Head on a skewer: Joe Arpaio was so obsessed with getting a hard-charging New Times writer prosecuted that he badgered Andy Thomas into making a fool of himself

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Andy Thomas could have overridden his Incident Review Board and insisted on a prosecution. Instead, two weeks after the board met, Thomas asked then-Pinal County Attorney Carter Olson to assume the case because of an unspecified "conflict of interest."

Almost two years passed without Olson's office taking action.

Then, early last summer, Jim Walsh became the new Pinal County attorney after Carter Olson won a spot on that county's Superior Court bench. Walsh soon declared his own conflict of interest in the protracted Doughterty case.

Walsh had been chief deputy to Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and was serving as that office's special counsel for Southern Arizona before leaving for the Pinal County job. His conflict was that Joe Arpaio and Andy Thomas earlier had announced that they were "investigating" political foe Goddard for alleged corruption in a criminal case involving former State Treasurer David Petersen. That case, by the way, has gone nowhere.

Walsh punted the "Dougherty matter" back to Andy Thomas in June 2007 — which is when things became famously mucked up.

Last July, Thomas urged the county Board of Supervisors to appoint private Phoenix attorney Dennis Wilenchik and three of Wilenchik's colleagues as "special prosecutors." One colleague was William French, a distinguished former Superior Court judge.

Wilenchik was a pal and former employer of Thomas' and already was counsel of record in several high-dollar civil cases for Thomas, the Sheriff's Office and Joe Arpaio. That should have raised an immediate red flag about whether Wilenchik would be unbiased against Dougherty and New Times in his new role.

But it didn't. Or Thomas decided that he needed Wilenchik in command if he hoped to placate Arpaio with a prosecution, successful or not, against the relentless reporter.

Dougherty had left New Times in August 2006 to pursue other opportunities. Shortly before that, he had blasted Thomas and Wilenchik in columns about the propriety of their professional relationship.

A powerful sheriff's obsession with busting a reporter for a local newsweekly probably would have disappeared from the public's radar had not circumstances changed so dramatically in late 2007.

It was last October 18 when Joe Arpaio's loathing of John Dougherty morphed into the high-profile arrests of New Times' owners on misdemeanor charges of violating grand jury secrecy.

Regular readers of this publication know something about how that chapter ended:

County Attorney Thomas — beleaguered by negative reaction around the nation to the arrests — fired Team Wilenchik, dropped the misdemeanor charges against Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey and ended the investigations of Dougherty and New Times.

The county attorney came away looking foolish, at best; he laid the blame for the arrests and events that led up to them squarely on Dennis Wilenchik, saying he had no knowledge of what his special prosecutor was up to (the State Bar of Arizona is investigating both Thomas and Wilenchik in the matter).

What got New Times' founders locked up (Larkin briefly and Lacey for several hours) was the story they wrote about Wilenchik's overreaching grand jury subpoenas seeking information about New Times journalists and about the paper's readers (including their Internet-viewing habits). "Breathtaking Abuse of the Constitution" hit the streets on the morning before Selective Enforcement Unit deputies showed up at Larkin and Lacey's homes that night and hauled them to jail.

The October 18 article also revealed how Dennis Wilenchik brazenly had used the wife of a high-ranking county prosecutor to try to orchestrate a private (ex parte) meeting with the presiding Superior Court judge over grand jury matters who was then overseeing the case against Dougherty and New Times.

But what hasn't been revealed until now is how the whole thing got started, how Joe Arpaio and his aides pressured prosecutors from two agencies continually to go after Dougherty, long seen by MCSO brass as the sheriff's archenemy.

The extent to which the Sheriff's Office wanted Dougherty's head on a skewer was almost laughable at times.

Take, for example, the written "analysis" by MCSO Lieutenant Jones to Maricopa County investigators that publication of the address on the New Times site might cause harm to his boss from "terrorist countries" where Arpaio worked long ago as a federal drug agent.

How that what-if scenario proved a "serious and imminent" threat to Joe Arpaio and his family by John Dougherty remained unclear.

In September 1998, the owner of a local pawnshop started a Web site designed to expose Phoenix police officers for alleged "shoddy investigations and/or perjurious testimony."

The instantly controversial site included home addresses, phone numbers, and photos of officers, as well as internal affairs investigations, discipline records, and other documents.

After his earlier arrest on theft and other charges, shop owner Mark Brooks accused Phoenix police of buying thousands of dollars in items from his store at discount prices. In return, he claimed, the officers had run criminal background checks for him and let him attend parties that featured live sex acts.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin