County Attorney Andrew Thomas fights to seal Wilenchik's State Bar secrets

Andrew Thomas is in trouble.

Facing a series of probes from the State Bar of Arizona, the county attorney has resorted to fighting back by crying "conspiracy." He's got experts opining that the Bar is on a witch hunt; he's managed to dupe the Arizona Republic into running editorials that echo their complaints.

And his campaign has worked. The Bar blinked, announcing last week that it plans to give the Thomas probe to a special investigator rather than let its in-house staff continue.

Old news, right? But here's what you don't know.

Two of Thomas' big-name experts, the guys opining that the Bar complaints are meritless, are hardly objective or independent.

Thomas hired one guy's kid for a plum job in his executive suite. The other guy, former Bar president Ernest Calderon, is even more ethically compromised: Thomas' office is one of his biggest clients.

You read it here first.

So of course Ernest Calderon thinks Thomas is getting screwed. He has to say that to keep sucking on the public teat!

But here's the kicker.

You'd never know it to read the Republic, but it turns out this fight isn't about process so much as it's about a secret file. Thomas appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, begging them to take over the investigation, in part because there's something he doesn't want you to see — something the Bar thought should be public, but that Thomas is desperate to keep hidden.

Get this: The secret file is tied to Dennis Wilenchik.

Remember him?

Thomas' former boss? Sheriff Joe Arpaio's favorite lawyer? The guy Thomas appointed "special prosecutor" in the New Times case, despite those glaring conflicts of interest, and then fired a few months later?

According to the special action Thomas filed with the Arizona Supreme Court, Dennis Wilenchik answered questions posed by the Bar's investigator. His responses totaled a staggering 63 pages; he also turned over "materials" related to his work for Thomas' office.

And Thomas is freaked about that.

Thomas' attorney, Leo Beus, acknowledges that the stuff Wilenchik turned over is a major issue. But he claims it's a matter of principle, that Thomas has to fight to keep all materials about his decision-making process hidden because, once secrecy is breached, any of the office's decisions could be subject to outside review. The stuff from Wilenchik, he claims, is nothing of interest.

"You'd be so disappointed if you read this stuff," he told me. "You wouldn't even get three lines out of it."

Beus wouldn't talk about the specifics, but here's what I could piece together based on Thomas' special action, the Bar's response, and other affidavits and documents in the public record.

Prior to filing his Hail Mary with the Supreme Court, Thomas went through a series of maneuvers to stop Wilenchik from sharing information with the Bar. First, he claimed Wilenchik was bound by attorney-client privilege — a ludicrous argument, considering that (at least in the New Times case) Wilenchik was supposedly hired because Thomas had a conflict of interest. Since when would the county attorney be a special prosecutor's client? That's like the Justice Department claiming Ken Starr had to keep its secrets.

Wilenchik must have realized just how silly this argument was, because in late January, he answered the questions — and apparently turned over some materials, too.

At that point, Thomas asked for a protective order to seal not just the materials and Wilenchik's responses, but the entire file, from public view.

When the Bar's probable-cause panelist denied that request as overly broad, Thomas went to the Arizona Supreme Court — begging the court not only to halt the Bar's investigation, but to return the "materials" provided by Wilenchik ASAP.

Again, you read it here first.

Just what, exactly, is Thomas so afraid of?

Frankly, I don't buy this "principle" business. Any time a politician is this intent on hiding documents, you know they've got to be juicy.

When Thomas' lawyers went on the offensive against the State Bar last month, they had three local experts carrying their water. Former Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court Thomas Zlaket, former Arizona Attorney General Jack LaSota, and former State Bar President Ernest Calderon all filed affidavits with the Supreme Court, claiming they'd reviewed the complaints against Thomas and found no merit.

It's a prestigious list — until you dig a little deeper. Then you realize that two of the local experts have strong reasons for being biased in favor of Thomas. And that all three, at the time they wrote their affidavits, had incomplete information, at best.

Here's the details. When Thomas became county attorney in 2005, he promptly hired LaSota's son, Tim, as a special assistant. Both Jack and Tim have been longtime Thomas supporters; collectively, Father and Son LaSota and their wives have donated more than $2,000 to Thomas' campaign.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske