Monsoon storm topples some power lines in Apache Junction

powerlinesAPACHE JUNCTION, Ariz. (AP) — Strong winds from a monsoon storm have topped some power lines in Apache Junction, leaving thousands of residents temporarily without electricity.

Friday afternoon’s storm also brought blowing dust and some brief heavy rain in the Phoenix area, causing up to 45-minute flight delays at Sky Harbor International Airport.

The National Weather Service in Phoenix reported winds at up to 50 mph moved through the Apache Junction area east of Phoenix around 2 p.m. Friday.

Arizona Department of Transportation officials say the downed power lines are on State Route 88 at Tepee Street near Tomahawk Road.

The Salt River Project’s outage map showed nearly 7,500 residences and businesses without power following the storm. That number was quickly cut to about 3,000 as crews worked to repair damaged power poles.



My Turn: Criminal money is put to good use

Sheriff Paul Babeu photo: Ross Franklin

Posted: Wednesday, July 29, 2015 9:14 am

Recently you may have seen in the news that the ACLU plans to sue the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, Pinal County attorney, Pinal County clerk of the court and the Pinal County Superior Court. This is the same organization that in 2012 claimed there were insects and worms inside of the water faucets at the Pinal County jail. None of our staff could find the insects or worms, nor were there any other complaints from local citizens of “insects and worms” in their water lines, but of course it makes for great headlines.

Their latest lawsuit claims employees of Pinal County unlawfully seized the property used during the commission of a burglary and then used the proceeds a “slush fund.”

Here is what happened with the case which the ACLU conveniently omits from their public release of the lawsuit. Christopher Martin (age 20) has already been arrested numerous times by PCSO for crimes including: theft, shoplifting, probation violation and trespassing. Martin and two other friends decided they would cut the chain-link fence at 1 a.m. in the morning to Johnson Utilities and steal a truck hood and tonneau cover from a truck belonging to the utility company. They then installed both of the items onto the truck that Christopher Martin said belonged to him. The vehicle was registered to his mother, but Christopher Martin readily admitted to detectives it was his truck, and he is the one who drives it.

All three were later arrested for the crimes and Martin was booked into the Pinal County jail for burglary, possession of stolen property and criminal damage.

His truck was seized under the Arizona RICO laws. PCSO followed the proper process outlined by law. The seizure was reviewed by a Pinal County Superior Court judge, and he signed off on the forfeiture of the truck. The truck was then sold at an auction.

Over the past seven years, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office has donated $1.2 million of seized criminal money from cases just like this to support youth programs like the Boys & Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts, YMCA, high school graduation night lock-in events, youth sports as well as veterans groups, local food banks, victims assistance programs and the Home of Home in Casa Grande.

The primary job of law enforcement is to protect our citizens. We are doing just that by using criminal money we have seized from drug dealers and other criminals and reinvesting the money in programs to better the quality of life in Pinal County. As long as the bad guys keep trying to make a living through committing crimes, we will continue to provide this type of funding to organizations that restore victims and help keep our youth free from drugs, criminal activity and gangs.


ACLU files suit against nonprofit with ties to Pinal County sheriff, attorney

Posted: Wednesday, July 29, 2015 1:00 am

FLORENCE — Local law enforcement agencies are reeling after the announcement from the American Civil Liberties Union that it is filing a lawsuit against some of the most powerful elected officials in Pinal County.

The filing shines a spotlight on one nonprofit in particular with ties to both the Pinal County Attorney’s Office and the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office. 

 The formal complaint from the national ACLU office, written jointly with its Arizona affiliate and the Phoenix law firm Perkins Coie, mentions the Arizona Public Safety Foundation specifically.

According to its articles of incorporation in 2007, the foundation’s original purpose was “to promote and assist in fund raising (sic) activities for volunteer groups associated with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department.”  

But that original intent has gone awry, attorneys claim. The ACLU complaint points to the current usage: “At a minimum, it seems that by funneling money to a private group which buys things for him and his department, Defendant (Sheriff Paul) Babeu is able to avoid procurement laws and other transparency regulations which usually apply to government purchasing,” it reads. 

Over the past three fiscal years, more than $500,000 has flowed between the anti-racketeering funds and the foundation in “reimbursements” for unnamed purchases. 

County Attorney Lando Voyles said he can’t comment on pending litigation.

County records obtained through a public records request list a combined total of $652,677 that was transferred out of three RICO funds — from the Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and the Pinal County Narcotics Task Force — and into the foundation from a period of July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2015.  

