Below the Belt

Lawyer Dennis Wilenchik's spearheading Joe Arpaio's attempt to smear his chief political rival

Two members of the sheriff's office were in attendance at the party that night. It is uncertain if they reported Davis' comments to Mesa police authorities, but that department soon opened an investigation.

A few weeks later, Mesa concluded that its recently retired commander had committed no crime, that "there is insufficient evidence to establish that [the boy, who was 18 when detectives interviewed him and said he didn't recall the incident] was a victim of an indecent exposure."

Mesa sent its report to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. On September 7, 2004, a sex-crimes prosecutor informed a detective that the office would be filing no charges because "no crime [was] committed."

Sheriff Joe Arpaio testified that he sees nothing wrong with his deputies investigating a political opponent.
Jackie Mercandetti
Sheriff Joe Arpaio testified that he sees nothing wrong with his deputies investigating a political opponent.
This cartoon appeared with a 2006 New Times column criticizing Andy ThomasÂ’ cozy relationship with Wilenchik.
Fred Harper
This cartoon appeared with a 2006 New Times column criticizing Andy ThomasÂ’ cozy relationship with Wilenchik.

However, as the Saban civil trial neared this summer, Dennis Wilenchik wrote to Mesa chief Gascon, "It has come to my attention that former Mesa PD Commander Daniel E. Saban may have illegally tampered with [that] investigation."

Wilenchik claimed Saban illegally "tipped off" Rick Davis about the Mesa investigation and suggested that could merit a criminal charge of obstructing justice.

Wilenchik urged Mesa to reopen the case and also to invite the county attorney — Wilenchik's friend and former law firm employee Andy Thomas — to investigate whether Saban had broken the law.

"I am nothing short of appalled," Wilenchik wrote in typical hyperbole.

In this instance, Wilenchik got something for his trouble.

Citing a conflict of interest, the Mesa cops asked the Arizona Department of Public Safety in late June to look into the so-called case. That soon led Wilenchik, according to sources familiar with the situation, to complain that the state cops might have their own conflict.

The alleged conflict was this: Sharon Knutson-Felix, executive director of the 100 Club of Arizona (a nonprofit organization that financially assists police, firefighters, and their families) is married to DPS Deputy Director David Felix. Knutson-Felix publicly supported Dan Saban over Joe Arpaio in the last election.

Not long ago, the DPS punted the Mesa case to the Yavapai County Attorney's Office, asking it to take a look at the dirty joke incident that Wilenchik keeps harping about.

At the recent trial, Judge Houser surprisingly allowed Wilenchik, over Joel Robbins' loud objections, to continually raise the Mesa indecent-exposure yarn in front of the jury.

After the trial, one juror told New Times, "We couldn't make heads or tails of that whole thing in Mesa, other than to think that Mr. Saban has some really inappropriate friends."


Though Dennis Wilenchik has been licensed as an attorney in Arizona since June 1978, he didn't become a high-profile legal player until after the 2004 election of Andrew Thomas as Maricopa County attorney.

Previously, Wilenchik earned his stripes — and lots of money — as an attorney in the lucrative practice of construction-defect and mold litigation. In 1991, he and his wife, Becky Bartness, opened Phoenix firm Wilenchik & Bartness, which has flourished. Through the years, the firm occasionally represented government entities.

In 2001, according to county records, the couple purchased a 4,000-square-foot Paradise Valley home for $2.3 million.

Long active in the local Republican Party, Wilenchik is listed on John McCain's Web site as a member of the senator's Arizona finance team. (One wonders what chance Dan Saban has of winning McCain's endorsement again if he runs against Wilenchik client Joe Arpaio in 2008).

Records show that Wilenchik donated $3,300 to McCain's campaign this year. Hedging his bets, Wilenchik also donated $1,000 to the presidential campaign of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

In 2003, the lawyer had the foresight to hire Andy Thomas to work at his firm of about a dozen lawyers. Thomas then was gearing up a run for Maricopa county attorney, an office about to be vacated by Rick Romley after 16 years.

While Wilenchik later insisted that Thomas carried a full-time caseload during his months at Wilenchik & Bartness, the ultra-conservative Republican spent much of his time there campaigning for office, which he won in November 2004.

Soon after Thomas was sworn in, the County Attorney's Office began to funnel scads of business to his former employer's firm.

Wilenchik became a virtual mouthpiece for Thomas on such varied hot-button topics as illegal immigration and the death penalty.

The attorney's aggressiveness didn't escape the notice of Sheriff Arpaio's top associates, most importantly Chief Deputy Hendershott. In February 2006, Hendershott requested that Thomas appoint Wilenchik to defend the sheriff's office in all future civil cases.

"I haven't written a letter complimenting a lawyer before," the chief wrote to a deputy county attorney, "but I thought it's important to let you know how pleased the sheriff and I have been with Dennis Wilenchik's representation of our office."

As of July, Wilenchik's firm had collected about $1.3 million from county taxpayers for working on behalf of the County Attorney's and sheriff's offices.

The firm almost certainly will add hundreds of thousands of dollars to its coffers after it gets paid for work on Saban vs. Arpaio. Its bills for three weeks of trial work and months of preparation had not been submitted to the county by press time for this story.

At trial, Wilenchik's legal team consisted of four full-time attorneys, including Wilenchik, and two aides. One of the attorneys was former Superior Court Judge William French, who sat totem pole-like behind the defense table for the entire trial, doodling on a yellow notepad.

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5 comments
Hal Stiles
Hal Stiles

As a former resident of Phoenix (and a longtime reader of New Times and Paul Rubin), thanks for the great story on Dan Saban and his trial. I voted for Joe when I lived out there, and I wonder what I was thinking.

Tominator
Tominator

I think Sheriff Joe and Andy Thomas are a joke, they get the people voting them in because they are, "tough on crime", right? Well they are actually, "tough on families". They are creating criminals by over charging minor offenses and that is causing prison overcrowding. I had a 17 year old son that got into a simple car accident, no alcohol or drugs involved, and they set him up with 7-18 years in prison on a first offence. They are seething publicity rabid nut cases. Everybody in court in Maricopa county has the same comment, we are loosing our kids to sheriff Joe and Andrew Thomas when they could be joining the military, and not being a burden on the tax payers. I hope everybody sees this and votes them out, it is a misuse of authority and municiple funds.

toejam
toejam

Court is suppose to reflect public opinion!Video an print media reflects the editors opinion! Point being the media makes people guilty with out the use of the laws, and even if the person is innocent the media did it's damage, and gets away with it unless you have the $$ to fight it

Annalisa
Annalisa

I would like to see more about judge houser's jury instructions led to this kind of outcome. An accusation of rape ought to be defamation per se & damages shouldn't need to be proven. Sounds like there was a problem getting the court to do as it's supposed to do (follow the law); no big surprise there. Also, the Tribune mentioned that now Wilenchik (sp?) is threatening Saban with an abuse of process suit. Give me a break. So the drama goes on.

Jamie Carnahan
Jamie Carnahan

I'm embarassed to say that I didn't vote in the 2004 election that was mentioned in this story. I did vote for Arpaio before that. No more voting for Joe by me. I'm not sure about Saban either. Why can't we do better with our elected officials? It was a very interesting story, and I went back and read the earlier one, which really told what was going on. Thanks

 
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