Dennis the Menace
On October 19, the day after New Times' owners were arrested, the county attorney very publicly fired special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik.
That same day, Bill French very quietly resigned from Wilenchik's law firm.
At 76, French is a man who could rest on his laurels. Instead, he shared them with Dennis Wilenchik — and came to regret it.
This summer, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas asked the Board of Supervisors to name Wilenchik a special prosecutor in a would-be grand jury proceeding against New Times.
Wilenchik had already asked French to join the case. He was an obvious choice.
A construction defect attorney specializing in mold, Wilenchik is best known for his bombastic courtroom behavior. French's own reputation is impeccable: one-time Maricopa County Superior Court Presiding Criminal Judge, Justice Department attorney, experienced litigator, and — the job most remember him for — special prosecutor in the impeachment trial of Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham.
These credentials were clearly important to Wilenchik, who proudly listed French as "of counsel" on his firm's Web site; in court, he often referred to his colleague as "Judge French."
Titles matter to Wilenchik.
As New Times has learned, Wilenchik has padded his own résumé with laurels that never existed.
Clearly, he needed a front man, and Bill French was it.
Reached by phone at his north central Phoenix home, French explains that he was to be the co-counsel in the case against the newspaper because of his experience dealing with grand juries on the federal level. French had even taken a refresher course at the county attorney's office, to prepare for his role.
At issue was whether New Times had broken a little-known law by publishing Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's home address online nearly four years earlier. The paper had disclosed that Arpaio was abusing another law that allows some peace officers to remove their home addresses from county property records. Arpaio was using the law to conceal details of his extensive commercial real estate investments.
By his own admission, it's not an area of the law in which French is particularly well-versed, which could be why the subpoenas the special prosecutors issued were ridiculously overreaching. French acknowledges that he saw them. He says he was concerned with figuring out who at the paper had authorized the publication of Arpaio's address online in a story by then-columnist John Dougherty. As for the unprecedented request for volumes of data on New Times' online readers?
"The computer stuff I didn't understand; I'm not that knowledgeable about computers," French says.
Too bad, because that's what drove readers mad — the idea that the government would ask for their personal online reading habits. The rest of the public outcry was over the arrests of New Times' owners, Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin, the night after they revealed details of the then-secret grand jury investigation in a cover story.
French insists he didn't know about the arrests, either.
He recalls that he was at Wilenchik's office on October 18, the day the New Times story was published. "There was somebody from the Sheriff's Office there who said, 'Here are your options: citation, information . . .' and the third was the arrest. Wilenchik was not there. I said, 'Let's do the citation.'"
French adds, "That's what was being prepared. I left about 4:15 on that day and was amazed when I found out what happened. I couldn't comprehend it. I think objectively not anybody could."
But obviously someone could, because earlier that very day, Wilenchik filed a motion in court asking the judge to hold New Times in contempt — to arrest not only Lacey and Larkin but also three of their lawyers, and fine the paper what could ultimately have amounted to $90 million.
To this day, no one will stand up and take the fall for authorizing the arrests. The Sheriff's Office has denied it; so has Wilenchik. (In an eight-page press release defending his actions, Wilenchik actually said another of the "special prosecutors" must have misunderstood his desire to have citations issued.)
And yet, that night, sheriff's deputies arrested Lacey and Larkin at their homes. French woke up the next day to the news.
Ever the gentleman, French refuses to cast aspersions.
But French's actions speak volumes. He says, simply, "I decided that this was not for me. So I wrote out a resignation and I took it down to Dennis' office."
And, he adds, "I haven't heard from or seen him since."
It is difficult to imagine French adding his time with Wilenchik to his résumé. His previous accolades already fill the page.
Dennis Wilenchik also has an impressive résumé. Too bad it's not all true.
The events of October 18 may have driven Bill French into retirement, but Dennis Wilenchik hasn't missed a beat.
