More Pinal County Officials in Trouble: Assistant County Manager and Assessor Disciplined in Separate Cases
Pinal County, Maricopa's southeastern neighbor, has been rocked in recent years by allegations of incompetence and wrongdoing by some of its top officials. New Times has obtained two more names for the list:
* Lisa Garcia, assistant county manager for Health and Human Services, who was suspended for a week without pay late last year for getting a former employee hired on as a consultant. The consultant, who was to be paid up to $60,000, helped come up with a department reorganization plan that resulted in the firing and later re-hiring of three workers. An investigation showed Garcia had improperly failed to seek a competitive bid for the contract work.
* L. Paul Larkin, the county's assessor, had his county vehicle taken away for an entire year after a tipster reported seeing him getting in the car after drinking beer at a restaurant.
Garcia was appointed to her position; Larkin was elected.
These disciplinary actions come on the heels of several other high-profile cases involving top officials:
* Pinal County Superior Court Judge Carter Olson's bailiff, Royzell Williams, was arrested in July after an undercover sting operation and accused of offering to take a bribe in exchange for influencing the judge in a case. Williams, who was hired by a county citizens' board in 2004 after serving nine years in prison for marijuana trafficking, had allegedly solicited bribes from people in the past. Olson wasn't accused of a crime.
*In 2003, Pinal County Recorder Laura Dean-Lytle hired her daughter's former boyfriend, Albert Robbs, an ex-con who had served three years in prison for theft. After Robbs was arrested last year on suspicion of an identity-theft scheme that victimized county customers, Sheriff Paul Babeu called on Dean-Lytle to resign. The elected official continues to work as the recorder.
*In 2007, County Manager Stan Griffis was slapped with multiple felony charges for stealing about $640,000 in county funds. He was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison and is scheduled to be released next month.
* Former Sheriff Chris Vasquez plagiarized routinely in monthly letters he wrote to newspapers and posted on his campaign site.
While the more-recent actions of the assessor and the assistant county manager aren't in the same ballpark as those of Griffis, they do seem to be part of a disturbing pattern in Pinal County. At this rate, the county may soon be as screwed up as Maricopa.
Records show that Assessor Paul Larkin was caught after someone called the county's Silent Whistle system in late 2008 to report his use of the vehicle after drinking. Although the county did not provide New Times with a copy of the Silent Whistle report, Heather Murphy, the county's spokeswoman, tells us that Larkin had stopped off at an eatery after work. The person who tattled on Larkin apparently saw him drink only one beer before getting in the vehicle, she says.
No one is accusing Larkin of driving drunk, but we've all heard that "It was only one-or-two beers" story before.
Terry Doolittle, the county manager, ordered that Larkin be prohibited from driving a county vehicle for one year. The year is up this month, so Larkin's probably back in the driver's seat by now.
Larkin didn't return a call to New Times.
Garcia's case was more complex.
In July, three employees of the county's Long-Term Care department were told they had come up short in a reorganization plan and were being "laid off." They were given a few moments to collect their belongings and shown out via a side door.
"People were upset, and some were crying," according to a write-up of the event by the terminated employees, who were suspicious they had been targeted for an improper firing. A review of related documents seems to show that, for some reason, the cards were indeed stacked against the employees.
The reorganization plan eliminated the employees' positions, but allowed them to interview for newly created jobs. The employees felt the new jobs were nothing more than lower-paying versions of their old jobs -- but that they were certainly qualified for them. Garcia's underlings used different interviewing techniques for the same positions, such as conducting one-on-one chats with some candidates while subjecting others to interviews by a panel. The county ended up hiring a few outside candidates for the new jobs, leaving the three current employees without jobs -- even though two of the new positions were left unfilled.
The brainchild of the reorganization was consultant Jeanne Thorpe, who had worked under Garcia at ValueOptions from 2000 to 2002. During an investigation of the employees' complaints, officials learned that Garcia had signed up Thorpe of Tempe as the "sole source" for the needed services, instead of allowing other companies the chance to bid a lower price.
In a September 14 letter to Doolittle, the county manager, Garcia wrote that she provided her staff with the names of three consultants she recommended, but J. Thorpe Consulting, LLC, was the only one to apply. However, she admitted signing off on the "sole source" contract, saying she did it because she knew Thorpe had a "good working knowledge of the organization and what we were trying to achieve," and because she wanted to hire the consultant as soon as possible.
Doolittle suspended Garcia for a week without pay in October. The county's contracts and grants coordinator, Jacque Reynolds, was suspended without pay for 20 hours. Thorpe's contract, which had been scheduled to expire on December 31, was terminated on August 29.
Garcia didn't return the message we left, but Thorpe did. She had nothing to do with anyone's firing, she tells us.
"It's unfortunate any of this has happened," she says. "I did the job I was hired to do."
Thorpe says her relationship with Garcia is strictly professional, and that she hasn't talked with Garcia since August. If her hiring had been handled correctly, she says, Thorpe Consulting would probably have still been chosen, meaning she wouldn't have lost the extra work.
The three employees who were callously let go, meanwhile, were all re-hired (though in the new positions) and granted back pay. Yet it's clear that Garcia's contract faux-pas is still having an impact. An anonymous complaint to the county's Silent Whistle computer system in late December claims that the three employees are still disgrunted.
"Since the return, you can cut the tension with a knife, there isn't a cohesive team, and the morale is horrible," the anonymous writer states.
Sounds like another reorganization is needed. But maybe this time they ought to start at the top.