It sounded like an interesting story -- at first.
Dave Hendershott, chief deputy of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, told us last night that his agency's criminal investigation into what's going on with the county computer system might involve the Arizona Republic.
Naturally, we were a bit suspicious of the info.
After all, the last time we heard the sheriff's office was investigating a newspaper, it was this newspaper. And that sorry affair resulted in New Times executives Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin being rousted from their homes by deputies and arrested. Lacey was thrown in jail. Andrew Thomas, the county attorney, ended up eating crow and dropping the questionable charges against our bosses.
Still, a tip's a tip, and we felt compelled to check on it. What Hendershott told us was this:
Investigators were looking into the relationship between the county IT department, a company called I/O Data Centers and the Arizona Republic. The sheriff's office was chasing down a lead, Hendershott said. Supposedly, the Republic had sold or leased a building to I/O which, in turn, had a 10-year lease with the county to house some of the county's computer equipment, all for the ridiculously high sum of $50,000 a month.
On top of that, the equipment was being housed in the building's basement, which is the worst possible place to put sensitive computers because of the risk of flooding.
If there was a deal like that, "it might explain a lot why we can't get a factual story in the Republic," Hendershott explained.
"But they write fluffy stories about your office all of the time!" we retorted.
In fairness to our competition, though, the Republic has been kinda tough on the sheriff's office lately, especially in its unsigned opinion pieces. It also recently broke an eyebrow-raising story about the agency's use of overtime, (though our follow-up on that subject, based on a draft report the Repub didn't have, went even further).
Tough on the sheriff or not, criminally liable or not, a suspected deal like the one Hendershott outlined could be criticized as journalistically unethical, at the least.
So this morning, we called Arizona Republic publisher John Zidich for his take. And don't you know it, the story evaporated -- like monsoon rain on your car that leaves behind only a light coating of dirt.
Yes, I/O Data Centers has a data operation at 120 East Van Buren Street, a building once owned by the Arizona Republic. But the Republic sold the building more than a decade ago to a company called Sterling, Zidich explains. It's probably changed hands a few times since then.
"It appears that the sheriff's office once again has incomplete information and is communicating it without checking their facts," Zidich says.
We called Hendershott back -- and he agreed that if what Zidich says is true, the Repub "obviously isn't connected."
Hendershott thanks us for doing the investigative work. "You saved us a lot of trouble and grief," he says.
Yeah, we reply, but shouldn't the investigators have checked that out before you gave us the information?
"You're just proving my point that I should never talk to the media," Hendershott grumbles, seeming embarrassed.
In fact, we don't think it proves that point at all. The public is better served when the sheriff's office -- or most anyone -- agrees to answer legitimate questions from the news media.
We do appreciate that Hendershott talked to New Times and hope he does so again -- especially if our questions involve allegations against the sheriff's office. But we don't like the idea of going off half-cocked on a story that's based on incomplete information.
Now, as to that data center: County spokesman Richard De Uriarte says the county does have a lease agreement with I/O data centers to house back-up computer servers. Those servers aren't in the Republic's old building, though -- they're not even in downtown Phoenix, De Uriarte says.
The lease amount is fairly substantial: $38,500 a month for 2,000 square feet. But De Uriarte tells us the amount was the cheapest bid the county received two years ago for space to house the equipment.
In other words, our job here is done.