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Funds sought to handle spike in border prosecutions

FILE - This April 2, 2017 file photo made with a drone, shows the U.S. Mexico border fence as it cuts through the two downtowns of Nogales, Ariz. A U.S. border patrol agent is going on trial for second-degree murder in U.S. District Court in Tucson on Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in a rare Justice Department prosecution of a fatal cross-border Mexico shooting.  (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff, File)

FILE – This April 2, 2017 file photo made with a drone, shows the U.S. Mexico border fence as it cuts through Nogales, Ariz. and Nogales Sonora. (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff, File)

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office is looking for a little help for its southern Arizona unit, which is swamped with cases from the Arizona Border Strike Force.

AG spokesman Ryan Anderson said that while the Department of Public Safety has received extra funding to operate the Border Strike Force, the AG’s Office, which has taken on the prosecution of the cases, has been shortchanged.

The Border Strike Force was created by Gov. Doug Ducey in 2015. DPS received $2.9 million in fiscal year 2019 to expand Border Strike Force operations, and DPS is requesting an additional $2.97 million in fiscal year 2020 for 11 new troopers and one sergeant to fully staff round-the-clock patrols on southern Arizona highways, a request that will likely be met.

But Anderson said the AG’s Office has not received any funding to prosecute those cases and the caseload is becoming unmanageable.

Brnovich

Brnovich

In fiscal year 2018, there were 90 active strike force cases handled by prosecutors in the Southern Arizona White Collar and Criminal Enterprise Division, up from 69 cases in fiscal year 2017.

That’s about 14 percent of all of the cases the southern Arizona division took on in fiscal year 2018, and the agency didn’t receive additional resources to handle the increased workload, Anderson said.

While most of the cases are drug backpacking cases that are typically open-and-shut, Anderson said, they’re time consuming and take away resources that could otherwise be used to prosecute cases the agency is statutorily required to handle.

In a budget request to the Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting, the AG’s Office is requesting $795,000 in fiscal year 2020 to fund eight positions in its Southern Arizona White Collar and Criminal Enterprise division. All agencies are required by law, as part of the budget process, to submit budget requests to OSPB by September 1.

Anderson said the funding will pay for three new full-time positions – a prosecutor, legal assistant and a legal secretary – and also fund five positions that are currently paid with anti-racketeering funds.

The division, known as SAWCCE, prosecutes all criminal cases under the agency’s statutory jurisdiction, including white collar crimes, investment and securities fraud, embezzlement, cartel and criminal enterprise cases, public corruption cases, misuse of public funds, and internet crimes against children.

SAWCCE also takes on a sizable amount of cases referred to the agency by county attorneys if there is a conflict of interest or a lack of expertise or resources to handle an investigation, and prosecutes the vast majority of the Border Strike Force cases.

Anderson said while the entire agency is seeing an increase in workload, attorneys in the southern Arizona division are “severely inundated and overworked.”

He attributed the increase to a growing number of referrals from outside agencies and the prosecution of Border Strike Force cases.

In fiscal year 2018, there were 649 active cases being handled by SAWCCE. Of those, 272 were resolved during the fiscal year leading to 323 defendants being charged, Anderson said. Data was not available for fiscal year 2019.

That’s roughly 81 active cases per each of the eight attorneys in the division. An additional attorney, which the AG’s Office is requesting, could handle an adtional 25 to 40 felony cases per year, he said.

In comparison, Anderson said the U.S. Department of Justice Fraud Section charged 301 defendants and convicted 207 defendants with a staff of 140 prosecutors in 2017. That’s about two defendants charged per attorney, compared to about 40 defendants charged by the AG’s eight attorneys in Tucson last fiscal year.

Anderson said the attorney general asked for funding to address the growing caseload and new burden of prosecuting Border Strike Force cases in its fiscal year 2019 budget request, and while partial funding was included in the governor’s executive budget, the appropriation was scrapped by the Legislature at the last minute.

Anderson said that forced the agency to move a prosecutor from its Phoenix office to Tucson, eliminate a special agent position and create a legal assistant position in Tucson to assist with the caseload.

Ducey spokesman Daniel Ruiz said public safety is a top priority for the governor, which is why he included an appropriation to SAWCCE in his executive budget this year. He said the Governor’s Office will be continuing discussions with agencies as it creates its fiscal year 2020 executive budget proposal.

Anderson said if the AG’s Office doesn’t receive additional funding next year, the agency will have to start picking and choosing which cases to prosecute and which to refer to another agency. He said the Border Strike Force cases will likely be the first to be referred to county attorneys in southern Arizona.

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