Doubting Thomas

Published online June 13, 2006, 5:21 p.m. MST

Maricopa County paid more than $326,000 over the past year to a private law firm that employed Andrew Thomas immediately before his election as county attorney.

The county payments to Wilenchik & Bartness began in May 2005, four months after Thomas took office in January 2005, county records reveal.

Thomas worked for the small, 10-lawyer firm for nine months prior to the 2004 election. He resigned as an assistant county attorney in February 2004, before taking the job with Wilenchik & Bartness in March 2004.

The lucrative payments to the firm in the past year raise serious ethical questions about whether Thomas is using his power to steer public contracts to his previous employer.

Wilenchik & Bartness has landed several high-profile county cases that are generating fat legal fees. According to one of the firm's Web sites, "Wilenchik & Bartness is a small, highly specialized real estate and commercial law firm," but it's handling a wide variety of cases for the county.

For instance, Thomas has hired his former law firm to handle a class-action suit filed by inmates over their treatment in Maricopa County jail units and to handle a high-profile case against the county Superior Court aimed at stopping special services for Native Americans and Hispanic DUI defendants.

In the latter suit, Thomas principally wants the courts to stop administering rehabilitation services in Spanish to defendants who don't speak English.

While the huge payments to Wilenchik & Bartness raise serious questions, I'm also wondering what type of services Thomas actually performed for the firm at the same time he was hugely engaged in a heated election campaign for county attorney.

"I would love to see what work he did for that firm," agrees Tom McCauley, one of five Republicans who ran against Thomas in the 2004 Republican primary.

Why is this interesting? Because if Thomas was paid by the law firm at a rate non-commensurate with the services he provided -- and was at the same time campaigning full time for county attorney -- that could constitute an unlawful campaign contribution.

To dismiss any notion of impropriety, Thomas should release all records that show his billable hours and the services he provided to the firm in the months before winning the Republican primary in September 2004, and the general election in November 2004.

Thomas' spokesman Barnett Lotstein says his boss won't release records related to his employment with Wilenchik & Bartness.

But unless he releases these records, I, among others, will continue to suspect that Thomas could now be repaying the firm by steering county contracts its way.

"For him to get hired by that law firm just for the period of time to run for office, that's suspicious," says McCauley. "You just wonder if this is a payback."

The notion is bolstered by the fact that the biography appearing on the Web site for the County Attorney's Office fails to mention that Thomas worked for Wilenchik & Bartness in the months leading up to the election.

Furthermore, the County Attorney's Office didn't fully disclose the magnitude of the county's payments to Wilenchik & Bartness in response to several written public records requests I submitted under the Arizona Public Records Law.

Thomas' office released records in April stating that the county has paid Wilenchik & Bartness about $85,000 for outside legal services since May 2005.

But records I obtained earlier this month from the county finance department reveal that the payments to Wilenchik & Bartness for legal services were much higher -- $326,625.51 (to be exact) between May 2005 and May 2006.

In a June 12 interview, Lotstein said the payments were even lower than the $85,000 the office had originally released. He insisted that Wilenchik & Bartness had gotten "$82,622."

When I told Lotstein that county finance records show the payments to Wilenchik & Bartness were four times greater, he responded: "Your numbers are probably wrong."

Lotstein said a number of other law firms in town have gotten bigger and more lucrative contracts to provide legal services for the County Attorney's Office.

"You have a bogus story," Lotstein claimed.

I doubt it, Barnett, since Samantha Wright-Sprague, administrative manager in the county Department of Risk Management, confirmed on June 12 what I already knew: Wilenchik & Bartness had received $326,625.51 for legal services from May 2005 through early May 2006.

Wright-Sprague noted that while Risk Management issues the checks for legal services, her department has nothing to do with selecting outside law firms to represent the county.

"Ultimately, the county attorney is the one that contracts for all outside counsel," she says.

Lotstein claims that Wilenchik & Bartness, a firm headed by prominent Republican activist Dennis Wilenchik, was awarded contracts by the county attorney because it has a stellar reputation.

"Andy Thomas has confidence in Dennis Wilenchik," Lotstein says. "He knows him very well."

Dennis Wilenchik declined my June 12 request for an interview to discuss what type of work Andy Thomas did for his firm during the 2004 election campaign and why his firm has suddenly become one of the top vendors for county legal services.

Wilenchik & Bartness received an average of $25,125 a month in payments from the county for legal services over the past year. The firm has received 7.4 percent of all the county's payments to outside legal counsel for this period.

That's an astounding increase from the year before Thomas was elected, when Wilenchik & Bartness received zero dollars from the county.

Lotstein claims that the ultra-conservative Thomas doesn't weigh political connections when choosing outside law firms.

"They are not chosen as a result of politics at all," Lotstein maintains.

Lotstein insists that Thomas is awarding contracts to his former law firm because county clients, including Sheriff Joe Arpaio, have demanded that Wilenchik & Bartness represent them in court.

"The sheriff has asked that every case involving his office be referred to Wilenchik & Bartness," Lotstein says.

Among such cases is a lawsuit filed against the sheriff's office by Buckeye Police Chief Dan Saban. Arpaio defeated Saban, a former Mesa police commander, in the 2004 Republican primary for sheriff following a contentious campaign.

Saban alleges in the suit that the sheriff's office improperly initiated a criminal investigation against him and then leaked it to the press in spring 2004 to derail his campaign.

Under pressure, the MCSO eventually referred the matter to the Pima County Sheriff's Office because of the obvious conflict of interest. Pima County quickly declined to pursue the matter because of a lack of evidence and the fact that the allegations were about an event that supposedly took place more than 30 years ago.

But the damage to Saban's campaign had already been done.

Saban filed the suit in April 2005. The County Attorney's Office initially was representing the MCSO. But Thomas withdrew from the case in August 2005 and hired his old boss, Dennis Wilenchik, to represent Arpaio's department in the matter.

Since that date, there has been extensive litigation in the case, and Wilenchik has easily billed the county tens of thousands of dollars. Exactly how much, I couldn't find out -- because the records the County Attorney's Office released to me in April didn't include payments to Wilenchik for the Saban case.

The records I obtained from the county finance department also didn't provide a breakdown of such payments to Wilenchik's firm case by case, although it appears that fees for the Saban litigation are included in the $326,000 paid to the firm in the past year.

Lotstein had no explanation for why the Saban case wasn't included in the records his office released.

Dennis Wilenchik is also representing the MCSO in a public records lawsuit filed by the West Valley View, a weekly newspaper based in Litchfield Park. His handling of this case has made me wonder if he has any expertise in public records law.

The View filed a "special action" suit in county Superior Court against the sheriff's office after the MCSO refused to provide the paper routine press releases that the MCSO's media relations department routinely distributes to other media outlets.

A special action allows a matter to appear before a judge far more quickly than filing a routine suit that can take years to litigate. Public records law clearly gives media outlets the right to file such special actions to obtain public records.

Wilenchik, however, argued that the paper has no such right.

"It just makes you stand back and scratch your head," Dan Barr, a highly respected public-records-law attorney representing the View, says of Wilenchik's argument (on which the court hasn't ruled).

Andy Thomas once proudly proclaimed that politics carries no weight in the County Attorney's Office: "It's a law enforcement office and, ideally, partisanship should have no place there."

On that I agree with him 100 percent. But this doesn't seem to be the way he's operating his office.

Because it smacks of the worst kind of partisan politics to refuse to fully disclose his business relationship with a firm that the county has paid more than $326,000 for outside legal services.

That relationship may not have resulted in the violation of any law, but it certainly raises ethical questions.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty