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.”
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.
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 azpsf.com.
“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.”