Thomas fired Wilenchik on a Friday. But that dismissal only extends to criminal cases. The following Monday, Wilenchik was back in court, defending Arpaio in a lawsuit brought by an inmate who slipped and broke his neck in the jail's intake unit. Wilenchik prevailed before a jury, although it's debatable whether the county actually saved much money by taking the case to court.
The real question, though, is why Dennis Wilenchik continues to represent the government at all. Since Thomas removed him from the New Times case, Wilenchik's firm has collected more than $200,000 from the county in legal fees. Since 2005, he's made more than $2 million — and counting. And as the sheriff's attorney, he's ensured a continued windfall in billings, including from Hart vs. Hill, a jail conditions case Arpaio inherited that has been in federal court for 30 years.
Wilenchik seems determined to see it go on for another 30. Before he collects any more taxpayer money, someone from the county's personnel department should look into Dennis Wilenchik's résumé.
He says he clerked for the Arizona Supreme Court; the court says that's not the case. He says he was a judicial commissioner for the county; his real title was lowly bailiff. And he says he was appointed to the county attorney's special operations unit — but he never worked there a day. (See Wilenchik's résumé as it appeared on his Web site on Dec. 18, 2007. And here's another Wilenchik biography, from another Wilenchik web site as it appeared Dec. 28, 2007, in which he's referred to as "Presiding Criminal Judge, Maricopa County," 1977. That was before he passed the bar exam.)
This is not surprising, coming from Dennis Wilenchik.
If the New Times case isn't enough, consider Wilenchik's actions in another high-profile case this fall. Wilenchik represented the sheriff in a defamation suit brought by Dan Saban, the Buckeye police chief who ran against Arpaio in 2004. Arpaio prevailed in court; the plaintiff's case was weak. But it's Wilenchik's extra-judicial activities regarding Saban that are truly alarming, particularly when you consider that Saban has made it clear he'll challenge Arpaio again in 2008.
Wilenchik has admitted that his goal is to get Saban fired from his job with Buckeye, and strip him of his status as a peace officer. He's written to public officials and entities including Governor Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Terry Goddard, the Buckeye Town Council, the Mesa Police Department (Saban's longtime former employer) and the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, the state police-certification agency known as POST. He repeatedly implies that Saban admits to having raped his adoptive mother, Ruby Norman, three decades ago. Saban has never admitted anything of the sort.
And then there is Wilenchik's now well-known behavior toward Timothy Ryan, the county's associate criminal presiding judge. A clip on YouTube features Wilenchik imploring Ryan to step down on behalf of Wilenchik's client, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, for refusing to smack down illegal immigrants.
He's certainly put a dent in his 15 minutes of fame over the past few months, but in many ways Dennis Wilenchik remains a mystery. The best likeness New Times has of him is an oil painting he commissioned of himself; the Arizona Republic repeatedly runs a picture of the side of his face. Indeed, finding information on this guy is like working on a paint-by-numbers canvas — it's painstaking work, filling in one small detail at a time.
Wilenchik doesn't make it any easier. While he did answer specific questions about his résumé, he refused repeated requests for an interview for this story; his bosses, Arpaio and Thomas, also declined. The State Bar of Arizona is investigating complaints about both Wilenchik and Thomas, but details won't be available for months. County officials confirm that Wilenchik's law firm has billed more than $2 million since 2005 but, as of press time, refused to release individual invoices that would confirm just who's been paid for what, and for which case.
The few details that are available have been hashed over. Suddenly, a man who's operated mainly in the high-stakes, exclusive world of civil litigation is being discussed all over town.
Earlier this month, e-mails circulated among local lawyers with the news that Wilenchik is being paid to lecture on ethics, through the National Business Institute, a company that sponsors continuing legal education lectures. CLE is a requirement for maintaining one's standing with the state bar. On December 14, Wilenchik offered his advice on "ethical considerations," including identifying and avoiding conflicts of interest, confidentiality issues, rules of professional responsibility and fee issues. (For details about Wilenchik's upcoming lectures on ethics and other topics, or to order tapes of his presentations, go to www.nbi-sems.com.)
