Taxpayers fund concealed weapons permits for pistol-packing prosecutors, secretaries and others at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office

By Ray Stern

Gun-loving Arizona has had a robust concealed weapon program since 1994, and about 85,000 people have received permits that allow them to take hidden handguns with them just about everywhere they go. You'd think that number would be higher, given that some statistics show as many as three-quarters of Arizona households contain firearms.

Getting a permit isn't very hard, but it is inconvenient and somewhat costly. You have to spend at least eight hours of your free time in a training class, get fingerprinted in a time-consuming process at a local police station, and pay at least $160 ($60 for the permit, which lasts five years, and another $100 or more for the training).

Unless you work for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, that is--in which case the public funds both your time and expense for the permit.

In 2005, soon after Andrew Thomas got elected county attorney, Thomas apparently decided that if any of his employees wanted to carry a concealed weapon, the public--rather than the employees--needed to shoulder that expense.

Thomas sent one of his special assistants, Keith Manning, and another employee, Scott Miller, to Prescott on the taxpayers' dime for a concealed-weapons-permit instructor class. Records obtained by New Times show the county spent about $1,600 to get Manning and Miller trained to become instructors.

Here's the ad for instructors to which Manning responded, with notes from an employee about the cost of staying in a Prescott hotel during the class.

Once the instructors were trained, Thomas' office offered the basic concealed weapons training class to any employee who wanted it. Since then, 153 of Thomas' staff members have taken a two-day class--apparently on county time--for a permit.

Naturally, some of Thomas' employees may need a concealed weapon. Some who took the class are prosecutors who have put hardened criminals behind bars. It's not paranoia if violent ex-cons really are out to get you, and carrying a gun certainly can provide an extra measure of security.

But it's not just prosecutors who have taken the class, the county attorney's office admits. The offer is open to all employees: secretaries, researchers, assistants.

How much this giveaway is costing taxpayers isn't clear. Michael Scerbo, spokesman for Thomas' office, wrote in an e-mail that employees provide their own ammunition for live-fire training at a Phoenix Police Department shooting range, and that "no other expenses are incurred."

Yet Scerbo clammed up when probed for more details beyond what the public records showed and his e-mail claimed.

Asked whether most people who got the publicly funded permits were prosecutors, Scerbo declined comment. That probably means most were not.

Also suspicious: Scerbo did not deny that each of the 153 employees who took the two-day class did so on county time.

You'd think if Andy Thomas were making the employees use their own time for the class, he'd want taxpayers to know that. But, clearly, Thomas wants to hide the true cost of this program, which is probably in the tens of thousands of dollars.

If each employee who took the two-day class earns an average of $100 a day (a lowball estimate for attorneys and their assistants, to be sure), the cost is more than $30,000--and that doesn't include the time spent making up for the workers' lost productivity. Add another $10,000 or so for the cost to the Arizona Department of Public Safety for the permit fees.

It's hardly the most outrageous example of pork spending, but it's a waste, nonetheless, because there's no real no justification for it. If his employees want a concealed weapons permit, they should have to find the time and money themselves, like everyone else, and not expect the public to pay for it.

What's next for Thomas' pampered employees, publicly funded swimming lessons?

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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.