discrimination and defamation, Schmuhl met with the police chief to pressure him to resign, which he did three days later.
The response was explosive: Angry members of the Common Council joined the next day with community leaders for a meeting attended by more than 100 people to demand Boykins’ reinstatement. The mayor refused.
Local news reported over the following days that DePaepe had found recordings of officers making racist comments. More than a week later, on April 10, she, too, was fired.
Buttigieg’s memoir glosses over that timeline, omitting the fact that he fired DePaepe well after racism allegations were reported.
The mayor initially refrained from publicly justifying his decisions, but as rumors swirled across South Bend, he began to explain. He told the South Bend Tribune that “charges were not filed because we acted to satisfy federal authorities.”
“It was still the right thing to do to prevent them from getting into deeper trouble, even if they were going to hate me for it,” he told the newspaper.
He repeated that explanation in his memoir, published in 2019, and went on to question the U.S. attorney’s motives.
“Why should a U.S. attorney shoulder the responsibility of taking down a beloved African-American police chief, if he can get the mayor to do it for him by removing him from his position?” he wrote.
In an interview with the AP, Hill, one of the city’s lawyers in the meeting, backed up Buttigieg’s account.
He said federal officials explicitly told them the city needed to take “personnel action.”
“The U.S. attorney said, you have problems with two people and … if you address the issues with those two people satisfactorily, then there would not be prosecution,” Hill said.
Leaving the meeting, Hill said they all had the same understanding.
“There was no difference in interpretation. There was no discussion about what we heard,” Hill said. “We were all three equally clear of what the message was that we needed to deliver to the mayor.”
Schmuhl, through the Buttigieg campaign, declined interview requests but agreed to answer written questions. He said that it was clear the city needed to act to ensure the police department complied with the law and that “the people whose actions prompted a federal investigation into the police department could not remain in their positions.” In his 2013 deposition, Schmuhl said authorities gave them 60 days to address those issues.
But he also said in the deposition that during the 30-minute meeting, the U.S. attorney never overtly said anyone had to be fired.
‘It’s just what happened’
Several people involved in the case have cast doubt on Buttigieg’s story.
“I don’t feel he’s being accurate at all,” DePaepe told the AP. “When I listen to him speak, and somebody asks him a question, he sort of talks in circles.”
DePaepe said she spoke three times with Schmid, the prosecutor who handled the investigation and who attended the March meeting. She said she asked him whether she was in trouble and needed a lawyer.
“He said, ‘No, you’re a witness to a complaint,'” she told the AP.
After Schmuhl told her she and Boykins could be indicted, she said she called Schmid and he told her she should not quit her job.
Boykins’ lawyer, Tom Dixon, told the AP that three of the federal prosecutors who were in the March 23 meeting assured him that, as a matter of policy, the office does not involve itself in personnel decisions of local government.
Dixon recalled they told him: “We just want to reiterate that we never get involved, regardless of what you hear on the news.”
On May 31, 2012, Capp wrote in a letter to the city that during the March meeting, “We advised that our primary concern was that [South Bend Police Department] practices comply with federal law.”
After reviewing the situation in South Bend, he concluded, “It is our opinion that no federal prosecution is warranted.”
Buttigieg has pointed to the letter as proof that he made the right decision, but others have said the letter shows investigators were not planning to charge Boykins or DePaepe to begin with.
The U.S. attorney’s office and current and former federal officials who attended the March 23 meeting either did not comment or did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Former federal law enforcement officials who reviewed details of the case at the request of the AP agreed it would be unlikely for a U.S. attorney to suggest they would not pursue criminal charges in a public corruption case if a mayor fired or demoted staff.
Brian Kelly, who specialized in public corruption as a federal prosecutor, said Buttigieg inherited a “fiasco involving inappropriate taping” but said any personnel decisions he made were his own.
“It’s not surprising that a local mayor would try to deflect blame to the U.S. attorney’s office for a decision that was unpopular,” he said. “But ultimately, the U.S. attorney’s office would have nothing to do with the hiring and firing of people.”
Buttigieg, in an interview with the AP, stood by his story. “It’s just what happened.”
Boykins, he insisted, had to go because he “failed to tell me that he was under federal investigation.” DePaepe had to go, he said, “because her actions led to a federal felony investigation into the police department.”
But even that is disputed. Boykins’ lawyer said investigators told Boykins he was not under investigation.
Buttigieg said he should have insisted on getting something from prosecutors in writing “so that years later, there wouldn’t be a need to defend my account of what I believe happened, but that we would have a document that we could point to that was clear.”
But Buttigieg also acted without having the city do its own investigation.
DePaepe says she was never given the chance to explain what happened. Boykins told her and others who spoke with the AP he wasn’t either.
