The Democratic candidates for Maricopa County Attorney squared off last night at Central High School. But what was a bit more interesting than the debate, I think, was the press conference that one candidate held before the event.
Tim Nelson, who is Governor Janet Napolitano's former general counsel, held the conference to denounce the current county attorney, Andrew Thomas, for his habit of spending RICO funds to promote his own agenda. As we've previously reported, Thomas has used the funds for a host of questionable purchases - many of them clearly designed to shore up his own name recognition. Most recently, as my colleague Stephen Lemons reported, Thomas even used RICO money to sponsor a right-wing radio host's book tour.
The radio host in question, Darrell Ankarlo, works for KTAR. Which is why it was incredibly funny that a "reporter" from KTAR showed up for the conference and attempted to pose "questions" vindicating the expenditure. (Interestingly enough, the "reporter" was hanging out with Thomas' right-hand guy, Barnett Lotstein, while the Nelson people were setting up.)
After Nelson gave a short speech criticizing the expenses - "what does promoting a political book have to do with public safety?" - the KTAR "reporter" began challenging him.
"You said tax money was used to promote the book," she began. Nelson quickly corrected her. No, he said, it wasn't tax money, he agreed, but it was "public money." (RICO funds are seized in racketeering investigations and then given to law enforcement agencies, so they qualify as public funds.)
The reporter tried again: "Isn't it true you can use RICO funds for education when it comes to crime?"
Nelson was ready. "The statute that covers this clearly states what RICO funds can be used for. That's not a private, political purpose."
In fact, guidelines from the United States Department of Justice state clearly that RICO funds can be used for only four purposes: racketeering investigations, gang prevention, substance abuse programs, and substance abuse education.
And, as Nelson reiterated last night, that hasn't been Thomas' policy. Just consider the examples that our reporting at New Times has turned up:
* Thomas' office has earmarked $168,000 for Christian-based organizations - many of which appear to be using the money for proselytizing, which is completely illegal.
* Thomas hired the guy who produces his campaign commercials, at a cost of $128,000, to shoot anti-drug spots featuring himself. While the ads are ostensibly anti-drug, they seem more focused on getting Thomas' name and face out there than anything. It's cost the taxpayers more than $2 million to air them.
* Thomas used RICO funds, in part, to finance a conference on illegal immigration in Phoenix in 2005, according to public records I reviewed. Yes, illegal immigration is Thomas' obsession. It is not, however, something that the Justice Department allows RICO funding to be used for. Even worse, Thomas used the public funds for some dubious extras, including a $500 honorarium for Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies and $710 to help finance first-class airfare for conservative columnist John Leo, who spoke on a panel.
* Finally, the most recent scoop from my my jubilant colleague Stephen Lemons, who reported that public funds are subsidizing radio host Darrell Ankarlo's book tour, to the tune of $11,500.
It's really nutty stuff - and Nelson is right to devote so much time to criticizing it. He called for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office to come clean about the Ankarlo expense, which it did soon after. (Lotstein gave us reporters a copy of the one-page "contract" setting up the sponsorship.) I hope he follows up by calling for a complete audit of the RICO program under Thomas. There is simply too much here that ignores Justice Department guidelines.
Incidentally, the reason I'm not writing more about the debate is that both guys did quite well. Nelson and his opponent in the Democratic primary, Gerald Richard, are both well-spoken and intelligent - and both offer a clear break with Thomas' policies.
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Nelson, I think, did a great job hammering away at Thomas' poor management. He also pledged that, unlike Thomas, he won't steer work to his old law firm or his contributors if elected. He'd establish an independent committee to evaluate all outside counsel - and said flatly, "I'm going to make sure we won't give any money to the firm that hired me while I ran for office," a clear dig at the tens of thousands of dollars that have made their way to Thomas' former boss, Dennis Wilenchik.
And Richard hit the ball out of the park on a question about Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Tent City. Nelson said he couldn't do much about Tent City, which is undoubtedly true. But Richard showed how the bully pulpit can still be effective.
Alluding to the fact that blacks used to be barred from voting, Richard said, "There are things that are legal, but not right. And I'm gonna let Sheriff Joe know - especially at a time when we see more civil liability cases coming in to be handled by the county attorney - that it is legal, but it's not right."
Props to the League of Women Voters for hosting such an interesting discussion.