Wilenchik clearly makes an impression. Those who have faced him in court describe him as smart, aggressive — and insufferable.
One longtime Phoenix lawyer playfully wrings his own neck in disgust, at the mention of Wilenchik's name. Wilenchik has screamed at journalists both in person and in correspondence, and he once talked about buying a small local newspaper so he could go head-to-head with the competing paper, which was printing stories he didn't like. He buries his opponents in requests for documents, then makes it expensive and difficult to obtain what's asked of him.
In 2005, the chief presiding criminal judge in Pima County filed a bar complaint on behalf of his assistant; Wilenchik was reportedly that rude to her. The bar declined to take action against Wilenchik, but Amy Rehm, senior bar counsel, wrote to him, ". . . please be mindful of your obligation to act in a professional manner at all times and to maintain the respect due to the courts. Should the bar receive further allegations of similar conduct, this matter may be reopened."
In a recent court proceeding involving the West Valley View, Judge Margaret Downie told Wilenchik, "Quit interrupting me," and later, "Stop — you're annoying me."
"It's rare that a judge puts up her hand and tells you to shut up," says Dan Barr, the newspaper's attorney.
More than one critic calls Wilenchik the schoolyard bully.
"Dennis can't help himself," says a Phoenix attorney who asked to remain nameless. "He had this nice little practice going with the mold cases and construction defect cases, but then he struck it rich with Andy Thomas and Joe, and he just got a little too public, and he picked the wrong targets to attack. Dennis has always reminded me of a 6- or 7-year-old kid, who was well brought up by his parents and knows how to behave and be nice, but really would rather be like the kid on Leave It to Beaver, the neighbor kid [Eddie Haskell] who likes being on the edge of trouble all the time."
If you're a homebuilder with moldy houses, Dennis Wilenchik may well be your dream lawyer. But is this the kind of person who should be representing taxpayers?
That's not all there is to Dennis Wilenchik. He's a family man, married forever (by today's standards) to Becky Bartness, his legal partner and mother of their almost-grown kids. She has a reputation as a good lawyer and a kind soul. They belong to the Phoenix Country Club and live in a very nice $2.3 million home, on a tasteful street in Paradise Valley. While it's always referred to grandly as the "Wilenchik & Bartness Building," Wilenchik's office, on Third Street near Osborn, is downright low-key, with brown bars on the windows and a worn, personalized doormat.
People love to dislike Dennis Wilenchik, but the guy's not completely friendless. Former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods actually describes his good friend as even-tempered. The two have known each other for a long time; Woods and Wilenchik's wife met in law school at Arizona State University.
Woods says he's surprised at Wilenchik's reputation as a hothead, and by some of his higher-profile recent actions. He won't defend Wilenchik's recent attacks on the judiciary and continued efforts to discredit Dan Saban, saying just that his friend was acting at the behest of his clients. And the New Times case?
"That's a little inexplicable," Woods says. "The case was ludicrous on its face so I don't understand why anyone spent five minutes on it. There's lots of crime out there. There's plenty to do."
But on a personal level, Woods defends Wilenchik completely.
"I know he's a very decent guy," Woods says. "He's very well-intentioned. He tries to do the right thing."
It's clear that Wilenchik had certain intentions when he put together his biography for the Wilenchik & Bartness Web site.
To wit, from the site:
• Wilenchik says he had "a judicial clerkship at the Supreme Court of Arizona in 1977."
But Cari Gerchik, public information officer for the Arizona Supreme Court (that's actually the court's correct title), says there is no evidence that Wilenchik has ever worked for the court.
She writes, "You asked me to ascertain for which Arizona Supreme Court Justice Mr. Wilenchik clerked in 1977 (as it is listed on his Web site) and the answer is that while we maintain records of who clerked for the Justices during 1977 (and even earlier) we can find no record of Mr. Wilenchik having served as a judicial law clerk in that or any other year."
