After insisting for several days they didn’t know who ordered the arrests of two Phoenix New Times executives last week, county officials now say it was an attorney who worked for special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik.
Wilenchik also said as recently as Thursday that he did not know who sent Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies to pick up the two journalists. But on Friday, Capt. Paul Chagolla, a spokesman for Sheriff Joe Arpaio, identified the man who dispatched the deputies as M. Rob Somers, an attorney at Wilenchik’s firm and one of four attorneys at the firm deputized by County Attorney Andrew Thomas to be special prosecutors.
“It was Mr. Somers who made the request and the arrests were made,” Chagolla said. The firm’s Web site says that Somers practices mostly in the area of civil and commercial litigation.
Chagolla said deputies also worked with William P. French, a former judge and special legislative counsel in the investigation that led to former Gov. Evan Meacham’s impeachment. A fourth member of Wilenchik’s law firm, Adam Polson, who practices primarily in commercial and real estate litigation, also was deputized as a special prosecutor.
No one from Wilenchik’s law office returned calls or emails seeking comment for this story.
According to the oaths signed by the attorneys, the special prosecutors are given “the authority to conduct the prosecution of criminal cases on behalf of the state.”
The county attorney’s case against New Times exploded into political controversy last week after the paper’s top executives, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, published a story detailing grand jury subpoenas that demanded broad access to reporters’ notes and files and information on people who had visited the paper’s Web site.
The investigation began in 2004 when New Times printed Arpaio’s home address in the paper and on its Web site.
Thomas hired Wilenchik’s firm and another outside firm to handle the case.
On Friday, Thomas dropped all charges against the newspaper and fired Wilenchik from the case, citing “serious missteps” in the way he handled matters.
Mike Anthony Scerbo, a Thomas spokesman, said that when Thomas dismissed Wilenchik, the others were taken off the case, too.
Wilenchik did not return Tribune phone calls last week or this week about the controversy. But late Thursday, Somers sent out an eight-page news release on behalf of Wilenchik.
The release calls the arrests “the result of a miscommunication.”
“My knowledge and intent was to have them cited for violating (the grand jury secrecy law) .... The direction from me was apparently misunderstood by the other special prosecutors, which resulted in a request that the MCSO deputies arrest, book and cite Messrs. Lacey and Larkin, rather than attempting to just issue them citations,” Wilenchik wrote.
He called the arrests “completely legal,” adding that “some might argue more than justified.”
Deputizing private attorneys as special prosecutors is not uncommon.
French was deputized by former County Attorney Richard Romley in 1995 to represent the county in a matter between Superior Court and the County Board of Supervisors.
Thomas also has used his authority to get retired homicide prosecutors to take on death penalty case loads.
Detective Mike Traverse, a nineyear member of the sheriff’s office who Chagolla said was working “in conjunction” with the Selective Enforcement Unit, made the arrest.
The Selective Enforcement Unit, also known as the Threat Squad, is a group of detectives who investigate threats on the sheriff, judges and other elected officials.
But it was Larkin’s family who felt threatened on the night when Traverse and two other deputies came to arrest the newspaper CEO.
At 9:52 p.m. on Oct. 18, Jim and Molly Larkin were already in bed when the iron knocker rapped loudly against the thick wooden front door.
Molly Larkin said Friday she suspected sheriff’s deputies might come to their Paradise Valley home following publication of the article. But she wasn’t really sure who was outside — she said the car they pulled up in had license plates from Sonora, Mexico — nor what they might do.
She called 911 from her cell phone and urged Paradise Valley police to come to their home immediately. “Someone, three people are trying to get into our house,” Larkin told a dispatcher, according to a recording released Friday.
Her voice grew increasingly frantic. “Oh, God. Help us, please,” she said. “Please come now,” she repeated several times, an audio recording of the 911 call reflected.
The three men, in plain clothes, commanded them to open up, Molly Larkin said. “You know what we want,” she said the voices said. The men shone flashlights toward the door. Larkin characterized the men as “thuggish.”
Jim Larkin opened the door as soon as several Paradise Valley police officers arrived.
The police officers were called off after learning deputies, not robbers, were at the home. Paradise Valley Police Chief John Wintersteen confirmed that deputies did not advise his department in advance that they were coming to Paradise Valley to make an arrest.
The dispatcher’s incident report explained: “No forced entry … MCSO was just banging on the door hard.”