Maricopa County Craziness

No Charges for Arpaio's Office in Questionable Travel and Inmate Fund Expenses, U.S. Attorney's Office Decides

Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke can't find any chargeable offenses after a review of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office's questionable travel habits and mismanagement of an inmate trust fund.

Because the U.S. Attorney is still investigating Arpaio in connection with abuse-of-power allegations, and the sheriff's office still faces a civil-rights probe, it's possible that Burke could announce someday that he's moving forward with legal action. However, this is the second letter since June from Burke's office that describes what the feds won't do about Arpaio.

In an October letter to Burke, County Manager David Smith outlined several areas that he thought should be explored for potential criminal charges. As we reported two months ago, Burke informed Smith that he wouldn't be pressing charges against Arpaio's office over the allegations of "exorbitant" inmate extradition costs.

Now, in a letter dated today, Burke has told Smith he couldn't find any evidence that any state or federal laws were broken in the handling of inmate funds or travel expenses.

As with the extradition accusation, Burke makes it clear that he thinks something funny is going on under Arpaio's leadership -- but that he can't do a darned thing about it.

The latest letter refers first to an inmate trust account that's supposed to only be used for the "education and welfare" of inmates under the law, to include the running of an inmate store. Inmate and their family members contribute money to these accounts. Any cash the inmate has on him or her when booked in goes into the kitty, and they're supposed to get it back when they check out.

Burke's office says the account was poorly managed. Not all of the money entrusted to MCSO was deposited as should have been. Shortfalls occurred, and money refunded to outgoing inmates was taken from "whatever cash happened to be available at the MCSO jail," some of which belonged to other inmates. Starting in 2006, jail staff withdrew $1,500 a week from the trust account, mainly to use for change.

In 2008, when MCSO realized their system wasn't working that well, officials began taking $35,000 a week from the trust account to ensure that all outgoing inmates would be refunded. Officials told federal investigators that the increase in withdrawals was needed because many more inmates were being released. Burke's agents found that claim lacked credibility.

But nothing seems to have risen to the level of prosecutable criminal behavior.

"It appears that the trust monies received by MCSO are mostly accounted for, and there is no evidence that anyone at MCSO embezzled monies for their personal benefit," Burke states in the letter.

Burke's office also reviewed an audit of MCSO travel expenses, which were already found by the Board of Supervisors to have violated county policy. Burke's letter states that no potential criminal violations were found there, either.

Suspicious, questionable, irresponsible and unethical behavior, yes. But illegal, no.

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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.