By e-mail, Wilenchik responds that he worked for Sarah Grant, who at the time was the senior staff attorney for the Arizona Supreme Court.
"I performed a six month intern-clerkship for the ct working under sarah grant who was then chief staff atty, and not for any specific judge, which is why i noted it as i did," he writes.
It is true that Wilenchik does not specify a justice in his biography. But it's also true that when you say you had a judicial clerkship at the Arizona Supreme Court, it's understood that you clerked for a Supreme Court justice.
Gerchik called Grant, who now sits on the Arizona Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court's official response: "Sarah Grant told me that Mr. Wilenchik was never her judicial law clerk, but that he may have done a short internship for the Staff Attorneys Office.
"The Staff Attorneys Office does hire interns, but these interns are not, and never have been, considered judicial law clerks.
"Then and now, the only way to clerk for or have a judicial clerkship with the Arizona Supreme Court is to be formally hired by a specific Arizona Supreme Court Justice."
• Wilenchik says he was a "judicial assistant/commissioner for the Presiding Criminal Judge of Maricopa County."
That judge was Stanley Goodfarb, who confirms that Wilenchik worked for him — but as his bailiff.
"He was my bailiff," says Goodfarb, now retired. (Goodfarb served as the discovery master in Saban vs. Arpaio, thanks to Wilenchik.)
So Wilenchik definitely wasn't a commissioner, or a judicial assistant?
"No," Goodfarb says, patiently. "He was my bailiff."
J.W. Brown, public information officer for the Maricopa County Superior Court, says that at the time, there was no such title as "judicial assistant." (That is a title that was created much later in order to pay secretaries more money.)
Wilenchik writes that, to his recollection, "the clerk then to the presiding criminal judge who handled post conviction relief matters also had commissioner status when dealing with post conviction relief issues which i dealt with for the judge."
He continues, "I was of course not appointed officially as a court commissioner as i had not even passed the bar then, nor have i attempted to convey that i was. That is why i noted it as part of the bailiff job as a judicial assistant-commissioner because it was not a typical bailiff type responsibility."
But that is not how Wilenchik noted it. The term bailiff is not used in his biography.
"There's no hybrid position in the court," Brown says. "You're either a commissioner or you're a bailiff. And the qualifications are not interchangeable. They are very distinct and unique to the position."
According to the county's official job description, a bailiff coordinates courtroom proceedings and performs legal and clerical duties, including ordering and preparing files, reviewing motions and being responsible for jurors.
The minimum education requirement for a bailiff is a high school diploma or a GED.
A commissioner is actually a judge pro tem, with many of the responsibilities afforded to a Superior Court judge, including the power to rule on motions, assist with cases/hearings, including in juvenile court and justice court, and even preside over some matters in trial court.
The process to become a commissioner is rigorous, Brown says. A law degree is required.
Given that Wilenchik actually did serve four years as a judge pro tem (he was appointed in 1988; Gerchick's records confirm it), it's hard to understand why he would bother to stretch the truth, vis à vis the bailiff position.
• Wilenchik says he was a deputy county attorney. That is true. He also says he was "selected for the Special Operations Division specializing in white collar crime matters when he left the office in 1980 to enter private practice."
True, technically. But why mention the special operations division (it was actually called the Special Operations Bureau) at all, when you never worked a day there?
"Funny you ask that," says Rodger Golston, a Valley lawyer who was the chief deputy county attorney at the time. Of Wilenchik, he confirms: "He was picked for the special operations bureau. He was recommended by another lawyer . . . But he never worked in it. He never had a case there and never did anything with that unit."
In answer to the question, "Did you work a day in the Special Operations Bureau?", Wilenchik e-mails, "I resigned shortly after being appointed and assigned thereto to enter private practice. That is exactly what i indicated."
Dennis Wilenchik and Bill French met during Wilenchik's tenure as a deputy county attorney. French was presiding criminal judge, and the two served on a committee together, French recalls.
