The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is demanding that county risk managers review "evidence" of criminal acts by county officials before settling any claims by those officials.
The demand comes in a strongly worded news release and letter by Chief Deputy David Hendershott that accuses County Supervisor Andrew Kunasek of stealing $15,000 of public funds, among other things. No details about the alleged theft are given. Kunasek could not be reached. (New Times later found out he's out of the country).
Past revelations by the Sheriff's' Office about alleged crimes involving Supervisors Mary Rose Wilcox, Don Stapley, judges and other officials that turned out to be weak or erroneous -- remember the RICO suit that failed? -- gives room for doubt about how great this new evidence will be.
But, of course, we'll have to hold final judgment until the evidence is released. Hendershott says in the letter he'll disclose it to County Risk Manager Peter Crowley in a few weeks.
In the meantime, there are some troubling aspects about the new allegations by the Sheriff's Office -- especially in regards to how county officials, including Interim County Attorney Rick Romley, are handling the potential payouts to officials.
We've been suspicious from the start about how the county would handle $46 million in claims from county officials who claim to have been wronged by the Sheriff's Office and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas. Not that we think they weren't wronged -- but we're troubled by the fact that the folks making the claims are the same folks deciding how they'll be paid out.
Last month, three of the five Supervisors, including Kunasek, voted to let a professional mediator decide what to do about the claims. We figured then that a multi-million-dollar payout was in the works because the county agreed to pay the mediator, Kenneth Feinberg of Washington DC, $550,000 for the job.
County officials say the mediator will save taxpayers millions by avoiding court battles that could result in much greater payouts.
But the Sheriff's Office and Thomas -- who may be on the hook, personally, for a big part of the claims -- say otherwise.
In fact, Hendershott argues that Stapley, Wilcox and the other claimants definitely won't win in court because they won't be there -- they'll avoid trials that might reveal even more evidence of their alleged crimes.
Again, this argument may be valid, but only if that evidence is better than what we've seen in the past. There's good reason to think it won't be. For instance, no evidence was ever presented to the public that Judge Gary Donahoe -- who's got a claim on the county for $4.75 million -- committed bribery, as the Sheriff's Office and Thomas once alleged. Thomas apparently plans to be elected Arizona Attorney General despite never revealing why he smeared a sitting judge with allegations he couldn't back up.
Now Hendershott is alleging that Kunasek stole public funds, which means that a majority of the five Supervisors is now under criminal investigation. Weird.
Whether or not the Sheriff's Office really has the goods on Kunasek or not, a criminal probe on Kunasek has been ongoing, according to Hendershott.
Kunasek even recently submitted to a "free talk" with his criminal attorney and the "assigned prosecutor" in the case, the Sheriff's Office says. The release doesn't say who that prosecutor was -- surely it wasn't Lisa Aubuchon -- but the Sheriff's Office recently gave the case to Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores, who's looking into the Stapley and Wilcox cases.
Flores returned the Kunasek case to Maricopa County, saying it wasn't in the "scope of her engagement," the Sheriff's Office news release states.
Not only has Interim County Attorney Rick Romley failed to assign an independent prosecutor for the case, but Romley knew of the Kunasek investigation and still failed to advise the Supervisor not to vote on the mediation issue, the release says. It goes on to say that because Kunasek had a conflict of interest due to the criminal investigation, the vote on the mediation should be declared null and void.
Romley offered to turn the Kunasek case over to the U.S. Justice Department, but it was a "meaningless suggestion" because the feds probably wouldn't take a case involving a "theft" of only $15,000, the Sheriff's Office says. (Then again, maybe the Sheriff's Office is more worried that the Justice Department will tell it to pound sand again, like it did with the RICO suit).
The Sheriff's Office is also worried that the county's risk managers are in the pocket of county leaders like the Supervisors and County Manager David Smith, and will bend to their wishes rather than make the best decision to protect county funds from large payouts. (Quick side note: Smith is one of the few major county players who hasn't put in a claim).
The Sheriff's Office says the assistant risk manager assigned to the claims by county officials, Rocky Armfield, made some unusual, inappropriate statements on the issue (which Hendershott tape-recorded). From the Sheriff's Office news release:
Sheriff's officials have noted the County that the assigned County Risk Manager, Rocky Armfield, violated his ethical duties to the Maricopa County Trust, and that he intimidated the Sheriff's assigned legal counsel, and his subordinate risk manager to settle claims, stating the Board of Supervisors are gods and that under no circumstance can the board be deposed.
According to the Sheriff's Office, Armfield asked the Office's attorney, Maria Brandon, to pull punches should she depose Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, during potential litigation.
Yet Hendershott, in his serious-sounding letter, writes that the county's tactics won't work:
You, the BOS, and senior county management have seriously miscalculated your abilities to intimidate us.
Hendershott says his office plans to soon release material gathered from grand jury proceedings against county officials, including "thousands of pages of evidence and transcripts, tape recordings of numerous county and non county employees, and video interviews."
It sounds like the same huge packet of "evidence" that the Justice Department said it wouldn't review.
But now, Hendershott insists that Crowley's best option is to find -- be patient and follow along here -- an independent lawyer who will get county leaders to find a second independent lawyer who will find a judge who will, in turn, find an independent risk manager to consider all the facts before deciding whether to settle the claims. Got that?
Hendershott reminds Crowley that lawyers working for the county on these feudal issues all have conflicts of interest, and that Crowley needs to take the offer to disclose evidence of crimes seriously. Hendershott goes for the hard sell in his letter, arguing that Crowley's "worst course of action is to refuse the evidence" being turned over. But he brings up a good point: If Stapley, Wilcox and the others get indicted (in the case of Stapley and Wilcox, re-indicted), it'll be tough to explain to the public why the county settled their claims of being unfairly targeted.
No sense counting indictments before they hatch, though. The offices of the Sheriff and County Attorney under Thomas have faced defeat after defeat in court, and there's no reason to think that trend will change.
Even if the probable pending payouts to county officials cost taxpayers a boodle, counting on the Sheriff's Office to win lawsuits doesn't seem like a much better plan -- unless this new evidence really rocks.
UPDATE July 11: County denies allegation against Kunasek.