Feathered Bastard


County Attorney Thomas, admitting major mistakes and backing off the criminal prosecution of New Times.

In a stunning capitulation to an overwhelming public backlash, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas announced in a press conference this afternoon charges against New Times founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin are being dismissed and that Dennis Wilenchik will no longer work for the CA's office as a special prosecutor. Thomas admitted that the grand jury subpoena in the case, as discussed in this week's cover story by Lacey and Larkin Grand Jury Targets New Times and Its Readers, was too broad.

"We are not going to proceed with this investigation," stated Thomas. "The charges are going to be dismissed. And the matter is going to end."

Thomas ate crow before a crowd of fired-up journalists, claiming the subpoena in the case offended him as an American and a writer. (Apparently, Thomas has written a couple of right-wing tomes in the past.)

"There is a right way and a wrong way to bring a prosecution," said Thomas, whose office has been the subject of withering public criticism in the wake of the arrests of Larkin and Lacey late last night. "And what happened here was the wrong way. I do not condone it. I do not defend it. And so it ends today."

Incredibly, Thomas defended his choice of Wilenchik, his former boss, as special prosecutor in a case against New Times, even though Thomas admitted that he did not feel comfortable investigating New Times' alleged violation of an obscure law that makes it a crime to publish a law enforcement official's address (in this case Arpaio's address) over the Internet. So he kicked the investigation over to Pinal County. When they chose not to pursue it, Thomas persisted, with his very well-paid ally Wilenchik as special prosecutor.

Thomas disavowed all responsibility for the arrests of Lacey and Larkin, and said that the matter had been "badly mishandled." However, Thomas himself said he would not resign over the matter, and apparently, Wilenchik will continue to serve his former employee, though not as a prosecutor. Thomas called the New Times reckless in publishing Arpaio's address three years ago during an investigation of cash purchases by Arpaio of parcels of land worth $1 million. And despite this egregious violation of the First Amendment by the County Attorney's office, Thomas offered no apology to New Times' founders, and instead demanded an apology from the New Times for publishing Arpaio's address.

Asked if Thomas would go after the many Web sites that have published Arpaio's address online, he made a major legal flub.

"There's a big difference between that and putting his name and address on the front cover," as the New Times did late in 2006. This reporter had to point out to Thomas that the law in question did not apply to print publication of such addresses, only Internet publication of same.

Thomas mumbled a response, to which I shot back: "So the law doesn't matter to you?"

"That's not what I said," he frowned.

The extent of Thomas' retreat became apparent when MCAO flack Barnett Lotstein later admitted that attorney Wilenchik will no longer serve the MCAO in criminal matters, though he will continue to represent the County in civil matters when someone like Arpaio requests him.

Obviously, Wilenchik this week crossed the line into political liability territory, and Thomas threw him under the bus. Interestingly, New Times reporter Ray Stern's disorderly conduct citation for looking at public documents has not been dismissed. Stern was viewing MCSO press releases at the PHX law offices of Michelle Iafrate, press releases the MCSO refuses to e-mail to New Times. Stern took some digital snaps of these public docs. They asked him to leave. There were words between he and Iafrate, and he left. Then they hit him with a citation later in the evening as part of this mess.

More as the situation demands it. Video of the press conference to come...

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons