Now we know: Chief Deputy David Hendershott and other top Sheriff's Office brass were, in fact, regular donors to the fund that financed a scurrilous ad attacking Sheriff Joe Arpaio's last election opponent. That's big news.
But the biggest news in today's long-awaited campaign-finance filing from the secretive SCA committee is clearly the presence of developer Steve Ellman. Ellman is currently part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes -- although maybe not for long -- and, naturally, a pretty wealthy guy. But he's also a long-time friend of Arpaio's.
Ellman was, according to an Arizona Republic profile in 2000, the captain of Arpaio's "advisory posse." He roasted the sheriff at his 70th birthday party two years later. And, in 2006, he apparently hosted both Arpaio and Hendershott at his table at the Glendale Chamber of Commerce luncheon. These guys are, indisputably, friends.
Why does that matter?
For the same reason it matters that Deputy Chief Hendershott was contributing to the fund. An "independent expenditure committee" simply cannot operate in conjunction with a candidate's campaign.
For example, if some random Arpaio lover in Sun City decided to set up an independent committee and run ads about how great the sheriff is, that's legal. He'd have to disclose the source of his committee's contributions, but he could run the ad.
It's a much more legally dicey proposition if a group of Arpaio's closest friends and top aides set up a committee. At that point, it's a lot harder to imagine the committee is actually "independent." If the committee's leaders and Arpaio ever discussed what kind of ads they were going to fund or when they'd air, both parties could be in big trouble.
Ellman, interestingly, has hired former Attorney General Grant Woods to represent him in this matter. And when New Times got a statement from Woods, it also had Dennis Wilenchik's name on it -- you know, the sheriff's longtime lawyer? The dude who led the investigation that ended with New Times' owners getting arrested?
Woods is representing Ellman (and apparently some of the other big contributors), according to his assistant. Wilenchik is representing the sheriff's employees.
Wilenchik doesn't speak to New Times, and Woods is out of the country, so we'll have to let the statement speak for itself. You can read it here.
In the statement, Woods and Wilenchik claim that their clients had "no idea" how the SCA (Sheriff's Command Association) was planning to spend their donations. "They have all contributed money to help the image of their members from time to time as they do their difficult jobs," the statement claims. "They had no knowledge of how the money was being spent and, other than those employed by MCSO, our clients never had any dealings with Joel Fox."
So how, we wonder, did they know to donate tens of thousands of dollars to the fund? Who suggested to Steve Ellman, for example, that he might want to chip in $25,000?
And here's the real kicker.
Captain Fox had argued long and hard that the $105,000 eventually donated by his secretive committee was not earmarked for the anti-Dan Saban ad and was not, in fact, meant to influence Arpaio's election. As evidence, Fox argued that he simply wrote a check for the funds to the Arizona Republican Party -- and the party returned the money to him after the media began to ask questions. How could anyone say it was his $105,000 in particular that the party used for the nasty ads?
But financial records from the Arizona GOP now show just how phony that argument was. A group of five wealthy CEO-types -- Ellman the only one of them based in Arizona -- wrote checks to the SCA in 2007 and 2008. After the Republican Party returned the SCA money to Captain Fox, in October 2008, four of the very same people -- and the wife of a fifth -- wrote checks to the Republican Party.
Ellman, for example, donated $25,000 to the SCA in April 2007 -- making him its first big donor. When the scandal hit in October 2008 and the GOP returned the money, Ellman almost immediately turned around and wrote a check to the party for $25,000. (He kicked in another $10,000 a few weeks earlier.)
That pattern repeats itself. Records show the following:
* Airline CEO James Wikert gave the SCA $30,000 in 2007. After the Republican Party returned the money, Wikert wrote checks to the party totaling $20,000. It was the first money he'd ever donated to the state GOP.
* James Liautaud, CEO of Jimmy John's, wrote a $10,000 check to the SCA in January 2008. After the scandal broke, the Illinois-based businessman suddenly wrote the Arizona GOP a check for $5,000.
* Tom Gimple, the Alaska-based founder of tickets.com, wrote a check for $25,000 to the SCA in August 2008. Just two months later, after the Republican Party returned the money to Fox, Gimple's wife, Teri, wrote a check for $15,000 to the Republican Party.
* B.M. Rankin, a director at mining company Freeport McMoran, gave $10,000 to the SCA in February 2008. After Republican Party returned the SCA's money, Rankin donated $5,000 to the state GOP.
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Were the contributions designed to influence an election? You be the judge. Dennis Wilenchik is surely going to go apoplectic trying to defend these shenanigans, but we simply can't imagine how they'll possibly be able to sweep this thing under the rug.
Incidentally, Sheriff Arpaio and Steve Ellman share a public-relations guy, Jason Rose of Rose & Allyn. Since we occasionally like to finger Rose as the center of a grand conspiracy, we had to ask if he set up his clients for this dirty little project. He says no way -- that would be illegal.
"I was not involved in any way shape or form in an independent expenditure effort, because by law, you can't be," he told us. (Rose has worked for Arpaio in the past, although not in the 2008 campaign -- there, he worked for Arpaio's BFF Andrew Thomas, whose opponent was also villified in SCA-funded ads.) "It is black and white."
Adds Rose, "I'm at the center of a lot of things, but this isn't one of them."