Below the Belt

Page 4 of 7

In 2003, the lawyer had the foresight to hire Andy Thomas to work at his firm of about a dozen lawyers. Thomas then was gearing up a run for Maricopa county attorney, an office about to be vacated by Rick Romley after 16 years.

While Wilenchik later insisted that Thomas carried a full-time caseload during his months at Wilenchik & Bartness, the ultra-conservative Republican spent much of his time there campaigning for office, which he won in November 2004.

Soon after Thomas was sworn in, the County Attorney's Office began to funnel scads of business to his former employer's firm.

Wilenchik became a virtual mouthpiece for Thomas on such varied hot-button topics as illegal immigration and the death penalty.

The attorney's aggressiveness didn't escape the notice of Sheriff Arpaio's top associates, most importantly Chief Deputy Hendershott. In February 2006, Hendershott requested that Thomas appoint Wilenchik to defend the sheriff's office in all future civil cases.

"I haven't written a letter complimenting a lawyer before," the chief wrote to a deputy county attorney, "but I thought it's important to let you know how pleased the sheriff and I have been with Dennis Wilenchik's representation of our office."

As of July, Wilenchik's firm had collected about $1.3 million from county taxpayers for working on behalf of the County Attorney's and sheriff's offices.

The firm almost certainly will add hundreds of thousands of dollars to its coffers after it gets paid for work on Saban vs. Arpaio. Its bills for three weeks of trial work and months of preparation had not been submitted to the county by press time for this story.

At trial, Wilenchik's legal team consisted of four full-time attorneys, including Wilenchik, and two aides. One of the attorneys was former Superior Court Judge William French, who sat totem pole-like behind the defense table for the entire trial, doodling on a yellow notepad.

Wilenchik also has expanded his niche as a go-to private attorney for law enforcement agencies around the state.

The La Paz County Attorney's Office has appointed him special prosecutor in a high-profile drunken-driving case against a state legislator from nearby Lake Havasu City. Wilenchik's contract in that case calls for him to be paid no more than $255 an hour.

More recently, on July 11, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors quietly approved the appointment of Wilenchik, French, and the other two trial attorneys in the Saban case (Adam Polson and Michael Robert Somers) as special deputy county attorneys in a potential criminal case against New Times.

In other words, the county appointed Team Wilenchik to prosecute the company that owns New Times. Lawyers for New Times believe that the statute on which the possible case is based is unconstitutional and that the threatened prosecution represents an abuse of power.

The alleged crime: this newspaper's "revealing" Joe Arpaio's home address on its Web site in a July 8, 2004, column by then-staff writer John Dougherty. The law that New Times allegedly violated makes it illegal to publish home addresses of law enforcement officers on the Internet but makes no such provision for publication in print or on television.

Arpaio's home address already had been published on numerous Web sites before the Dougherty column ever appeared — including on the sites of the Arizona Corporation Commission and the County Recorder's Office. Dougherty illustrated the paradox of Arpaio's using the law to keep private the addresses of his commercial property in public documents while providing his home address to entities that published it on Web sites.

The quirky case originated almost three years ago in Andy Thomas' office. But Thomas later claimed a conflict of interest.

A source tells New Times that Thomas cited his being the subject of continuing criticism by New Times as a reason why his office should not prosecute any such case against this publication. It is unknown why there is no longer a conflict of interest in pursuing the case through Thomas' friend and legal colleague Wilenchik.

Though the minutes of the supervisors' special session on July 11 do not mention New Times by name, it becomes readily apparent that the topic on the table was the Arpaio home-address case.

First, Chris Keller, chief counsel at the County Attorney's Office, expressed his appreciation to the four county supervisors for meeting on such short notice (actually, the meeting took place over the telephone, and Mary Rose Wilcox was the only supervisor who wasn't on the line).

Keller then said the County Attorney's Office would be unable to advise the sheriff on an unspecified criminal matter because of a conflict. He explained that, normally, his office would have asked a neighboring jurisdiction to handle the case, but "those entities have expressed concerns specifically with staffing issues."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin