Maricopa County Craziness

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas' Staff Advised "Special Prosecutor" Wilenchik on New Times Case

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas has been pushing the Board of Supervisors to appoint a private attorney as independent special prosecutor on matters involving county officials -- offering "ironclad" representations that the independent prosecutor will be "absolutely independent."

But newly released documents obtained by New Times show that the last time Thomas hired a private attorney for such a function, the prosecutor's independence was far from absolute.

The independent prosecutor in that case, Dennis Wilenchik, is a private attorney who was appointed by Thomas to be a "special deputy county attorney" in July 2007 -- the same set-up that Thomas hopes to use to hire Jim Rizer to investigate county officials after Thomas was barred from their cases. (You can read a whole lot of background on Wilenchik's appointment, and the ensuing disaster, here.)

And though Thomas has long claimed that Wilenchik was completely independent -- and that Thomas' staff had no role in the decision to arrest New Times' executive editor and CEO -- the new documents contradict those assertions.

The documents, released by the State Bar of Arizona yesterday in response to our public records request, show that high-ranking members of Thomas staff assisted Wilenchik with the New Times investigation, despite Thomas' recusal.

Among the revelations:

* Deputy county attorneys working for Thomas trained Wilenchik and other lawyers at his firm on grand jury matters.
* Attorneys working for Thomas' Special Crimes Bureau provided Wilenchik's staff with the forms used to issue grand jury subpoenas.
* Most shockingly, Vicky Kratovil, who heads the Special Crimes Bureau, actually consulted with Wilenchik's staff members on the day that New Times published details of the grand jury subpoena issued by Wilenchik's office. According to an affidavit submitted by Adam Polson, an attorney working for Wilenchik, Kratovil joined Wilenchik's staffers in discussing "hypothetical charges against the authors of the article."

Suffice it to say, Kratovil's discussion with the special prosecutors -- on the very day that New Times' executive editor and CEO were arrested -- contradicts Thomas' public statements that his office had nothing to do with the arrests.

Equally interestingly, it appears that Chief Deputy David Hendershott was also in contact with Thomas' staff on the day of the arrests, despite the special prosecutor's supposedly running the case.

Hendershott, who has claimed full responsibility for the decision to arrest Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin on charges of violating grand jury secrecy, said in a sworn affidavit provided to the State Bar that he "did not consult with Dennis Wilenchik to obtain permission or direction to order the arrests."

But, according to written statements Wilenchik made to the Bar, Hendershott appears to have been in contact with Sally Wells, who is Thomas' chief assistant and basically third in command at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. (Wells just retired from Thomas' office; you can read more about her here.)

After his staff consulted with Kravotil, of the Special Crimes Bureau, Wilenchik apparently got
a call from Hendershott.

At that point, Wilenchik wrote, Hendershott had already spoken with Wells. "[Hendershott] called to say he had talked with Sally Wells and she had told him to contact us regarding the arrest," Wilenchik wrote in his statement to the Bar. ("Contact us regarding the arrest" is an interesting phrase, to be sure, since at that point, there'd supposedly been no decision to arrest anyone.)

After that phone call, Hendershott sent a deputy to Wilenchik's law firm, and Wilenchik introduced the deputy to his staff before leaving the meeting. One of the lawyers working for
Wilenchik, Rob Somers, later recalled the day's events in an affidavit.

"It was my understanding from Mr. Wilenchik's introduction that the Maricopa County Attorney's Office had advised Chief Hendershott that our office should be involved in any matters relating to the New Times violations of law," Somers wrote.

At the meeting, Somers and the other lawyers instructed the sheriff's deputies to issue citations. It was only the next morning that they learned Hendershott had reversed course and ordered arrests instead. (In fact, they attest, they wrongly believed Wilenchik had ordered the arrests for days.)

Thomas fought for months to seal Wilenchik's answers to the Bar -- and the affidavits from Polson and Somers, too. (He claimed attorney/client privilege was at stake.) We've got the full story on the fight here, although at the time we didn't know just what he was fighting about.

Ultimately, as evidenced by this blog post, Thomas was only partially successful. The materials submitted by Wilenchik and his staff were not used in the Bar's investigation of Thomas, which allowed him to maintain that his staff was not involved with Wilenchik's investigation after Wilenchik's appointment.

But the Bar ultimately decided not to seal the materials. They're in Wilenchik's file for all to see.

We'd suggest that the Board of Supervisors take a look. Thomas, after all, is vowing that if the supervisors appoint his handpicked special prosecutor, that prosecutor will be absolutely independent.

We imagine the supervisors might want to know more about what that means: Will the head of the Special Crimes Bureau be consulting on the case? Will David Hendershott be telephoning Sally Wells? Will Thomas manage to cover up his staff's involvement for more than two freakin' years?

What kind of "ironclad" representations can Thomas' staff make on that?

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske