Town of Superior Mayor, Already Facing Recall, Indicted on Felony Theft Charge

Matters have gone from bad to worse for Jayme Valenzuela, mayor of the Town of Superior.

Facing a recall election stemming from allegations of misusing public funds, Valenzuela has now been indicted on a charge of felony theft.

After the announcement today by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, Valenzuela lost his job as jail commander at the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Paul Babeu, who is running for Congress this year, said in a statement today that Valenzuela was an "at-will" employee for the county and had no right to appeal his termination. Babeu had Valenzuela on paid administrative reassignment since February, when town officials notified the sheriff's department that it had forwarded allegations against Valenzuela to Brnovich's office.

Valenzuela did not immediately return a message requesting comment.

Most Valley residents know Superior as the first of several mining towns along U.S. 60 about 50 miles east of Phoenix. The biggest story in Superior for the past few years has been the coming Resolution Copper Mine, a multibillion-dollar project just outside the town's boundaries that received a green light from Congress in late 2014.

Dysfunctional leadership in the town of about 3,000 people would be a close second.

Valenzuela opposed the mine, ticking off Superior residents and leaders who want to see the project move forward because of the riches it promises. Against this backdrop of community division, a town clerk announced unexpectedly in December that Valenzuela had made several unauthorized cash withdrawals on his town-issued bank card. Days later, Valenzuela was the deciding vote in a successful motion to fire her. Then in January, an audit revealed that the mayor had withdrawn $2,300 from ATMs in eight separate transactions during 2013 and 2014, including one at the Wild Horse Pass Casino in the Gila River Indian Community. Also in December, Town Manager Margaret Gaston and Town Financial Director David Romero resigned over the issue.

Valenzuela paid back the money after the audit findings. But dozens of incensed town members signed a petition, leading to the scheduled August 30 recall election. So far, Valenzuela has refused to resign.

Superior Councilwoman Mila Besich Lira, who is running against Valenzuela, said the indictment is proof that the town should ditch its mayor. Valenzuela's withdrawals were clearly improper and he lied to the council about the extend of the abuse, she said.

"The mayor should not lie and not steal," Lira told New Times, adding that Valenzuela's position at the sheriff's office makes his alleged crime all the more egregious. "You expect anybody working in law enforcement to be held to a higher standard."

Lira, who is pro-mine, won her seat on the council in a recall election in 2013 against Kiki Peralta.

"I'm not a fan of recall elections," she said. "But our town has to be run with integrity and efficiency."

Councilman John Tameron said he has been ostracized by his fellow elected officials for failing to take a stand against Valenzuela in recent months. He'll speak his mind about the mayor if Valenzuela's convicted, he said. But he added that Valenzuela's enemies hurt the mayor's career at the sheriff's office, and that the town's political infighting is bound to get worse.

"They've tortured the mayor," Tameron said of Valenzuela's detractors.

Valenzuela is expected to appear in the Superior Court of Arizona in Phoenix for his first court hearing on the matter on August 4.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.

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