So where are all those seized assets going?

The foundation’s most recent IRS tax filing, from 2013, shows expenses totaling $303,753 for line items such as $41,268 for advertising and promotion; $45,958 for shirts, uniforms and badges; $45,581 for employee/volunteer appreciation; $38,504 for travel and meal costs; $33,152 for employee relief; and a catch-all “all other expenses” of $91,906. Office costs, insurance, accounting and conference fees are also included. 

 Aid to organizations

In the program description for the quarterly filing with the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, the Pinal County Attorney’s Office notes “All of these organizations offer activities and information to help keep kids away form (sic) drugs and gangs, as well as promote crime prevention activities as a whole to Pinal County Communities.” 

Tiffany Davila, spokeswoman for the county Attorney’s Office, said the foundation pays the rent and utilities for the San Tan Valley Family Advocacy Center, which opened last year. The exact amount the center has received from the foundation was not listed by name in county documents.

This isn’t the first time the county’s top law enforcement officials have been accused of playing fast and loose with seized assets.  

During a Board of Supervisors meeting in May 2014, Babeu disagreed with then-Chairman Anthony Smith’s (R-Maricopa) suggestion to focus more on equipment and training needs rather than community group handouts due to the county’s financial straits, telling the board that $1.5 million out of RICO funds has gone toward critical needs for deputies since he took office in 2009. 

Smith countered his reply, saying more than $200,000 so far had been donated toward nonprofit organizations, or about 28 percent of RICO revenue that year. 

“Two hundred thousand dollars in a tough budget year is a big amount of money that could be applied to equipment or training,” Smith said at the time, adding he was worried about higher incidences of crime in his district, including Arizona City, Thunderbird Farms and Hidden Valley.

Ultimately, the Board of Supervisors has no authority to direct spending of anti-racketeering monies, Babeu pointed out. 

In fact, Arizona state law gives a lot of freedom to local agencies to choose how to allocate the money to community outreach groups, something then-county auditor Kate Witek highlighted in her September 2014 report about the county’s use of RICO cash. Criteria listed in ARS 13-2413.03 Section (E) defines what RICO cash can be used for: “gang prevention programs, substance abuse prevention programs, substance abuse education programs and witness protection pursuant to Section 11-536, or for any purpose permitted by federal law relating to the disposition of any property that is transferred to a law enforcement agency.” 

 Auditor’s warning

Still, Witek cautioned the Attorney’s Office on its handouts in the report, which listed the office’s anti-racketeering expenditures from April 2013 to March 2014 as totaling $2.26 million. 

In one of her recommendations, Witek advised the Attorney’s Office to “consider requiring all county entities with RICO funds under their administrative control adhere to the Community Outreach award guidelines established by the Pinal County Attorney, to minimize county liability.”  

Those guidelines include a description of program participants, program budget information and information about program hiring and screening of staff and volunteers who interact with juveniles as well as documented verification of nonprofit status. 

Witek quit her job at the end of last year. The county has not named any replacement and is still hammering out details for a possible third-party audit service to perform those duties. There has been no follow-up to Witek’s recommendations. 

Joseph Trasser, who is director of operations at a crime scene cleanup business, serves as president of the Arizona Public Safety Foundation board. On Friday, he said he didn’t have any comment since he hadn’t heard of the lawsuit until a reporter called and asked him. 

In an emailed statement, Babeu said, “This foundation was established well before I was Sheriff to support numerous police departments, Sheriff’s Offices and even fire departments. We are very grateful for their support to us in public safety.” 

As for the lawsuit, PCSO released a long statement to reporters Friday afternoon, saying it couldn’t publicly comment on the ACLU allegations and that it “doesn’t believe the 2013 civil forfeiture case should be argued in the media.” 

PCSO did acknowledge the controversy over its handling of seized assets. “What the Sheriff’s Office can do is to assure the public that this and all other civil forfeiture proceedings are done in accordance with the existing laws of the state. It is also important for the Sheriff’s Office to assure the public that all the RICO funds are managed, audited and expended in accordance with state and federal laws which are followed by every law enforcement agency in the state.” 

In 2007, the Pinal County Justice Foundation was created as a way to give local donors a tax ID number for write-off purposes, said founder Chris Vasquez, the former Pinal County sheriff who now works as interim Casa Grande police chief.   

 Previous separation

Vasquez, who is no longer involved in the group after his 2008 re-election defeat to Babeu, said he wanted to keep the group very separate from the actual Sheriff’s Office. Most of the board consisted of community members with no PCSO connection. 