Did Wilenchik make an impression?
"Dennis will make an impression any time. He's very vocal," French says. A few years later, when Wilenchik was in charge of litigation for a local firm, he asked French to handle a case. French stayed for several years, and that's when he served as special prosecutor in the Mecham impeachment.
Oddly, French did not choose his longtime associate for his team, something insiders say has always rubbed Wilenchik the wrong way. French is characteristically polite — obviously not wanting to offend Wilenchik — when asked about that.
"I pretty much selected the people I wanted to work with," he says. "I had worked with a couple of very bright associates and a couple partners. I knew how they worked."
In any case, Wilenchik went on to find his niche, developing a practice that focuses mainly on construction defect defense law, representing home builders. Jim Eckley, a Phoenix attorney who represents plaintiffs in such cases, goes up against Wilenchik frequently — including several times in the last year. He speaks highly of his opponent. The two are not friends; Eckley only knows Wilenchik professionally.
"I found him a really tough advocate. When he gets on a case, it's gonna be a hard fight the whole way," Eckley says. "I have had people I've dealt with out there who are tough and useless . . . but he seems to really get into his cases well."
Eckley acknowledges that with Wilenchik, there are generally "a lot of nasty barbs tossed back and forth . . . but also I will say, some of those barbs get some mileage in a civil trial court. He's that kind of fighter on the defense side and it's tough to be on the defense side."
Outside a civil trial court, Wilenchik's barbs can deliver an unexpected sting. For years — even predating his representation of Arpaio — Wilenchik has lobbed bombs at reporters, hoping to dissuade them from writing about his clients.
And as Sheriff Joe's attorney, Wilenchik has further honed his media relations skills. One local journalist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of recrimination, remembers a call he received on a Saturday afternoon last year. The journalist had been researching what he describes as a fairly benign piece about corrections officers, and since he'd long had a good relationship with the Sheriff's Office, he called Captain Paul Chagolla, Arpaio's spokesman, to ask about pay rates.
He was also interested in how different law enforcement offices worked together, so he asked an innocent question about the Sheriff's Office's relationship with the Buckeye Police Department. Whoops. The reporter wasn't thinking at the time about Arpaio's acrimonious relationship with Dan Saban, Buckeye's chief. But Arpaio's people clearly were, because the reporter suddenly received several messages from Chagolla and other Arpaio staffers, culminating with a call he'll never forget.
"I'm Dennis Wilenchik. I'm the sheriff's lawyer!" the journalist recalls hearing. He told the journalist, "Dan Saban is a liar!" and then insisted that he write about Saban. (The reporter refused.)
Joe Arpaio and Dennis Wilenchik are clearly a perfect match. After a year together, Arpaio's chief deputy, Dave Hendershott, wrote to the county attorney, requesting that Wilenchik serve as Arpaio's exclusive lawyer. That must have made Andrew Thomas happy, since he's the one who brought Wilenchik into the fray.
How Wilenchik and Thomas originally met is not clear. But Thomas was working at Wilenchik's law firm at the time he was elected (given that neither Wilenchik nor Thomas will talk on the subject, it's also unclear just what Thomas actually did while working at Wilenchik's office, other than sit by while Wilenchik made fund-raising calls on his behalf), and almost immediately turned around and handed Wilenchik what has now amounted to more than $2 million in business.
Arpaio claims Wilenchik has actually saved the county money.
In a press release dated October 30 (note this was less than two weeks after Thomas "fired" Wilenchik) Arpaio praised his attorney:
"Dennis Wilenchik exemplifies professionalism, tenaciousness and aggressiveness — characteristics needed to win in court," Arpaio said. "Taxpayers of this county owe Wilenchik a debt of gratitude. He has saved them millions of dollars."
It's safe to say the jury is still out on that one.
It would be impossible to account for the amount of money Wilenchik has cost the county in legal obfuscations alone, but one case illustrates the point.
