Andrew Thomas spends public money to bring sinners to Christ | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

Andrew Thomas spends public money to bring sinners to Christ

The number one purpose of the Missionette program, according to its Web site, is "to win girls to Jesus Christ through love and acceptance." It's the Girl Scouts, only sponsored by your local evangelical church: uniforms, merit badges — and lots of talk about Jesus' edict to "go and make...

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The number one purpose of the Missionette program, according to its Web site, is "to win girls to Jesus Christ through love and acceptance."

It's the Girl Scouts, only sponsored by your local evangelical church: uniforms, merit badges — and lots of talk about Jesus' edict to "go and make disciples of all nations."

It's a rite of passage for many Christian girls.

It is not, however, something that ought to financed with public money. Obviously.

But public dough is exactly what's underwriting the Missionettes at one Phoenix church. Last March, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office wrote a $5,000 check to support the Missionettes at Abundant Living Center.

Do not be mistaken, readers. This was not a personal check from County Attorney Andrew Thomas. (That would be okay.) Nor did it come from Thomas' campaign coffers. (Also okay, although kind of weird.)

No, the office financed the donation with RICO funds — money seized from illegal enterprises and granted to law enforcement for four purposes: racketeering investigations, gang prevention, substance abuse programs, and substance abuse education.

RICO strictures come straight from the U.S. Department of Justice. And I can assure you that Justice hasn't added any provisions saying that it's cool to give RICO moneys to churches instead.

In fact, the expenditure is clearly illegal — a clear violation of the separation of church and state outlined in the Constitution.

And the Missionettes are only the tip of the iceberg.

I reviewed RICO fund expenditures by Thomas' office during his tenure and found $168,000 in earmarks for church-based programs and Christian ministries — many of them blatantly focused on converting people to Christ.

Many of the ministries in question don't focus even indirectly on gangs or substance abuse. That means they don't fit Justice Department requirements. And some of the ones that do deal with substance abuse issues are "Bible-based" programs — meaning they are not eligible for public money. Period.

If anyone should understand the law, it's the county's top prosecutor. But records show that at least two of his staffers signed off on the payments — one of them Phil MacDonnell, Thomas' top aide. (Thomas' office declined comment.)

And that's not all.

I originally asked to see the county attorney's RICO records because I was curious about all the public service campaigns his office has been running. Every time I turn on the TV, there's Thomas, giving parents helpful tips or telling kids to stay off drugs.

Those spots are funded with RICO money. I found records showing that, during Thomas' tenure, the office has spent $2 million on TV ads, radio spots, and billboards.

Unlike the giveaway to Christian programs, that's legal. But something I found in the records makes me question whether Thomas is more interested in stopping drug use — or promoting himself.

Ever notice how the ads focus on Thomas, rather than the sort of local celebrity (Randy Johnson, Brandon Webb) who might actually have sway over kids? There's a reason for that.

The ad agency Thomas hired to shoot the commercials is the very same company that produces his campaign commercials.

They're "selling" Thomas, just as they did during his two previous runs for office — only this time, they're doing it with public money.

Nobody official monitors RICO spending. Like other law enforcement agencies in Arizona, the county attorney has to turn in only big-picture data to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission for each quarter's spending. No line items are included.

When I requested a list of the office's RICO fund projects, it took five months and a strongly worded letter from New Times' attorney to get them. Even then, I didn't get a nice organized spreadsheet: We're talking a giant pile of invoices. So all numbers in this column come from my calculations, after five hours of note-taking and another two hours of basic math.

But the most disturbing things in the records don't require a calculator to understand.

Chief among them? Thomas' earmarks to Christian organizations that clearly intend to use the funds for proselytizing on Jesus' behalf.

In addition to the Missionettes, the earmarks include:

• $15,000 for a Mesa church called the Eagles Wing Faith Center, in part to "develop a new program to expand their outreach by implementing a family resource center."

• $7,500 for the Phoenix Metro Master's Commission, an organization that sponsors a nine-month "discipleship-training program dedicated to making Disciples of Christ," according to its Web site.

• $5,000 for a "Christ-centered 12-step recovery ministry" at Covenant of Grace Church in Phoenix.

• $20,000 for Teen Challenge of Arizona, an organization affiliated with prominent evangelical minister David Wilkerson.

• $23,000 for the Roman Catholic Diocese's mentoring program for kids with parents in jail.

• $5,000 for the AsSalt arena tour — actor Stephen Baldwin's attempt to reach skater kids and bikers with the Gospel.

As best I could tell, there were no grants to religious groups other than Christian ones. And grants to secular groups seemed few and far between.

Eugene Volokh is a professor at the UCLA School of Law who writes about school choice and First Amendment issues. He says that Thomas' office is "absolutely in trouble" if it prefers one type of faith-based group over another, or if they prefer faith-based groups to secular ones.

