Andrew Thomas is Free At Last -- Final Bar Complaints, Including One About New Times Case, Dismissed

This just in: It's okay to arrest newspaper owners under the cover of night.

And it's perfectly ethical for the county attorney to appoint the sheriff's lawyer as a special "independent" prosecutor in a case where the sheriff is the "victim."

And if that "independent" prosecutor's conflicts are so glaring that he quickly gets out of control, well, that's not the county attorney's fault!

You can do all this in Arizona, in fact, and face no consequences.

In other words: Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas is free at last. The State Bar has dismissed the final two complaints pending against him, including one about his handling of the infamous New Times investigation in 2007.

The other complaint dismissed last week focused on Thomas' attempts to remove Judge Timothy Ryan from hearing criminal cases.

Patricia Giallanza, a spokeswoman for the Bar, confirms that complaints against special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik are still pending. But all six complaints active against Thomas at this time last year are now officially closed. 

Jim Larkin, CEO of Village Voice Media and one of two men arrested in the investigation led by Thomas' hand-picked special prosecutor, said, "No one in their right mind has ever looked to the Arizona Bar as a beacon of courage, and it has certainly upheld its longstanding reputation with this dismissal today."

The dismissal is a stunning denouement to the New Times case, which made headlines from New York to Los Angeles. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom this newspaper has long criticized, complained long and hard to his political ally, Thomas, that New Times committed a crime by publishing his home address on the Internet. (The story, by former columnist John Dougherty, questioned the sheriff's penchant for using a special state law to hide his commercial real estate transactions.)

Never mind that the address was readily available online even before the article was published that so angered the sheriff -- Arpaio was pissed, and he wanted prosecution.

As New Times writer Paul Rubin first revealed last year, top prosecutors in Thomas' office agreed that there wasn't much of a case. But rather than just drop the matter, or even override his staffers, Thomas suddenly claimed he had a "conflict of interest," and farmed out the case to Pinal County. When that county also declared a conflict of interest a year later, the case was sent back to Thomas -- who decided to mollify his buddy the sheriff and appoint Dennis Wilenchik as a special prosecutor.

The decision was questionable for a number of reasons. First, the reporter who Arpaio wanted to see prosecuted, Dougherty, had already written a negative story about Wilenchik -- so Wilenchik had a conflict of his own. Second, Wilenchik was Thomas' former boss, which certainly calls into question his supposed lack of bias. Finally, Wilenchik had frequently served as the sheriff's attorney. Arpaio liked him so much that he'd demanded Wilenchik's firm represent him every time he ended up in court.  

Does this sound like a guy likely to be unbiased in his pursuit of justice? Right.

Predictably, Wilenchik's prosecution quickly became a train wreck. The special prosecutor hit New Times with hugely invasive subpoenas, then attempted to contact the judge handling the case outside of court rules, and finally had Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey and CEO Jim Larkin arrested late one night 

When the outcry from the public became too great to ignore, even Thomas had had enough: He fired his supposedly "independent" prosecutor.

But Thomas didn't do anything wrong, we now know. The Bar dismissed the complaint. That's that.

For this decision, Thomas owes a huge debt to Leo Beus and Dan Cracchiolo. At this time last year, Thomas was on the ropes. He was facing no fewer than six Bar complaints. Wilenchik, his former special prosecutor, had turned over some apparently damning materials, and Thomas was desperate to get them back.

But Beus and Cracchiolo expertly turned the tables. In a media blitz, they put the Bar on trial in the court of public opinion. Even the Arizona Republic suddenly seemed convinced that the Bar was on a witchhunt. And in no time, the Bar blinked. Its in-house investigator, Robert Van Wyck, was pulled off the case. The Bar agreed to appoint an "independent" investigator, Rebecca Albrecht, instead.

It was Albrecht who dismissed the final two complaints last week, the Bar confirms.

The dismissal is clearly a big victory for Andrew Thomas. But we don't think we're alone in thinking it's a major defeat for the First Amendment, the pursuit of justice, and the very idea of a free press. 

That's Arizona for you. 

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