Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox is a political victim and innocent of the crimes alleged in last week's indictment, her lawyer said today in a news conference.
He's at least half right.
Wilcox, the five-member Board of Supervisors' only Democrat, has been a vocal opponent of actions by County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who are both Republicans. In particular, she's denounced strongly the pair's treatment of illegal immigrants. And she's part of the group of county leaders who have been fighting Thomas and Arpaio for several years in numerous lawsuits.
She's a victim of politics, for sure. She may even beat this rap.
Whether she's truly innocent, though, could be in the eye of the beholder.
Wilcox and her husband, Earl, sat silently at the news conference this morning at the law offices of Osborn Maledon, letting their attorney, former Superior Court Presiding Judge Colin Campbell, do all the talking.
Campbell began by reading slowly from a five-page news release, stating up front that the charges against Wilcox "are on their face unfounded on the law and the facts."
Wilcox has been charged by a grand jury with 36 felony counts of conflict of interest, perjury, forgery and false swearing, all related to tens of thousands of dollars in loans she took out from the lending division of Chicanos Por La Causa, a local service agency.
So far, nothing illegal about the loans themselves is being alleged. The Supervisor is being accused of failing to disclose the loans to the public, and of abusing the public trust by voting since 2000 to give funds to the Chicanos agency while it loaned her the money.
As we reported yesterday, it looks like Phoenix Magazine first brought the issue to light in March of 2008, in an article by former New Times writer Terry Greene Sterling. Thomas and his attack-dog prosecutor, Lisa Aubuchon, obviously used Sterling's story as a template for their criminal case. The article made Wilcox seem guilty and even quotes Michael Manning, a local attorney who's known for battling against Arpaio, as saying the Supervisor should have disclosed the loans.
|Image: Steve Lemons|
|Earl Wilcox stands in front of the El Portal restaurant in this 2008 photo.|
At this morning's news conference, however, Campbell, said the loans were used for the Wilcoxes business, the El Portal restaurant.
That's important because the law only requires elected officials to disclose business loans that are more than $10,000 and also represent more than 30 percent of the total debt owed by the business, Campbell explained. None of the loans needed to be disclosed based on those rules, he said.
Campbell also said Wilcox's involvement with Prestamos counts as a "remote interest" under the law, and therefore doesn't have to be listed in the yearly financial disclosure forms. Wilcox didn't receive any special favors from Prestamos, so her loans were no different than loans someone might take out from Wells Fargo, he explained. A public official could take out a standard loan from Wells Fargo, for example, and still vote on issues related to Wells Fargo because the official's interest in the bank is so indirect, he said.
True, it does appear the Wilcoxes have a much closer relationship with Chicanos Por La Causa then Wells Fargo. From Sterling's article:
The Wilcoxes are good friends with Pete Garcia, who was president of the nonprofit at the time both loans were made.
Yet Chicanos Por La Causa put out a statement last week that said the Wilcoxes never received an interest rate less of less than 8 percent, which seems to derail the idea that the Supervisor received some kind of sweetheart deal.
According to the group and Campbell, the Wilcoxes received:
*A $7,500 loan in November 2000, paid back in 2003;
*A $50,000 loan in 2005, paid back the same year;
*A $120,000 loan in October of 2008 on which the Wilcoxes continue to make monthly payments.
Arpaio's investigators believe the Wilcox's business, Grant Park Enterprises LLC, took out a separate $120,000, for a grand total of $297,500 in loans, search warrant records show. Campbell says that's a mistake by the Sheriff's Office.
"We think they may have been looking at a deed of trust or maybe a promissory note and thinking they were separate loans, but they really were the same ($120,000) loan), he said.
Other "mistakes of fact" in the indictment "suggest carelessness, rush to judgment, and improper motives" by Thomas' office, Campbell said.
New Times writer Sarah Fenske has already pointed out that six of the charges seem to be past their statute of limitations, while another charge accuses Wilcox of voting on a Chicanos grant that she never voted on. Campbell went into detail on the latter problem, revealing that while the indictment claims Wilcox voted on the grant on March 4, 2003, no Board of Supervisors meeting took place that day. There was a meeting the next day, but public documents show Wilcox didn't vote on the issue.