Janice Hall, then the city’s head of human resources, told the AP that she was not consulted.
“I would have wanted to hear the facts” from DePaepe, Hall said. “There was so much secretiveness involved in the whole process.”
That failure had an important side effect. Buttigieg wrote in his memoir that he didn’t know about the purportedly racist comments until after he removed Boykins, allegations he called “explosive, and serious” if true. But his book leaves out DePaepe and fails to address why he went ahead with her firing with no internal investigation, even after local media reported on the comments on the recordings.
Buttigieg said he didn’t think they were in a position to second-guess the FBI, and even if they did their own investigation, “the main investigative resource we would have had would be the police department, which obviously would not be able to conduct this one.”
Tom Price, a top aide to Buttigieg’s predecessor, said, “It seemed like a quick reaction that wasn’t well thought through.”
No black leaders
Buttigieg’s response raised questions about his age and ability to manage, questions that are echoed in his presidential run. It also damaged his relationship with the African-American community in South Bend, a rift that has led to doubts about whether he can attract the support of black voters nationwide.
Former Councilman Oliver Davis, a vocal critic of Buttigieg who has endorsed Joe Biden, said people understood he would pick his own chief, but the way he went about it brought disrepute on one of South Bend’s most respected African American leaders.
“The issue is not that he removed and demoted the chief. You can change people around all you want to. But you disgraced him. You disgraced him for your own political good,” Davis said.
Boykins was at that time the only African-American in a senior position in city government.
The previous mayor had three black men in top-level positions: Boykins, the fire chief and a senior mayoral adviser.
When Buttigieg took over, the adviser left. The fire chief, Howard Buchanon, retired because Buttigieg chose another chief. That appointee was a white man.
Buchanon told the AP that after the Boykins situation blew up, Buttigieg asked to meet to discuss it.
“I said, ‘You led us to believe that a lot of minorities were going to be in your administration,'” Buchanon recalled telling him. “But Mayor Pete, I don’t see that.”
He recalled asking the mayor where black and Hispanic leaders were in his administration: Buttigieg’s head dropped — a tacit acknowledgement that there were none.
Pastor J.B. Williams, a leader in Faith In Indiana, told the AP: “We did not see a plan to have minorities involved in decision-making processes. That, to me, was a big mistake.”
Asked about the criticism, Buttigieg highlighted his 2013 appointment of an African American woman as the city’s top lawyer — an appointment made more than a year after Boykins’ demotion.
Among the steps Buttigieg took to address allegations of racism in the department, his campaign said, were requiring all officers to take civil rights and implicit bias training, and installing a majority-minority civilian police board.
South Bend’s population is 53% non-Hispanic white, and more than one-quarter black. But more than three-quarters of the people Buttigieg chose as top advisers or department heads during his eight years in office — including two police chiefs — were white, according to an AP analysis of information provided by the campaign.
Buttigieg’s defenders say he knew there would be implications within the black community if he removed Boykins, but he had to do “the right thing.”
“There was never a good choice,” said Mark Neal, Buttigieg’s first city controller. “Like any good leader, you live with the consequences of that.”
His critics are unmoved.
Buchanon said if Buttigieg’s record in South Bend is any indication of how he’d run the White House, “I don’t see any black person in leadership for him.”
“He had the opportunity to change some things,” Buchanon said. “And he didn’t.”
Around South Bend, opinions about Buttigieg’s tenure and abilities are as varied as the people who hold them.
Many people say he entered the mayor’s office with good intentions but not enough experience — less than three years as a consultant at McKinsey, a position he recently described as mostly doing research and analysis. He was also an intelligence analyst in the Navy Reserve and in his memoir referred to himself as “a more junior employee … rather than the boss.”
Hall, the former HR director, said Buttigieg got poor advice from people he depended on, including Schmuhl, who now runs his campaign.
“They had not had a lot of experience,” Hall said.
Davis and others noted Buttigieg got rid of veteran leadership, instead going with what Davis called a “millennial crowd” that had “no muscle memory” for how things worked.
Price, who supported Buttigieg in the past, said his experience running a city of just 100,000 doesn’t make him ready for the White House. “I think he’s massively underqualified to be president,” Price said. “I think he would be a dreadful mistake for our country, and for the Democratic Party.”
Buttigieg told the AP he has learned from the Boykins affair, which he calls a “no-win” situation. Sometimes, he said, you can’t find a perfect answer — only an approach that’s going to involve “the least harm.”
When you’re young and encounter a problem, Buttigieg said, people who disagree will say you did it because you were young.
“If you were older, they would still disagree,” Buttigieg said. “They just wouldn’t say it had to do with being young.”