And, more importantly, Volokh says that public funds are not allowed to be used for a religious purpose. Period.

Richard Katskee, assistant legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, agrees. He says the county's "donations," as I've described them, are illegal.

"The government is not allowed to use public money to fund religious programming," he says.

The Missionettes are, by definition, religious programming. So is Stephen Baldwin's preaching from the stage in an arena. You could certainly make a better argument for using RICO funds for a "Christ-centered 12-step recovery ministry," like Covenant of Grace offers, but both Katskee and Volokh say that even those expenditures aren't legal.

"Any time you're giving public money to a religious group, there have to be restrictions that bar the use of these funds for religious practice," Volokh says.

So Catholic Charities can get government money to run soup kitchens, as long as they welcome people of all faiths, Katskee says, and don't require them to listen to a sermon in order to get soup. A Christian school can use government funds to pay for an overhead projector for math class, but not one for the religion teacher, Volokh explains.

That sort of separation, clearly, is not happening here. (See: The Missionettes, Stephen Baldwin, et cetera, et cetera.)

This isn't about contributing to proven social service programs. It's about shoring up Thomas' popularity with his political base. The churches benefiting from his largesse house the very people he needs to come out for him in what's sure to be a tight re-election campaign this November. It's Tammany Hall, only tailored to social conservatives instead of uneducated immigrants.

And the donations to Christian churches aren't the only RICO funds Thomas is using to win votes. He's also used RICO bucks in an endless campaign to increase his name recognition.

See those billboards along the road, telling you that Maricopa County Andrew Thomas is going after drunk drivers? RICO bucks paid for those.

See those silly public service spots on TV, in which Maricopa County Andrew Thomas tells you that it's okay to snoop around in your kid's closet? RICO paid for those, too.

Records show that Arizona agencies raked in around $24 million in racketeering seizures last year alone. Thomas' office, as the prosecuting agency in the biggest county in the state, got $12 million of it. While much of that gets distributed to local law enforcement, Thomas' office spent $1.6 million of it. (And, as much as Thomas is spending, Maricopa County is still sitting on a stash of about $12.3 million, according to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission.)

Some agencies use the money to buy computers, or phone taps, to use in racketeering investigations. Others use it for anti-drug Web sites or commercials. It's up to each agency to spend the money as it sees fit, as long as they follow the Justice Department's broad guidelines.

Thomas' biggest expense has been the aforementioned ad campaigns, which are perfectly legal. But he handles them much differently than his predecessor, Rick Romley, did.

Romley ran his anti-drug ads in cooperation with the Partnership for Drug-Free America — a deal that made sense. The Partnership, which relies on pro bono work from the advertising industry, produces high-quality anti-drug messages — and uses research and statistical analysis to determine which ads are most effective. By using RICO money to buy ad time, Romley's staff ensured that the agency's campaigns were seen on TV screens during peak hours of viewing, not just late-night slots.

But when Thomas took office in 2005, his office's partnership with the Partnership ended.

Rather than buying airtime for the Partnership's ads, records show that Thomas hired Peterson Advertising to produce new spots. That company, which is based in Georgia, specializes in conservative causes. (Literally, its Web site boasts that "Conservative Causes: Our #1 Specialty!")

The agency had previously produced the commercials for Thomas' campaigns for both attorney general and for county attorney, according to his campaign finance reports.

So. Instead of using ads from the Partnership for Drug Free America, ads that would have cost him nothing but airtime, Thomas spent $128,000 in RICO funds to create new ads.


Partnership ads wouldn't promote Thomas.

In fact, the Partnership bars politicians from appearing in its spots. They're interested in ending drug use, not propping up political careers.

Peterson's RICO-funded ads feature Thomas' face, and his name — ad infinitum.

Leslie Bloom, executive director of the Partnership's Arizona chapter, says that her staff met with Thomas', but Thomas decided to take a different path. "Obviously, I think it's a case where they have their own goals and ideas of what they want to accomplish," she says.

And what is that goal?

Bloom will characterize it, politely, only as a question of "ownership" — as in, "Some people want ownership, and that appears to be the case here."

It's ownership, all right. Thomas' name and face are everywhere.

Earlier this year, after Thomas' office spent more than $215,000 on a silly 45-page crime-prevention booklet, State Representative Jim Waring, R-Phoenix, introduced legislation that would have barred public officials from putting their names on fliers and commercials paid for with public money. It was a good idea; not coincidentally, it never gained much traction.

It's time we talk about that idea again. And it's also time that someone took a hard look at the $168,000 that Thomas has gifted to churches around town.

RICO funds are public dollars, not a personal slush fund. And, frankly, if the children of Maricopa County have to look at Thomas' face one more time while they're watching MTV, I have a feeling it's going to drive them all to drink.

Personally, I'm already there.

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