Bully Pulpit

Evidence is mounting that Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas are working together to undermine Arpaio's chief political rival while enriching Thomas' former law firm.

And Thomas and Arpaio are using taxpayer funds to accomplish their skullduggery.

The primary financial beneficiary is Phoenix law firm Wilenchik & Bartness, which has been paid more than $326,000 for legal work on behalf of the county in the past year.

As I reported two weeks ago ("Doubting Thomas," June 15), Thomas briefly worked for the firm headed by Dennis Wilenchik during the crucial nine months leading up to his election in November 2004.

Both Thomas and Wilenchik continue to refuse to publicly disclose what work Thomas did for the firm during this period and how much he was paid.

But what we do know is that Wilenchik has assisted Thomas in raising money for his campaign. Campaign finance reports state that Wilenchik contributed $350 in April 2004 to Thomas' campaign at the same time Thomas was one of his employees.

More recently, Wilenchik has been actively involved in raising money for Thomas' 2008 reelection campaign. Wilenchik is listed as a member of the "host committee" for an April 22 fund raiser that asked guests for a minimum $200 contribution. Arpaio is also listed as one of the members of the host committee.

Wilenchik and Thomas' refusal to disclose the financial details of Thomas' brief tenure at Wilenchik & Bartness, combined with Wilenchik's direct financial support for Thomas' campaigns, raises a huge red flag.

Their stonewalling is further bolstering my already strong suspicion that Thomas was receiving a fat salary in exchange for little work during the months leading up to his election, which, if true, would constitute an unlawful campaign contribution.

Wilenchik's legal work for the county, which began five months after Thomas took office in January 2005, and his and the county attorney's refusal to disclose details of Thomas' employment, makes me wonder what they are hiding.

The most important case that Thomas has awarded to Wilenchik is defending the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in a lawsuit filed by the most potent political rival to Arpaio in years, Buckeye Police Chief Dan Saban, formerly a Mesa Police Department commander.

Wilenchik's work on this case has opened the door to more lucrative opportunities of representing the MCSO in most, if not all, of the current civil issues it faces under Arpaio. The 74-year-old sheriff has generated an avalanche of lawsuits resulting from his officers' abuse of inmates and detainees during his 14 years as the county's top law enforcement officer, and a rich vein of new lawsuits is virtually guaranteed.

Saban's suit alleges that Arpaio and chief deputy David Hendershott abused their police powers and improperly influenced the outcome of an election by launching a groundless criminal investigation in April 2004 into Saban's alleged past and then leaking dubious allegations of sexual misconduct to the media.

The MCSO criminal investigation began after Saban's foster mother, Ruby Norman, alleged that Saban had sexually assaulted her 32 years earlier while he was a teenager. The woman had never before contacted police about the would-be assault, and the timing of her complaint during the middle of Saban's political campaign should have raised suspicions about her motivation.

At the very least, the MCSO should have immediately referred the case to another police agency since it involved one of Arpaio's political rivals.

Instead, Hendershott conducted at 15-minute phone interview and then sent detectives to conduct a second round of questioning. MCSO detectives immediately prepared a report — which normally takes weeks — and a copy was given to a friendly reporter at a Phoenix television station who had earlier paid $100 to attend an Arpaio fund-raising dinner.

The station, KNXV-TV Channel 15, rushed to broadcast the story with the sensational news hook that Saban was under criminal investigation for sexual assault.

With its objective of smearing Saban accomplished, the MCSO then referred the case to Pima County for further investigation. Pima County investigators dropped the matter because the statute of limitations had expired decades earlier and, most important, because there was insufficient evidence to support the claim. Saban repeatedly denied the allegations.

Hendershott and Arpaio's gambit inflicted serious damage to Saban's grassroots campaign that was struggling to gain traction against Arpaio's ruthless media machine that has turned the John Wayne wanna-be into an international celebrity.

Despite the negative publicity, Saban continued to gain momentum throughout the summer of 2004, especially after he received an endorsement from Senator John McCain.

Arpaio held on to defeat Saban by 10 percentage points in the September 2004 Republican primary. It was the closest election Arpaio has faced since he was first elected sheriff in 1992.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty