The Arizona Attorney General’s Office has turned over four criminal investigations of Maricopa County law enforcement officials to federal prosecutors for possible prosecution, The Arizona Republic has learned.
After consulting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, state prosecutors found that their investigations into county officials overlapped with a federal abuse-of-power probe.
The four investigations involve current and former employees of the Maricopa County sheriff’s and county attorney’s offices. At least three stem from the years-long conflicts among county supervisors, judges and rank-and-file employees.
Among other things, the probes are examining funding of a political-action committee that paid for attack ads against Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s political opponent; the filing of criminal charges against county Supervisor Don Stapley even though the statute of limitations had run out; the spending of restricted jail-enhancement funds; and a land deal reportedly to build a sheriff’s substation.
A federal grand jury has been investigating Arpaio and other officials on abuse-of-power allegations since at least January 2010.
Jim Keppel, criminal-division chief of the attorney general’s office, said that the county had given authority to federal prosecutors to “investigate and prosecute any potential state criminal statutes that may arise as part of their federal investigation.”
He said that’s why his office deferred the cases to federal prosecutors.
U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke reiterated that the investigative materials “are already part of a federal investigation into this matter.”
In response to a March 1 public-records request by The Republic, the attorney general’s office last week produced thousands of pages of investigative documents related to its inquiry into the political-action committee.
The Sheriff’s Command Association collected more than $100,000 from wealthy donors and high-ranking sheriff’s officials, then donated the cash to the Arizona Republican Party before the November 2008 election. The party transferred money to a second group, which paid for ads against Arpaio’s Democratic challenger, Dan Saban, and Thomas’ Democratic challenger, Tim Nelson.
The attorney general’s probe was prompted by a State Democrats complaint with the county elections department that accused the state Republican Party of violating campaign-finance laws. The money was returned to donors after the complaint was filed.
Three top sheriff’s employees — Chief Deputy David Hendershott, Capt. Joel Fox, and Deputy Chief Larry Black — remain on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation of the campaign activity and a wide range of other allegations of misconduct. Those allegations were detailed in a 63-page memo written by Deputy Chief Frank Munnell, who alleged that Hendershott and Black tried to interfere with the attorney general’s investigation into the Sheriff’s Command Association.
So far, no one has been charged with a crime.
Sheriff’s officials declined to talk about the newly released records. Those included transcripts of Munnell’s secretly taped conversations and staff meetings attended by Arpaio’s inner circle; dozens of interviews with sheriff’s staff, campaign donors and high-profile Republican consultants; and private e-mails from personal computers obtained through search warrants.
The records provide the first definitive account of the depth of the investigation into the agency and illustrate how state and federal investigators spent years meticulously attempting to piece together a case against Arpaio’s top commanders.
Records detail that witnesses in the sheriff’s office told investigators that officials connected to the Sheriff’s Command Association instructed them to delete information and take other steps to obstruct the inquiry.
Key details from the records revealed that investigators suspect Hendershott began to lay groundwork for various political-action committees in summer 2006, based on interviews with county Elections Department Director Karen Osborne and other sheriff’s officials.
Osborne told investigators that Hendershott invited her to off-site meetings, which she suspected he was recording with his BlackBerry, twice in 2006. Both times, Osborne said, the conversations centered on legal fundraising limits and spending on political-action committees.
Investigators suspected Hendershott of obstructing criminal investigations for nearly a year, according to a search warrant issued in October 2009.
Additionally, sheriff’s officials who were the focus of the investigation were suspected of asking other sheriff’s employees to participate in a cover-up. Lisa Allen, Arpaio’s media-relations manager, told state and federal agents that Black asked her to destroy documents.
“Lisa Allen said that she did not like it,” the agents concluded. “She thought it was kind of scary that he would say that to her.”
When sheriff’s Deputy Chief Scott Freeman learned of Black’s reported instructions, he responded, “That’s called ‘witness tampering,’” according to a secretly recorded conversation.