Attorney General Terry Goddard on Wednesday blasted a criminal investigation into his office as a “political witch hunt” that embattled Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio cannot credibly pursue.
Goddard sent a three-page letter to Thomas asking that the county’s investigation into whether he improperly cut a soft plea deal with former state treasurer David Petersen last year be transferred to another agency for investigation.
Thomas and Arpaio announced in a news conference last April that they would investigate whether there was any connection between the plea deal and a $1.9 million payment to Goddard’s office from the treasurer.
The two county officials have since claimed repeatedly, and falsely, Goddard said, that he is attempting to hinder the investigation.
Goddard also noted he defeated Thomas in the 2002 attorney general’s race.
“The opening blast of the sheriff’s press conference certainly sounded like the opening salvo in a political witch hunt,” Goddard said, referring to the April announcement and subsequent statements to the media about the investigation made by Thomas and Arpaio. “If there were any doubt that the entire investigation was politically motivated, those press releases blew away all pretext.”
Goddard is not asking the investigation be terminated, but rather transferred to another agency so it can be “resolved fairly and without the taint of politics.”
Goddard is a Democrat. Thomas and Arpaio are Republicans.
Barnett Lotstein, special assistant county attorney, said Thomas has no conflict and no intention to send the case to another agency.
“A person under investigation does not have a right to pick the investigator,” Lotstein said.
Arpaio had a similar reply:
“This sheriff will not be intimidated by a potential suspect in this office’s ongoing investigation of wrongdoing,” Arpaio said in a written statement.
“Given the intense obstructionist conduct by Mr. Goddard which has prolonged this investigation, he should seriously consider quickly appointing a substitute counsel to act as attorney general.”
Petersen was investigated for eight months by Goddard’s office. He pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor unrelated to the operation of his office.
About the time the plea deal was offered, the treasurer’s office authorized the payment, which Goddard said was required by law to reimburse his agency for attorney’s fees.
Goddard linked his troubles with Thomas and Arpaio with the debacle that erupted last week over the arrests of two top executives of the Phoenix New Times.
After the arrests of Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin over a story published earlier in the day, Thomas held a news conference to announce charges would be dropped.
Thomas said there had been “serious missteps” by Dennis Wilenchik, a private attorney he’d hired as a special prosecutor.
The Tribune reported Sunday that Wilenchik’s firm has been paid about $1.8 million for legal work through contracts with the county attorney since Thomas took office. Notations on about $14,000 of those payments refer to “Goddard,” but provide no further explanation.
Lotstein said Wednesday the payments to Wilenchik’s firm had nothing to do with the criminal investigation into Goddard’s office.
Last week, Lotstein told the Tribune he did not know what any of the contract payments were for and that if he did he couldn’t talk about them anyway because of attorney-client privilege.
Now he says the “Goddard” billings refer to efforts by the county attorney to recover jurisdiction over a potentially lucrative civil racketeering case involving alleged East Valley gambling rings broken up earlier this year by the sheriff’s office.
The attorney general was originally handling both the criminal prosecution and the civil case, which could be worth millions of dollars in forfeited assets.
But last June, Goddard declared a conflict of interest in any case investigated by the sheriff’s office because of the ongoing Petersen matter.
Goddard sent the forfeiture case to the Pima County Attorney’s Office, drawing objections and threats of legal action from Thomas.
Wilenchik was hired to help get the civil case transferred to Maricopa County.
Wilenchik had “no role whatsoever” in the criminal investigation of Goddard’s office, Lotstein said.
However, no records have been made available to show what the billings were for or what the notations on the billing summaries meant.
Goddard said in an interview Wednesday he is skeptical of Lotstein’s explanation.
“As far as I know, Wilenchik wrote two or three letters,” Goddard said. “That’s a high price per word.”
Wilenchik did send letters on Arpaio’s behalf to Goddard and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall in June.