That initial group stands in contrast to the foundation’s current form. Current APSF board members with ties to PCSO include Treasurer Erik Larsen, who is a PCSO deputy and leads the Explorer program, PCSO Sgt. Stormee Wallace and former ICE contract administrator Ruben Montano. 

In 2010, the nonprofit changed its name to the Arizona Public Safety Foundation, two years after Babeu took office, in order to “serve other counties,” according to  

“The whole idea behind this foundation was it had no oversight by me,” Vasquez said. “There was not supposed to be any public money into that foundation, meaning tax dollars, grant money or RICO money. It was created solely to receive donations from outside sources.”   

Vasquez declined to comment about the current foundation, citing respect to Sheriff Babeu, but explained the RICO process in detail. 

“RICO money cannot supplant the existing budget,” Vasquez said. “You have to show a direct correlation that the money is for first narcotics, gangs and crime… and training.” 

For example, buying a computer for a secretary to do work is not permitted under the criteria, Vasquez said. “It has to have a direct impact on those three categories.” 

Vasquez said he approves of RICO money going toward organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs because programs keep kids involved and off the street, less likely to get sucked into a gang. However, he said then-County Attorney James Walsh had a strict policy about donating to faith-based groups. 

“There was a time where I gave money to a youth group who was faith based, and (Walsh) said, ‘Hey, you can’t do that with separation of church and state,’” Vasquez said. “And I learned. He educated me on RICO.” 

The president of the Pinal County Justice Foundation was Jerald Monahan, who served under Vasquez as his chief deputy at PCSO. He now works as the police chief in Prescott. 

“What we saw was an opportunity as a nonprofit for people who want to donate,” Monahan said, noting the popularity of the K-9 program as an oft-requested donor project. “If somebody wanted to access those funds, they had to come and make a presentation.” 

 Oversight was there

Monahan said the group was a “pretty well put together foundation” with oversight. He said he abstained during votes pertaining to PCSO requests. 

With the ACLU lawsuit at the forefront on the minds of many Pinal officials last week, some were still wary of the way anti-racketeering funds are handled by the county’s law enforcement leaders. 

“I have no problem using RICO funds for charity nonprofits,” county Supervisor Smith said on Friday. “I think that’s a good thing. But I have communities in my district where I can see RICO funds go to overtime for officers in high-crime areas.” 

Smith said the fund reimbursement to the AZPSF “concerns me very deeply” and lamented the empty Internal Audit office upon Witek’s departure last December. 

“It caused me heartburn,” Smith said. “I think any time you lack oversight of an area and you have somewhat exclusive control, it appears it can sometimes lead to not enough transparency in the public processes.” 


Housing rebound could mean more poaching in Pinal

It is known as “saguaro poaching” and usually occurs in Arizona mostly during housing booms.

That is how state and Pinal County land management officials characterize the problem of thieves stealing the protected cactus, whose blossom is Arizona’s state flower.

The Arizona Native Plant Law protects saguaros and other native plant species, and getting a label and permit from the Arizona Department of Agriculture is the only way to legally move a saguaro unless a landowner moves the plant within his or her property.

Thieves find a market for the poached saguaros through nurseries in and out of state and shady landscape contractors.

However, authorities say saguaro thefts haven’t been a major problem since the 2009 recession put a damper on home building. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has not investigated a case of saguaro theft since an incident at Ironwood Forest National Monument two years ago.

BLM spokesman Dennis Godfrey said thefts tend to happen in cycles. He added high activity of residential development typically parallels higher cactus thefts due to landscapers looking to populate neighborhoods with saguaros.

The U.S. Forest Service also has noticed an association between housing booms and theft increases. Kathie Schmidlin, a spokeswoman with the federal agency, said reports of saguaro poaching were more common in Arizona’s national forests before the economic recession around 2009.

Schmidlin added that poaching is now “not a big concern” at Tonto National Forest, located northeast of Phoenix. Forest rangers regularly survey the grounds for poachers but are not always able to cover the forest’s 3 million acres.

However, with the residential market starting to rebound, officials plan to be vigilant.

Rangers typically depend on public visitors to help report suspicious activity of theft or vandalism.

Pinal County is home to two national monuments set aside by the federal government to protect large tracts of desert land and vegetation. The Ironwood monument encompasses 129,000 acres south of Red Rock, while the Sonoran Desert National Monument west of Casa Grande protects 487,000 acres in both Pinal and Maricopa counties. The monument is bisected by Interstate 8, providing many access points for potential cactus poachers. Both monuments are managed by the BLM.