Hart vs. Hill has been wending its way through U.S. District Court for a remarkable 30 years. It's a case about poor jail conditions that has been handed down through several Maricopa County Sheriff's administrations, landing with Joe Arpaio. In 2005, Wilenchik was appointed counsel, and immediately began stonewalling requests from the other side.
In this case, the move has worked beautifully, because the 82-year-old judge is moving slowly, to say the least.
In November 2006, the plaintiffs' attorneys (including Larry Hammond and Debbie Hill from Osborn Maledon) filed a motion asking for sanctions against Wilenchik for refusing to provide materials they'd requested, including:
• Documents related to the accreditation of the jail by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care,
• Independent evaluations of the jail's health care services,
• Inspection reports by any government agency on medical/mental health and environmental health and safety, and
• Minutes of meetings of correctional health staff or contract healthcare providers.
The specific issue is that the plaintiff's attorneys want recent records; they say in court pleadings that none have been provided beyond September 2005. Wilenchik doesn't argue that.
Hammond says the decision to seek sanctions was not made easily.
"It's something we almost never do," he says. "The idea of seeking sanctions — while there are some lawyers who seek sanctions as a matter of course — it is something we try to avoid, really, at all costs."
Hammond didn't see that he had a choice.
It is hard to believe that Maricopa County's citizens are being well-served by the refusal to provide documents that could demonstrate whether basic human rights are being granted in the county's jails.
"I kick myself for waiting so long," Hammond says of the sanctions request. "I think we should have done it earlier."
More than a year later Judge Earl Carroll has not ruled.
As of mid-December, Wilenchik had billed the county more than $85,000 for work performed on Hart vs. Hill since December 2005.
If the county ever releases a full accounting of Wilenchik's billings, it might be possible to better determine the quality of his civil work on behalf of the taxpayers.
It is already certain that his criminal work was subpar.
And even his friend Grant Woods doesn't understand why Andrew Thomas named Wilenchik special prosecutor in the criminal case against New Times. (It's hard to know what was behind the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors' decision on July 11, when they approved Thomas' choice, because the meeting — an emergency session held by telephone — was not tape recorded.)
"I honestly have no idea why he was brought in on this special prosecution," Woods says. "He's done excellent work on the civil side and he really hasn't done criminal law in a long time."
For the record, Woods also questions why Bill French was brought in, "at this stage in his career."
Jim Eckley, the construction defect plaintiff attorney who has gone up against Wilenchik many times, says that it may well be that what makes Wilenchik such a good civil lawyer actually hurt him in the criminal arena.
"I hate to say it, but delay and obfuscation on the DEFENSE side is fairly common in civil litigation," Eckley writes in an e-mail. "It is part of a strategy of burning out the plaintiff as, remember, in a civil claim, the plaintiff must prevail to win and on all points whereas defense must merely poke holes in a few places and the wind all goes out. Moreover, the defense wins merely by not losing. That can be done by long delays and large smoke screens."
And it can be done with very broad requests, as with the overreaching subpoenas in the New Times case.
". . . it is probably MALPRACTICE in civil litigation NOT to seek the broadest possible 'discovery' of what the other guy might have," Eckley adds.
French agrees that there is a big difference between civil and criminal litigation. He sat through the Dan Saban case, and offers only high praise for Wilenchik's work there.
"He's a very fine trial lawyer," French says of Wilenchik, adding, "That's saying a lot."
But criminal law is far different, French acknowledges. As a trial judge, he says, he found, "There's a big difference not only in the law but how you present it. I think a jury reacts differently in criminal than they do in civil . . . They're more concerned about a person's liberty and the sanctions on the criminal side are generally considered to be much more serious."
So, French is asked at the end of the conversation, is Dennis Wilenchik a good person?
"I think he is," French says.
No one in town questions French's character or credentials.
"I've worked very hard to achieve that," he says. "This is not a time in my life when I want to tarnish it, though."
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