FBI agents in Phoenix have crafted a new way to scare people into telling them what they want to know: Mention Martha Stewart.
It turns out that agents threw it around several times during their year-long investigation into trying to prove state Attorney General Tom Horne and staffer Kathleen Winn are guilty of election law violations.
A review of transcripts of FBI interviews with those whom agents thought had information turned up three separate incidents where they used the jailing of the design maven to warn people they could be next.
The more than three dozen interviews, conducted over six months, were designed to pursue the FBI's theory that Winn, who ran an independent expenditure committee to elect Horne as attorney general in 2010, illegally coordinated her activities with the candidate. Several internal memos also suggest possible violations of federal laws.
In the end, though, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery came up with civil charges of violating state election laws against the pair; the U.S. Attorney's Office found nothing to pursue.
But agents clearly tried to get someone to say something that would provide the basis for some criminal charges. And the trump card was Stewart, sentenced to five months in prison.
In a March interview with Amy Rezzonico, agent Merv Mason suggested to her that she was “holding back.” He said that Rezzonico, Horne's press aide, might be protecting her boss, her job or her livelihood, all of “which is respectable.”
But then Mason cited federal law which he said makes it a crime to lie or hold back material facts from an FBI agent.
“And that's why Martha Stewart went to jail,” he said. “Not because she committed securities fraud, because she lied about material events in an interview just like this one,” Mason continued, adding “Now, I'm not trying to threaten you.”
Rezzonico wasn't the only one to get the Martha Stewart treatment. So did George Wilkinson who was part of the independent expenditure committee that came up with more than $500,000 for a last-minute barrage of TV commercials to help Horne defeat Democrat Felecia Rotellini.
“Let me stop and me caution you,” Mason tells him. “You familiar with Title 18-1001?”
Wilkinson says he's not.
“You know, ah, Martha Stewart?” Mason continued.
“You know why she went to jail?” he said. “Not securities fraud. It was an interview just like this.”
And Mason pulled the name out again, this time in an interview with Linnea Heap who was working in the Attorney General's Office and also helped with Horne's 2010 campaign.
She also is the person who loaned out the vehicle to Carmen Chenal -- the vehicle that the FBI says Horne was driving with Chenal as passenger when he hit another car in a parking lot and then drove away.
“You don't want to get yourself behind something,” Mason told her.
“It was an interview just like this,” the agent said. “And she went to jail for it.”
But the pressure did not stop there. Mason told Heap he was sure she had information about both Winn and Chenal.
“And we just want people that are innocent of any wrongdoing to not get caught up in this in the end,” Mason told her, telling her she has “a lot of vested interests” at stake, including her son, her husband and her house.
James Turgal, the special agent in charge of the Phoenix FBI office, would not comment about the interview techniques.
But Mike Kimerer, who represents Horne, said it appears to him there was “some coercion going on with witnesses.”
“But frankly, that's what law enforcement officers do all the time,” he acknowledged. And there's nothing necessary illegal about it.
That's also the belief of Bob Hirsh, the former Pima County public defender.
“Certainly, lying to a federal law enforcement officer is a federal prosecutable offense,” he said. And he said agents are certainly free to mention that to those they are interviewing.
Hirsh said, though, that does not preclude someone from claiming later that any statements they made were coerced.