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Sheriff's Office Raids Computer Company, Accuses County Leaders (Again) of Fraud and Other Crimes

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The squabble between Maricopa County officials took yet another turn today as deputies raided the offices of a local computer firm, looking for evidence of fraud and other crimes.

For close followers of the circus acts that pass for county news these days, you'll need another branch for the flow chart: Today's raid stems from last summer's fight between the Sheriff's Office and county leaders about the county's computer system.

Remember that one? Sheriff's officials decided one day to take control of part of the system --  despite an ongoing lawsuit regarding said system. They claimed they had to do it to prevent access of sensitive criminal justice data by unapproved employees. We don't know who was right, but claims that deputies had threatened to arrest one computer worker apparently weren't true.

Still, Superior Court Judge Joseph Heilman threatened to jail Dave Hendershott, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's chief deputy, for contempt of court if he didn't reveal a password that sheriff's office employees installed during the "takeover." The whole thing ended with a whimper after Heilman agreed to a compromise between the Sheriff's Office and the county.

But that's just the back story. After the hearings by Heilman, Hendershott told New Times he was really concerned about an agenda item by the Board of Supervisors about a $527,000 "donation" from Calence, a computer company later bought by the Tempe-based Insight Network Solutions. The Supervisors voted to accept the donation.

County officials told us it hadn't really been a donation, despite what the Board's agenda had said. Instead, we were told, the money was a supposedly a credit or refund of some kind for computer equipment or services that had been purchased by the county under its contract with Calence.

A few days after Hendershott told us about the money, we received a long, anonymous letter from someone that referenced the "donation" and accused county officials of fraud. The writer informed us that Steve Wetzel, the head of the county's IT department, had purchased millions of dollars in equipment that was being squandered. In addition, county officials had "hundreds of thousands of dollars" of WiFi equipment installed in various offices, only to realize later that the law prevented them from turning the WiFi on due to security concerns, the letter stated.

In search warrant returns received today by New Times, the Sheriff's Office mentions the letter to New Times and claims it identified the writer. The unnamed whistleblower "verified" the accusations in the letter "to the best of his knowledge," the documents state.

"Should criminal charges result from this investigation, this source has stated his willingness to testify to the facts," the search warrant returns state.

Investigators believe that the Board of Supervisors, County Manager David Smith, the county IT department and the county Office of Management and Budget may have committed fraud, computer tampering and failure to adhere to the county's procurement code. They're seeking computer data and correspondence at Calence/Insight's Tempe office, 6820 South Harl Avenue, that has anything to do with its county work.

"We're not a party to the action, but we're cooperating," says Shana Diana, spokeswoman for the company.

Yesterday, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office served a search warrant at the offices of Chicanos Por La Causa. The raid's primary focus was to find dirt on County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who was indicted this week. Records show she didn't declare loans she took out from the Hispanic social service agency on her financial disclosure forms, nor did abstain from voting to approve county contracts with Chicanos Por La Causa.

With the amount of files seized, it appears this is turning into a bit of a fishing expedition. Clearly, deputies would consider it a bonus if they turned up evidence of crimes committed by employees of Chicanos Por La Causa. The same thing goes for Calence/Insight, no doubt.

While we're concerned about the origin of that $527,000 "donation," we're also worried about the use or abuse of police power here. Time will tell, but it seems possible that the feud among county leaders has gotten so bad that the Sheriff's Office is criminalizing things that might normally be considered gross inefficiencies. We'll be looking forward to reading the transcripts of the interview with the whistleblower.

The Sheriff's Office is certainly collecting a big pile of potential evidence. A planned raid of the Superior Court Presiding Judge's home and office has been stymied, for now, by the Court of Appeals. Raids are expected at any time on the offices or homes of Don Stapley, Mary Rose Wilcox and God knows who else.

From the county perspective, next week could be as exciting as this one was.

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