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Andrew Thomas Fights to Keep RICO Funds Despite Flagrant Spending Abuses

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So yesterday Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas sued his client, the Board of Supervisors, again. Taxpayers of this county should be getting to used to this sideshow: By our count, Thomas has now sued the Supes three times during his scant five years in office. And Thomas wonders why they're trying to fire him as their legal adviser!

All this is annoying and costly -- but yesterday's suit was especially appalling. Arizona is facing an unprecedented budget crunch. Maricopa County has been ordered to turn over $24.2 million to the state to help it balance its books; wisely, it got permission from the state to dip into some fat special accounts to get through this difficult time.

That all made good sense. The problem is that, when it comes to Thomas and his sidekick, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, "good sense" is an alien concept. So is the common good.

The two are now suing to stop the transfer of funds from accounts they control -- including the RICO fund and the Jail Enhancement Fund. And while we're not up to speed on all the other accounts being affected, we can tell you with certainty that the two politicians have been using RICO funds and Jail Enhancement moneys as slush funds for years, in ways that should horrify every taxpayer in this county. 

Let's talk about RICO first, just because it's the most egregious and appalling example. These funds come from seizures from criminal enterprises, and state records show that Maricopa County was sitting on a healthy balance of $14.3 million at the end of September 2008 (the most recent numbers available). That's a lot of money during this difficult time.

And, as this paper has been known to argue, when politicians have extra money lying around, they tend to spend it on dumb shit. In Thomas' case, he's used RICO fund money to help local churches bring sinners to Christ. (Not kidding.) He's paid to sponsor a local right-wing radio host's book tour. (Again, not kidding.) He's even paid for a first-class airplane ticket for conservative columnist John Leo to come to Phoenix. (No, we really couldn't make this stuff up ... eight months ago, I summarized the whole tawdry spending scandal here.)

Of course, those expenses pale in comparison to the $4 million-plus that Thomas has spent on commercials designed to highlight himself. As we first reported, on taking office, Thomas stopped his predecessor's habit of working with the Partnership for Drug Free America and hired his own campaign's ad firm to shoot anti-drug commercials instead. Naturally, the commercials featured Thomas prominently.

Really, with all that waste, you have to wonder why the county didn't seek permission to raid the RICO fund sooner!

And then there's the Jail Enhancement Fund. We haven't reported on this recently, but take a look at what we wrote back in December 2007:

In 1996, New Times writer Tony Ortega reported that the sheriff had misused jail enhancement funds. The money is administered by the state to assist with jail operations and to train detention officers. As the biggest county in the state, Maricopa gets more than $1 million from the fund annually.

Ortega found that Arpaio was using enhancement money for expenses that had nothing to do with jails, much less enhancing them. The sheriff used the fund to finance a lawsuit against the county Board of Supervisors in 1994, despite telling reporters that taxpayers wouldn't get stuck with the bill. He had used it to send himself to National Sheriff's Conferences. He had also paid for a video news-clipping service. Jail conditions be damned, Arpaio needed to watch himself on Nightline.

Ortega's reporting triggered an investigation from the Arizona Auditor General, which echoed his findings. A total of $122,419 in expenditures "did not demonstrate that they 'enhanced' jail facilities and operations," the auditors concluded. Their report specifically cited the news clipping service and the money Arpaio had spent on conferences.

But nothing seems to have changed. Since 2003, records show, Arpaio has spent $34,387 in enhancement funds on news clipping services. He's also spent $345,644 of the fund to send employees to conferences and training seminars, records show. Employees were sent to classes for Photoshop, good grammar, and, of course, the National Sheriff's Conference.

So Thomas and Arpaio have been misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in question from the funds in question for years -- often in order to finance pet projects. Of course they're not willing to give up the money to help the state's budget; without it, how can Thomas get his mug on TV often enough to ensure his election as Attorney General in two years? Without it, how can Arpaio salivate over his own image on TV?

Make no mistake, this isn't about the Supervisors raiding funds that are necessary for good law enforcement. This is about them hitting Arpaio and Thomas where it hurts. And, naturally, we taxpayers are going to get stuck with the legal bills for both sides of the case.


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