By John Dickerson
Tim Nelson, the Democratic candidate for Maricopa County attorney who's running neck-and-neck with County Attorney Andrew Thomas in the race, today reasserted his claim that Thomas played a key role in the arrests of two New Times executives last year.
Nelson added at a press conderence that, if elected, he will legally pursue the corruption that allowed for such an abuse of power by Thomas and a hand-picked special prosecutor.
The arrests last October resulted from a story published in the New Times about grand jury subpoenas that sought priviledged infomation about the newspaper's journalists and online readers. It turned out that the subpoenas were from a nonexistent grand jury.
The jailing of Executive Editor Michael Lacey and CEO Jim Larkin attracted national media attention and ignited outrage that Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose aptly named Selective Enforcement Unit arrested the pair at their homes, were retaliating against a media critic.
It was arguably the biggest black mark on Thomas' four-year term as County Attorney, though he has had several.
Last week, a radio ad began airing that reminded county voters that Thomas “arrest[ed] journalists in the dark of night in front of their families because of what they published.” It said the county attorney had used "KGB" tactics.
Thomas responded by going to bizarre lengths to try to get the ad pulled from local radio stations. His ally Arpaio apparently decided to help.
On Tuesday, MCSO Chief Deputy David Hendershott took one for the Thomas-Arpaio team, claiming that he alone ordered the controversial arrests. Unfortunately, Hendershott's 11th-hour claim contradicts a statements from county officials that Thomas and then-Special Prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik were behind the arrests.
So after a year of public silence about the incident, Thomas produced a signed affidavit from Hendershott just a week before the election. Why Hendershott? Speculation is that because Arpaio enjoys a comfortable lead in the latest election poll, he's confident that his office can absorb the hit for Thomas -- who polls show is in a tight race with Nelson (21 percent of voters were still undecided).
If Thomas were to lose, Arpaio wouldn't enjoy the same cozy relationship with the County Attorney's office. Indeed, Nelson might even investigate some of the sheriff's eyebrow-raising antics.
Thomas and fellow Republicans clearly intended to defuse a political bomb with the affidavit. Instead, it detonated a bigger bomb by drawing attention back to the nationally infamous arrests. TV cameras rolled and newspaper reporters jotted notes as Nelson declared that Thomas had acted outrageously and should lose his job as a result.
"After years of standing with the Sheriff's Office on a host of abusive investigations, Andrew Thomas has belatedly thrown them under the bus to try to deflect criticism against himself just one week before the election," Nelson said.
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“The fact remains that Andrew Thomas initiated the investigation of the Phoenix New Times,” he said. “He alone made the decision to hire his close friend and former employer Dennis Wilenchik to handle the case. He stood by silently on October 18, 2007 as Mr. Wilenchik signed the application for the arrest warrants for the paper’s editors.”
Nelson also said that even though Thomas called a press conference last year to fire Wilenchik (his friend and former boss), he has not severed ties. “To the contrary," Nelson said, "he has continued to refer county business to Mr. Wilenchik, including over $430,000 in fees this year alone.”
Nelson said such malfeasance must not go unchecked: “Make no mistake about it: the New Times subpoenas and arrests were a massive abuse of power and the public trust. They have brought ridicule to our county and its justice system...If elected, I will refer this matter to the office of a Republican County Attorney, such as Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, for a thorough and non-partisan investigation.”
Thomas' representatives did not return a phone call seeking comment.