Maricopa County Supervisors Spend $14,600 Sweeping for Bugs

It seems like the very definition of paranoia: Spending thousands of dollars sweeping for hidden electronic devices -- and finding none.

But that's what Maricopa County Supervisors are doing -- with your money.

The county has now spent $14,600 sweeping for bugs on the 10th floor of the county building at 301 West Jefferson Street, and no bugs have been discovered. We first heard about the bugs in a March 10 Arizona Republic article by Yvonne Wingett about the deteriorating relationships of county officials. Wingett casually mentions the bugs, then moves on to other subjects in her article:

And, last December, officials spent $10,000 to have offices in the 10th floor of the county administration building in downtown Phoenix swept for bugs; none was found.

Last week, New Times put in a public records request with the county for all records related to bugs and counter-measures taken against suspected bugs. The county released two invoices: One for $10,000 for the December sweep, and another $4,600 -- still unpaid -- for a sweep conducted on February 27th.

Richard de Uriarte, county spokesman, told New Times that was pretty much all we were going to get, since this deals with security. We pressed him on who's been ordering the sweeps for bugs: One of the County Supervisors, he says. He's apparently not authorized to release the name -- much less the e-mails, memos and other documents about bugs we were looking for.

(LATE ADDITION TO THIS POST: It should be noted that last week, the Chief Deputy of the sheriff's office confirmed that David Smith, Sandi Wilson, Ed Novak were under criminal investigation. The Wingett story also has the sheriff's office confirming that many more county officials are being investigated).

Presumably, it's well within the capabilities of a police agency like the Sheriff's Office to plant bugs, and deputies could do it legally with a wiretap order. Whether they would do it illegally -- you decide.

Clearly, it would help the county's case if a single bug was found. Until that happens, this publicly funded Spy Vs. Spy game comes off looking a bit cuckoo.

It's a little ironic that the people wasting taxpayer money to scan for nonexistent bugs believed to be planted by their conservative Republican enemies, except for Mary Rose Wilcox, conservative Republicans. But it's also typical:

The last time we remember hearing high-level allegations of bugging was in the late 1980s by then-Governor Evan Mecham, (below), who famously complained that his enemies were shining laser beams on his office's windows in a high-tech eavesdropping scheme. Here's a passage from a New York Times article about Mecham:

Ken Smith, Mr. Mecham's press secretary, said that there was continuing concern that the Governor's office was the target of some sort of electronic surveillance but that no evidence had been uncovered.

Nutbar Mecham just used his radio as a bug-block. The county is using Arizona Technical Security, a Scottsdale company.

Jeff Evert, the company's owner, told New Times that if the county had hired him to do anything, he wouldn't talk about it. He wouldn't budge even when told we were looking at the bill. At least someone in this world has ethics, right?

Among Evert's many qualifications, the company's Web site says, Evert has taken Counter-Eavesdropping 101, 102 and 103, is as bona fide member of the Espionage Research Institute. The site sagely advises potential customers not to call the company from any telephone that might be bugged.

Problem is, the same secret agents who surreptitiously plant bugs can remove them just as easily to make detection harder.

Maybe the county should sweep for bugs twice a day.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.