Campbell also brought up the fact that Wilcox's case depended in large part on a matter that had already been decided in another court: Whether the county actually required public officials to fill out financial disclosure forms.
As regular New Times readers know, Thomas has already tried and failed to prosecute Wilcox's colleague on the Board, Don Stapley for alleged disclosure-form violations. Retired Judge Kenneth Fields, acting on a motion from Stapley's defense team, ruled that the county hadn't properly adopted the disclosure form rules as the state had required. In other words, the law Thomas said Stapley had broken didn't really exist.
Thomas accuses Judge Fields of severe bias against him, and Thomas and Arpaio named Fields in the federal racketeering lawsuit filed two weeks ago against county leaders. But Fields' ruling destroyed the first case against Stapley; prosecutors are now hoping to convince the Court of Appeals to overturn Fields' decision.
With the appeals court now pondering the question of the legality of the financial disclosure form law at the county level, Thomas found a grand jury to indict Wilcox for violating that law. That's why Campbell is calling the indictment "reckless."
We asked Thomas about this last week following the announcement of the indictment of Wilcox. (Stapley was indicted again, too, but we'll deal with that some other day -- isn't this complicated enough?)
Thomas told New Times that Fields' ruling was not a precedent-setter. He's hoping that a fresh judge will decide that the law is, in fact, valid.
That could happen: Since Thomas and Arpaio have accused the Maricopa Superior Court's top judges of a criminal conspiracy, Presiding Judge Barbara Mundell assigned the Wilcox (and new Stapley) case to Jan Kearney, the Pima County presiding judge. We'll go out on a limb and predict that Kearney will also find that the county never adopted the law, thus blowing up Thomas' case. (Of course, if the law is valid, even Sheriff Arpaio is apparently guilty of breaking it).
Before it gets to that stage, Campbell hopes, the Wilcox case will be dismissed -- or at least placed in the hands of a different prosecutor.
Campbell says Thomas is hopelessly conflicted on the case because his office gave Wilcox advice on how to fill out her financial disclosure forms. We asked Campbell if any record exists of Wilcox getting advice on those Prestamos loans: "There is not necessarily separate paperwork," he admitted. "I mean, it's not documented."
Documentation is always better, clearly.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Wilcox is that her legal woes may just be starting.
As Campbell noted, the Sheriff and County Attorney seem to be doing things backward: They got the indictment against Wilcox before obtaining the key loan documents that might back up their charges, he said.
Indeed, the seizure of hard drives and e-mails from Chicanos Por La Causa could turn up more evidence against Wilcox or the agency itself.
Also, Wilcox faces additional allegations that haven't resulted in formal charges -- yet. The Sheriff's Office is investigating her suspicious business dealings at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, which last month were the subject of a recent report by Mark Flatten of the Goldwater Institute. And since 2005, Thomas' office has looked into her role in a bad-check scheme involving boxing promoter Peter McKinn, a friend of the Wilcoxes' who was arrested in October.
At today's news conference, Channel 15 (KNXV-TV) reporter Josh Bernstein asked Campbell whether he was aware of a criminal investigation by the FBI into the Wilcoxes. Campbell said he hadn't. Bernstein, who has been praised by Thomas for his "courageous" reporting on county issues, broke a story back in July (apparently based on a tip from the offices of Thomas or Arpaio) about the FBI's alleged interest in the aforementioned bad-check scheme and the possible attempted influence of a local justice of the peace. You can read our take on Bernstein's story by clicking here.
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It sounds like Wilcox's husband may be in more trouble with the FBI, though -- he's the one who had the allegedly improper meeting with the JP about getting a warrant against McKinn, the boxing promoter, quashed.
Earlier this month, the Capitol Times published an article that detailed the Sheriff's Office failure to get dirt on Wilcox after it sent an wire-wearing informant into her restaurant to talk about McKinn and the check.
Campbell says he "doesn't put a lot of stock" into rumors he's heard about an FBI investigation, weird dealings at the airport or check fraud.
Under the regime of Thomas and Arpaio, though, rumors of criminal acts have a way of turning into sketchy-sounding criminal charges. Campbell's likely to be very busy in the coming months.