Critics are questioning why the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office spent more than $53,000 to send 25 people to a weeklong conference in Missouri this summer.
The Arizona Republic reports that records show about half of the trip was paid by court fees given to the sheriff’s office to improve county jails. The other half came from seized cash and property meant to fund investigations and prosecutions.
Sheriff Paul Babeu received a national award at the June 18-22 event in St. Louis.
Sheriff’s officials maintain that the funds were used in a manner allowable under statute. But critics see the trip as basically a junket at a time when Babeu claims he’s hurting for cash to combat drug cartels and has sought public donations to provide his deputies with rifles.
“It may pass the legal test, but some people may say this doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Mary Marshall, spokeswoman for the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission. “Some people are going to have disagreements about, is this the proper use?”
Pinal County supervisor David Snider said “apparently, the sheriff, as we heard, can put the money toward whatever purpose the sheriff deems appropriate. It’s an awful lot of people to send to a conference at one place for quite a bit of time . . . It’d be interesting to see if the training sessions at that conference in St. Louis were available in other formats, electronic or closer to home.”
More than 7 percent of the department represented the Sheriff’s Office at the National Sheriffs’ Association annual conference in June. Among them was a school resource officer, at least three detention officers, several deputies and three department volunteers. In years past, Babeu took only a handful of people, mostly administrators, to the event.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office sent one person, the sheriff’s personal assistant, at a cost of nearly $1,700. No one attended from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.
John Thompson, National Sheriff’s Association deputy executive director, estimated that about 4,000 people attended the event June 18-22. Meetings and seminars were held at America’s Center Convention Complex and the nearby Renaissance St. Louis Grand hotel, where Babeu and his group stayed at a cost of $28,885.
Thompson said conference programming was tailored for sheriffs and their command staff, but award recipients typically bring staff members to support them.
In a June 28 memo to the Pinal County Attorney’s Office, Babeu described the conference as his staff’s “most successful training opportunity” this year, where “training in areas of leadership, investigative skills, building volunteer programs and threat assessment on the Mexican drug cartels were all provided by nationally known experts.”
The Sheriff’s Office issued a news release shortly after The Republic requested finance records for the St. Louis trip. The statement said taxpayers didn’t foot the bill, but that it was fronted by the county and paid back with use of jail-enhancement and RICO funds — racketeering money that comes from assets seized in investigations.
State statutes governing the use of those funds give sheriffs leeway in how they spend the money. Generally, RICO money can be used for gang and substance-abuse prevention programs, witness protection and whatever the federal law allows, including training, overtime salaries and equipment for use in drug cases. That includes any operations to target cartel activity in unincorporated Pinal.
“Regardless of where that money came from, it’s public money,” county supervisor Pete Rios said. “To spend that kind of money to take that many people to go watch him get an award, I think (Babeu has) got some explaining to do for the voters of Pinal County.”