Distinctive Earthscapes at the Avocado Nursery on North Overfield Road near Casa Grande always verifies saguaros residents try selling. Though the nursery typically grows its own cactuses, it will check whether a saguaro is coming from a resident’s property, a spokesman said.

The nursery also requests that a resident switch over the cactus permit issued by the state’s Department of Agriculture when making a sale.


County to dismantle fair commission Nonprofit organization now runs event

Steven King/Dispatch file

FLORENCE –– As part of a plan it set in motion in 2010, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors has taken another step to move away from direct oversight of the county fair.

At a work session Wednesday, the board gave direction to staff to dismantle the Pinal County Fair Commission, which was created in 2011 to oversee the transition of the fair’s control from county staff to a nonprofit organization that reports back to the county. A formal vote will be taken at a future regular session of the Board of Supervisors to complete the process of ending the fair commission.

The goal of the plan to move the fair to nonprofit control a few years ago was to have it become self-sustaining, meaning no taxpayer dollars would be needed to host the annual event. 

Supervisor Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, asked Wednesday what progress had been made toward that end. 

“Since 2011 the number of improvements that have gone on have been a lot more than what would have been had we still been managing it on our own,” answered Director of Open Space and Trails Kent Taylor, who had the responsibility of managing the fairgrounds for a year in 2008 before the transition.

From a financial perspective, the county budgeted more than $500,000 for fair expenditures in fiscal year 2011, but after that, only a total of $200,000 was spent in fiscal years 2012 and 2013.

The decision to get rid of the commission, especially in light of the agreement with the nonprofit Central Arizona Fair Association, which has reporting obligations to the county as part of its contract, was an easy one.

“There’s no reason to have a duplication of two committees doing the same thing, with one doing all the work and the other not doing anything,” Miller said.

CAFA Executive Director Karen Searle said any major decisions on changes to the fairgrounds would go back to the Board of Supervisors even without the fair commission.

“It’s the county’s property and we love it and respect that,” she said.


The nearly century-old Apache Railway survived the Depression and more recently the loss of its main client, but leaders in the small central Arizona town of Snowflake are worried the railroad is approaching the end of the line.

The railroad, while profitable, was put into bankruptcy protection in May after town leaders failed to find funding to repay a $7.2 million loan owed to an investor group that gave them a three-year reprieve.

Now, Snowflake’s mayor and other elected officials are trying to persuade a bankruptcy judge to keep lenders from foreclosing on the railroad—the region’s economic lifeline—until they find out if the project qualifies for a loan through a $2.2 billion U.S. Department of Agriculture program for rural towns.

The railroad’s supporters would use the federal loan to pay off an investor group led by Hackman Capital Partners, an owner of industrial real estate. Railroad officials recently asked Judge Madeleine C. Wanslee to suspend the railroad’s case for 60 days—“an extraordinary remedy,” they admitted in court papers.

But the investment firm’s patience is growing thin. In an Arizona courtroom in late June, Hackman Capital lawyer Bryce Suzuki urged Judge Wanslee to set sale deadlines that, if missed, would enable the lender to foreclose.

“There have been two promised financings that never occurred, and now we’re here,” Mr. Suzuki said.

Hackman officials have not told Judge Wanslee whether they would dismantle the railroad. A Hackman official declined to clarify or offer further comment.

The railroad, however, is worth more dead than alive. The railroad’s bankruptcy lawyer estimated that its operations are worth about $11 million. The railroad has several locomotives and a track made of heavy tensile steel, which can be used as replacement rail.

Snowflake leaders already watched Hackman-led investors dismantle a paper mill on the town’s border, once one of the region’s largest private employers with about 300 workers. The county’s annual unemployment rate—measured at 14.3% when the closure hit—has yet to fall from double digits.

“We need jobs in this region in the worst way,” said Jason Whiting, an elected member of the county’s board of supervisors.

Hackman got Apache Railway when it agreed to buy the empty paper mill from Canada’s Catalyst Paper Corp. for $13.5 million in 2012.

Snowflake leaders persuaded Hackman-led investors to hold off on plans to dismantle it. The lenders agreed to put it into a nonprofit entity and extended a short-term loan until local officials could buy them out.

