Longform

Below the Belt

Page 6 of 7

Now living in Florida and out of the news business, Koebel was considered the coziest of all local reporters with the publicity-driven sheriff. In a broadcast media market hardly known for in-depth reporting, such an unofficial designation takes some doing.

Koebel lost his job a few months after his big scoop hit in late April 2004, when the embittered Saban camp informed Channel 15 that the reporter had donated money to Arpaio's re-election efforts that February. Of course, reporters are not supposed to show such bias toward the people they cover.

But putting aside Koebel's campaign contribution, his stories about "America's toughest sheriff" and his minions were more propaganda than journalism. Sheriff's officials had even considered hiring Koebel as a public-information officer after Channel 15 fired him, trial testimony revealed.

Koebel had been the obvious choice to Dave Hendershott for leaking the news about the budding Saban rape allegation. In hindsight, however, it is curious that that the chief did not keep an arm's length from the reporter and from Ruby Norman.

"Mr. Hendershott doesn't like to interfere with media relations at all because he hates reporters," Lisa Allen, Arpaio's director of communications, testified during the Saban trial.

Saban's lawyer, Robbins, asked Allen if it would surprise her to learn the chief had spoken to Koebel for a total of about 45 minutes on 10 different occasions during the week or so before Channel 15 aired the Saban rape story.

"There are times when reporters are embedded with stories [and] he might have to talk with them," Allen replied, not missing a beat.

Hendershott played his tape-recorded discussion with Ruby Norman over the phone for Koebel even before sheriff's investigators had interviewed the woman.

The chief told Koebel to file a public-records request so that the sheriff's office could immediately release an "incident report" on a case that hadn't even officially started.

In fact, nobody from Arpaio's office even had laid eyes on Ruby Norman by that time — didn't even know if she had a legitimate complaint or was a crank caller. Two detectives from the agency's Threat Assessment Unit (now the Selective Enforcement Unit) soon went out to interview Norman at her home in Apache Junction.

The detectives then returned to the sheriff's headquarters in downtown Phoenix to write their report, which was transcribed by a secretary on the spot. The four-page document listed Dan Saban as a "suspect" in the rape of his adoptive mother more than three decades earlier.

"We basically will take an initial report, and it doesn't matter who it is," Hendershott later told the Saban jury. "Whether it's Mr. Saban or the cow in the dell, we're gonna take an initial report."

Mike Worley, a retired police chief who operates Police Practices Consulting in Louisville, Kentucky, says Hendershott's actions were reasonable, at first.

"What you have here probably was okay in the initial part," Worley said. "You had someone making a claim that she was assaulted by someone who was fairly prominent. I can see where a lot of law enforcement agencies would do some follow-up."

But when told that Hendershott had played the tape of his interview with Ruby Norman for a TV reporter before investigators had interviewed the woman, Worley said, "Oh, boy. When you leak a report and contact friendly media to actually involve them in the ongoing investigation to this extent, it puts things in a whole different light. That was a significant breach of acceptable conduct, under any theory."

Koebel would testify at Saban's trial that Hendershott personally had handed him the expedited sheriff's report within hours of the chief's interview with Ruby Norman and urged the reporter not to reveal to anyone how he first heard about the rape allegation.

Under oath, Hendershott denied it all, claiming he didn't know how Koebel physically got the sheriff's report. No matter, the speed with which the sheriff's office turned over the Saban report probably set a record for dissemination of a public record by the agency.

The MCSO is infamous in local media circles for delaying the release of requests for information — especially from outlets critical of Arpaio and his policies.

In a strategy many journalists in attendance at the trial found laughable, Dennis Wilenchik told jurors that the sheriff's office is a beacon of upholding Arizona's public-records law. That is why, the attorney said, Rob Koebel had gotten the incident report so promptly.

Wilenchik did not mention that it took the sheriff's office 144 days to release the same report to New Times or that an investigator for Saban never did get the document after filing his own public-records request.

Another irony is that the sheriff's office's ongoing attempt to have New Times prosecuted criminally sprung from a reporter's request for Arpaio's real estate records, the release of which are mandated by the state public-records law. Those records are still being withheld by Arpaio's office.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin