Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Maricopa County Officials Spend $5.6 Million and Counting...Suing One Another, Nice.
"The vitriolic conflicts among Maricopa County's elected officials have drained at least $5.6 million from the county's coffers over the past two years, according to the latest Arizona Republic analysis of public records. And the costs continue to mount as disputes over money, power, computer systems and public records persist among Sheriff Joe Arpaio, former County Attorney Andrew Thomas and the Board of Supervisors.
Most of the $5.6 million was paid to high-priced private attorneys, and it's not a complete tally. Invoices continue to arrive that still have to be reviewed before being paid. In some cases, county officials have also held up payments because the bills are incomplete, inaccurate or confusing. The records provided to The Republic by county officials through public-records requests also appear incomplete in some cases. For example, detailed billings from attorneys who subcontracted other lawyers to represent Arpaio and Thomas were not provided.
The Republic analyzed payments made by Maricopa County from 2008 through August and the County Attorney's Office through June, the most recent available figures. The Republic has continued to review payments associated with the disputes over the past two years. By March, the county had spent $3.2 million. The latest review shows that costs have climbed by $2.4 million since then. The increase is mostly because new expenses have come to light and the court case over a criminal-justice database has dragged on.
Barbara Norrander, a political-science professor at the University of Arizona, said the feud damages the public's confidence in the government and casts further suspicion on public officials and their motives. 'And now, people are concerned about government budgets since they're stretched so thin,' she said. 'If they're spending more money on legal cases, that means there are fewer potholes that they can fill.'
The county battles have raged since 2008.
As relationships deteriorated among county officials, they turned to attorneys to fight their battles over budgets, financial records, control of inmate health care, legal representation and computer systems.
Thomas and Arpaio filed several lawsuits against the Board of Supervisors, including a federal civil-racketeering suit against the supervisors, four judges and attorneys who work with the county. Thomas later dropped that case. [County Attorney Thomas and [Sheriff] Arpaio have lost every case that has been ruled on by the courts. County Treasurer Charles 'Hos' Hoskins also has battled with the county over budget, staffing and computer matters. Those fights cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees and audits.
The board spent $14,600 to sweep offices for illegally placed listening devices. The county and sheriff have spent at least $125,704 on efforts to resolve a U.S. Department of Labor probe into overtime pay for sheriff's detention officers, which was complicated partly because of strained relationships among county officials.
Some of the battles have been resolved by the courts or are on appeal. Other matters are in the early stages, and the fees have just started to rack up. For example, over four months, the attorney representing Deputy County Attorney Lisa Aubuchon in an investigation initiated by the State Bar of Arizona into possible misconduct already has billed $177,876 for her defense, according to invoices.
The county is responsible for defending Aubuchon, Thomas and others because the allegations listed in the complaints took place during the course of their duties with the county. County Manager David Smith estimates $5.6 million could have covered the cost of hiring 25 employees over five years, but he pointed out that the payroll would be recurring costs while the legal costs were one-time payments.
'It's nonsense,' Smith said of the costs and the fights. Commenting on the impact the expenses have had on the Sheriff's Office, Chief Financial Officer Loretta Barkell said, 'It has been challenging meeting all the Sheriff's Office day-to-day operational expenses.'
Some legal costs come directly out of the sheriff's budgets.
The $5.6 million tab does not include the amount of time staff members have worked on the legal cases and other matters. For example, employees from all sides have spent hundreds of hours reviewing financial records and researching cases instead of doing regular job assignments.
The tab also does not include the money paid by county supervisors and others to fight their personal legal battles; nor does it include the amount of money Thomas and Arpaio have paid to investigate the supervisors. Nor does the total cost reflect expenses to represent the sheriff in the U.S. Justice Department's civil-rights investigation into racial-profiling allegations. That investigation is not directly related to disputes with county officials.
Boy, the taxpayes of Maricopa County sure got what they paid for!