Money earmarked for fighting crime in Maricopa County is being used by the sheriff’s office to pay for vehicles for department officials, according to records obtained by The Arizona Republic.
The records show the sheriff’s office is using money seized under the state and federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, to pay for the vehicles.
Under the act, law enforcement agencies can keep confiscated cash and sell assets for money to be used for gang prevention, substance-abuse education and fighting crimes. There are guidelines, but agencies have wide discretion in using the money.
A review of the past three fiscal years shows that the sheriff’s office spends an average of $1 million in RICO money each year. This fiscal year, it will spend more than half of its $1.1 million RICO budget on leased vehicles.
Sheriff’s officials say they were forced to spend significantly more RICO money on leased cars this year compared with last because the county budget office cut all taxpayer-funded spending on vehicles.
Last year, the county provided the sheriff with nearly $411,000 for leased vehicles and almost $40,000 for gas. During that time, the sheriff’s office spent more than $21,000 in RICO funds to lease cars.
“We use RICO because they use the budget as a tool of aggression,” said Chief Deputy David Hendershott.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio said using RICO money on cars is better than using tax dollars.
“Isn’t it great to have dope peddlers pay for your cars so you can lock up other dope peddlers?” Arpaio said.
Some question whether the RICO money is being spent appropriately, especially when more than 1,000 deputies and civilian employees are being forced to take seven unpaid furlough days to help balance the department’s budget.
“We would like to see that money go toward the officers, whether it’s the deputies or the (detention) officers. Right now, it seems like the deputies have more needs, so we’d like to see that money go toward them,” said Katie Perez, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Association of Detention Officers.
Arpaio and Hendershott and each have two vehicles paid for with RICO funds. Officers assigned to their security detail alternate which vehicles are used when they drive to their homes and take them to work. Hendershott said he occasionally drives; Arpaio does not.
The paper said that none of the 14 other sheriffs in Arizona and none of the seven major police agencies in the Phoenix area use RICO money for personal vehicles for high-ranking officials.
If law enforcement agencies in Arizona do buy cars with RICO money, officials say they are assigned only to undercover officers and others directly involved in drug and racketeering investigations.
In Maricopa County, Hendershott said take-home sheriff cars are provided to those who are on call around the clock and in a position to respond to emergencies and major disasters.
Except for Arpaio, Hendershott, a sergeant and one civilian, the sheriff’s office cited safety concerns when declining to disclose the identities of those driving the 99 vehicles obtained with RICO money.