By Sarah Fenske
The top aide to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Chief Deputy David Hendershott says he ordered the late-night arrests of New Times executives Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin last October.
Hendershott (pictured) apparently made the startling admission in an affidavit at the behest of Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas. Thomas, who is locked in an increasingly tight race to keep his seat, has long insisted that he didn't learn about Lacey and Larkin's arrests until after the fact -- and produced the affidavit in hopes of knocking down an independently funded radio spot that claims he was responsible.
The claim caught political insiders off guard because it directly contradicts previous statements from the sheriff's office. The sheriff's spokesman, Paul Chagolla, is on the record saying that Thomas himself authorized the arrests. And Dennis Wilenchik, the special prosecutor whom Thomas hired to handle the case, initially blamed his underlings, William French and Rob Somers. French, meanwhile, told the Arizona Republic last year that the decision was Wilenchik's.
"They're not sure yet which lie would serve them best," says Michael Manning, the attorney handling New Times suit against Arpaio and Wilenchik. "They are just incapable of telling the truth."
And even if Hendershott's "October surprise" gets Thomas off the hook during the final week of his campaign, it could cause big problems for the Sheriff's Office as it fights New Times' lawsuit, Manning notes. "This would be an admission of some of the conspiratorial conduct that's been alleged," he says.
Think about it. As my colleague Paul Rubin reported earlier this year, Sheriff Joe "badgered" Andrew Thomas to investigate New Times for publishing his home address online. After initially resisting, Thomas appointed a special prosecutor. But it wasn't just any prosecutor -- it was Thomas' former boss, Dennis Wilenchik -- a guy who just happened to be Sheriff Joe's favorite lawyer and had represented the Sheriff's Office in numerous civil suits.
That's a serious conflict of interest for a prosecutor who needs to look at the facts in an unbiased way. And it hardly helped that Wilenchik had already been the subject of some negative New Times reporting.
So Thomas appointed a clearly biased special prosecutor, and that prosecutor was so tightly in cahoots with the alleged "victim," the sheriff's office, that the sheriff's top deputy got to call the shots and order arrests for an alleged misdemeanor? There are so many conflicts here, it's hard not to get dizzy just thinking about it.
Here's what New Times Executive Editor Michael Lacey has to say about Hendershott's admission:
It is outrageous that on the eve of the election, the press is finally learning the identity of the mystery man behind the arrest of me and Jim Larkin. Of course it was the sheriff.
Dennis Wilenchik, the prosecutor behind the illegal, and non-existent, grand jury had already asked the judge to jail the two of us for an article we wrote exposing his conduct on behalf of Andrew Thomas and Joe Arpaio.
But Jim and I were arrested before the judge could rule.
Thomas, Arpaio and Wilenchik all denied responsibility or knowledge of who ordered our jailing when it became clear that the judge had not.
Chief Deputy David Hendershott, Arpaio's right hand man, ordered our arrest.
Deputy Hendershott did not need a judge; hell, he did not need a grand jury. He was all that and the executioner.
Thomas, Arpaio, Wilenchik and Hendershott are the head weasels of the goon squad.
Thomas has been trumpeting the chief deputy's admission in an attempt to get radio stations to pull ads run by an independent group opposing him. But it's a pretty pathetic stunt -- Chagolla's claim to KTAR last fall that Thomas ordered the arrests is certainly damning.
Thomas' opponent, Tim Nelson, used the Hendershott admission as an opportunity to demand that Thomas release all records relating to the New Times investigation.
"Mr. Thomas has stood with the Sheriff’s Office at every juncture when it was convenient for him to do so. But now suddenly, he tries to distance himself," Nelson said in a press release today. "I find the timing of Mr. Hendershott’s affidavit to be suspect. Where was he a year ago when the arrests were made and citizens demanded to know who was responsible? Now that it is one week before the election, all of a sudden Hendershott steps up to deflect the blame away from the County Attorney’s Office. It seems implausible."
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Nelson slammed Thomas for hiring Wilenchik as special prosecutor -- and continuing to use him even after the dramatic "firing" last fall.
“It is not enough from Thomas’ campaign to release one piece of the puzzle a week before the election. It is time for them to issue a full accounting of the entire New Times debacle and Thomas’ involvement in it,” Nelson said. “Arresting journalists in the middle of the night is not the American way and Mr. Thomas’ actions have been less than honorable. The fact that he continues to keep Dennis Wilenchik on County legal contracts to this day is further proof that, at a minimum, he has not taken appropriate action."
Frankly, it's possible that Hendershott's last-minute, pre-election admission could seriously backfire for Thomas. Nelson's campaign has long been of the belief that Thomas' bungling of the New Times case is a major liability for the county attorney -- the fact that everybody is talking about it again can't be good news for Thomas.
Nelson's spokesman, Josh Kilroy, had a great quote to that effect in this morning's Arizona Republic: "If the Thomas campaign wants to spend the final few days of this election reviewing the New Times fiasco, we're more than willing to do it." Us, too.