PHOENIX (AP) — Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu spent more than $35,000 on specialty badges and customized coins in honor of Arizona’s centennial as his department was heading toward a projected multimillion-dollar deficit.
Records obtained by The Arizona Republic show Babeu’s office used anti-racketeering funds for the purchases. The sheriff spent $23,350 for 308 badges and $12,080 for 4,000 coins since September.
One of the authors of the state law allowing use of the seized money says the badge purchases follow acceptable standards. But the coins were bought to give out as awards and it is not as clear they’re allowed.
The purchases came to light as Babeu’s staff and county finance officials are working to fill a projected $3.2 million budget shortfall by June 30. County supervisors allocated slightly more than $47 million for the 2011-2012 budget year than ends June 30.
The majority of the overages were in employee salaries and overtime and the rest in costs like fuel for patrol vehicles.
Babeu wasn’t available for comment. Sheriff’s spokesman Tim Gaffney said the budget will balance and the coin purchases were allowed.
“The Sheriff’s Office has always had a balanced budget under the leadership of Sheriff Babeu and this year will be no exception,” Gaffney wrote in the email.
The potential deficit affects the sheriff’s general fund. Centennial badges and coins were purchased using a separate fund.
Babeu is running in the Republican primary for Congress in Arizona’s 4th District.
The $75 badges include “Pinal County Sheriff’s Office” and “Celebrating Arizona’s Centennial” etched in a gold ring around its border, encircling the state flag. The names Paul Babeu and Janice K. Brewer are embossed in gold-tone metal, and a golden six-point star with the state seal at its center sits atop the flag. The challenge coins, purchased at $4 each, have a similar design with Babeu’s name featured across the star.
Babeu is the only Arizona sheriff to provide centennial badges to his employees free of charge, according to a Republic survey.
Because badges are considered part of a law-enforcement officer’s uniform paying for them with anti-racketeering funds is “allowable under statute,” if they are worn this year, said Cameron Holmes, assistant Arizona attorney general and senior litigation counsel for the office’s criminal division.
Holmes helped to craft Arizona statutes involving asset forfeiture, money laundering, RICO and financial-transaction reporting.
“Statute authorizes expenditures for police equipment, and that’s equipment,” Holmes said. Using the money for centennial challenge coins, however, is not as clear. Holmes said he would have to hear Babeu’s explanation how the coins are explainable under specific statutes.
Pinal County Supervisor Bryan Martyn bought personalized challenge coins to hand out during his term. Martyn, a retired Air Force helicopter pilot, said he used his own money and that he is “confident that the sheriff is working within the current law.”
Fellow supervisor Chairman Pete Rios, a Democrat who has butted heads with Babeu throughout their terms in office, questioned the purchases, calling them “not a good use of precious public money during a recession.”