Local leaders failed to find a new loan before the railroad’s borrowing agreement expired in June 2014. They put it into bankruptcy on May 20 after Hackman officials maneuvered to take over the railroad’s operations.

Built in 1917, the railroad connects Snowflake, a high desert town with a population of 5,590, with a bigger rail line in Holbrook in Navajo County. The paper mill closure left it financially fragile with one customer: a 160-worker hog farm for pork giant Hormel Foods that gets 90 railcars of feed per month.

The railroad, which employs 21 people, later struck a deal to store and repair railcars for BNSF Railway Co. It is projected to take in $2.8 million in revenue this year and post a profit of $400,000, according to court papers.

And local officials are relying on the railroad to help recruit new companies. A sawmill located next to the biomass plant might use it. So might future potash mines.

“Without it, we’re in line with a whole lot of other places across the Southwest as far as what we have to offer,” said Paul Watson, assistant county manager and economic development director for Navajo County.


Ambitious Arizona copper mine pits multinational companies against tribes, environmentalists

This photo taken Monday, June 15, 2015, shows the Resolution Copper Mining area Shaft #9, right, and Shaft #10, left, that awaits the expansion go ahead in Superior, Ariz., for the project they say the mine will usher in a new era of prosperity for Arizona, bringing in the equivalent of roughly a $1 billion worth of revenue annually for about 60 years in a state. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

By RYAN VAN VELZER, Associated Press

SUPERIOR, Ariz. (AP) — Outside of an aging mining town in the mountains east of Phoenix, a copper company has burrowed a shaft 1.3 miles into the high desert landscape in what is believed to be the deepest such mine in the U.S.

Resolution Copper Mining says the mine will usher in a new era of prosperity for Arizona, bringing in the equivalent of roughly a $1 billion worth of revenue annually for about 60 years in a state still trying to emerge from the housing bust.

The mine also will use approximately 18,000 acre feet of water annually, enough to supply about 40,000 homes. And it will claim nearly 5-square miles on the edge of nearby Superior to store mining waste that can be toxic.

 The plan has angered conservationists, residents and Native American tribes who argue the mine will cause irreparable harm to land coveted for its beauty, biodiversity and sanctity.

Tribes say the project could destroy part of a historic ridge where dozens of Apache warriors leapt to their deaths to avoid surrendering to U.S. Calvary during western expansion.

The company, business leaders and Republican members of Congress believe they have addressed environmental and tribal concerns while protecting the environment and holy Native American locations.

Copper is one of Arizona’s most abundant resources and remains a vital part of the state’s economy. The Arizona Mining Association estimated that if Arizona was a country, it would be the ninth-biggest copper producer in the world.

But mining that mineral wealth creates the risk of pollution and a vicious boom-and-bust cycle that the Sierra Club says has resulted in more than 100,000 abandoned mine shafts around the state.

A study by Arizona-based Elliot D. Pollack and Company found that Resolution Copper Mine could produce as much as $64.1 billion in economic value over the estimated 60-year mine life, about a third of which will go to local, state and federal tax revenues.

Project director Andrew Taplin said the mine will create as many as 1,400 mining jobs and 2,300 contracting positions.

“The economic epicenter will be right here in the town of Superior and spread its way out through the state,” Taplin said.

The 1.7 billion-ton copper ore deposit sits deep underneath an area called Oak Flats, which the San Carlos Apache tribe believes is the origin of all life on earth.

In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower protected the Oak Flats campground from future mining activity and reserved the location for recreation including camping, hiking, birding and rock climbing. Conservationists covet Oak Flats and the nearby Devil’s Canyon as a unique habitat home to an endangered type of cactus and the headwaters of a creek.

The company plans to tap into the ore using block-cave mining, a technique that involves digging underneath the ore body and setting off explosions to break apart the ore. As miners remove the ore, the land on top is expected to fracture and collapse, creating a two-mile wide, 1,000-foot-deep crater that could swallow the Oak Flats campground and destroy part of the Apache Leap Ridge.

To obtain the land, Resolution Copper enlisted the help of Congress, namely Sen. John McCain. McCain attached a provision into a defense bill in December that transferred 2,400 acres of federal land to Resolution Copper in exchange for 5,300 acres of land owned by the company.

McCain heralded the bill as a compromise that protects 800 acres of sacred land along Apache Leap, allows access to Oak Flats campgrounds and requires the mine to undergo an Environmental Impact Statement before it receives the land. Access to the campground is contingent on the sinking ground being able to safely hold campers.

Critics say the mine’s economic projections are overstated.