Sheila Polk: New Times Makes a "Target" of Her and MATFORCE

Sheila Polk, Yavapai County Attorney and prohibitionist
Sheila Polk, Yavapai County Attorney and prohibitionist
Ray Stern

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the anti-legalization group MATFORCE with a nice shout-out to New Times.

In a Sunday article in Prescott's Daily Courier newspaper, Polk tells reporter Scott Orr that New Times has made her and MATFORCE a "target" for their prohibitionist stance on cannabis, and she inadvertently praises New Times for trying to keep the group honest.

As Orr put it:

"In the last few months, Polk said, the Phoenix New Times alternative newspaper has begun to target her for her strong stance against legalizing marijuana, and MATFORCE has also taken its hits.

"One story mocked MATFORCE for anti-pot billboards it had placed in the Phoenix area, which seemed to have a confusing website address that led to a site owned by someone else.

"Another pointed out that a list of 146 supporters on the MATFORCE website contained names of people not associated with the group. That was a mistake, [MATFORCE Executive Director Merilee] Fowler said, as a website update restored old names that have since been removed."


As the article suggests, MATFORCE deserved to be criticized in those two cases.

The billboard MATFORCE placed in Phoenix depicting a toddler apparently about to chow down on a cannabis-laced cookie didn't seem to have a confusing website address — it had the wrong website address. Instead of promoting the actual website URL for MATFORCE's anti-legalization campaign site, www.marijuanaharmlessthinkagain.org, the billboard stated, "Marijuana Harmless? ThinkAgain.org." The latter website links to a foundation for children with cancer. After fielding a number of irate callers, the foundation's director, Dr. Patricia Kerrigan, asked MATFORCE to buy the real Think Again! organization some billboard time as compensation, but she never heard back.

In the second example, MATFORCE never replied to New Times' request for comment about the bogus list of 146 supporters but made the change referenced by Fowler a few days after our article.

Polk and Fowler take credit for reducing the meth problem in Yavapai County, which sounds a tad like wishful thinking. Yet while the original anti-meth focus of the group, which now just goes by MATFORCE but used to also be known as the Methamphetamine Advisory Task Force, seems praise-worthy, the group has evolved into the primary force opposing a likely ballot initiative for 2016 that would legalize possessing and growing personal amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older. The effort has blurred the lines between substance-abuse education and politicking and has raised serious questions about how public funds can be used for campaigns.

In early May, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich was blasted for an official opinion that allowed Polk, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, and other elected officials to use public funds to fight the planned initiative. A May 13 article in New Times, based on a public records request to Polk, exposed that Polk had managed to transfer $50,000 in funds seized from forfeiture proceedings from the law-enforcement task force Partners Against Narcotics Trafficking to MATFORCE.

Polk, an influential member of both groups, later admitted to New Times that least some of the funds were used to discourage marijuana legalization. Under heavy criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, Brnovich pulled the opinion on May 14. A revised opinion he issued last month makes it clear that Arizona law forbidsuse of public funds for campaigns but said elected officials were free to use their First Amendment rights to speak about any political issue, even if they're at work.

One glaring problem with MATFORCE's unofficial, anti-legalization campaign is that it's often dishonest.

We've pointed out many examples of the group's tactic of using what we've called  "statistical manipulations and half-truths." For instance, the group claims in its literature that it's been "confirmed" that long-term marijuana use lowers IQ, but actual scientific studies on the issue are not as clear-cut.  At a June panel discussion on legalization at Arizona State University, to give another example, Polk stated that a recent poll showed that voters would not pass Colorado's 2012 legalization measure if the election were held again. In fact, two recent polls at the time had shown quite the opposite — the measure would pass by a higher percentage now.

Polk says the nonprofit organization has an $860,000 budget, with much of the funding coming from the Northern Arizona Regional Behavior Authority, which receives most of its revenue from the Arizona Department of Health Services. How such public funds can filter through NARBA and into MATFORCE, where they're being used by Polk and her allies to keep the status quo of prohibition in place, is beyond us.

On the other hand, it's unclear whether MATFORCE really has an $860,000 budget or where it's getting all its funds. The group's 990 IRS form, as retrieved on Guidestar.org, shows that in 2014, MATFORCE's budget was only about half of that figure.

The form shows that MATFORCE received $337,655 in government grants, $110,168 in other contributions, and $4,644 from "program services" last year. Its expenses for 2014 totaled $345,736, leaving $106,776 in the bank.

MATFORCE's 2013 990 form shows a similar amount of revenue from contributions and grants ($447,823), whereas it had received only $134,993 for 2012. The form lists the co-chairs as Polk and Cottonwood city manager (and former Scottsdale Police Chief) Doug Bartosh.

For 2013, Fowler reported receiving a $53,748 salary from MATFORCE and $14,233 from "related organizations," while another employee, grant manager Lisa Deutsch, received $19,239 in wages. However, the group also listed $127,077 under total expenses for wages and salaries.

The 2013 form also shows $81,561 for office expenses, $24,009 for travel, and $4,117 spent on "conferences, conventions, and meetings." Another $35,144 was spent on "other." Surprisingly, the group listed merely $26,211 for "advertising and promotion" for the year, even though educating the public presumably is the group's whole reason for existing.

Public support for the group has gone up and down over the years — forms show that it received $347,327 in grants and contributions for 2010, but that declined to $137,388 in 2012 before rising again.

New Times would've preferred to celebrate MATFORCE's 10th anniversary with a more detailed look at the nonprofit's expenses and revenue streams, but the group didn't respond to our request for that information.

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