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New Times execs sue Maricopa County sheriff and attorney

Arpaio: ‘I welcome the lawsuit. I welcome being sued.’

Two newspaper executives arrested last October by members of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office have sued the sheriff, county attorney and a special prosecutor over the incident.

The suit filed by Phoenix New Times executives Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin named Sheriff Joe Arpaio, County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Dennis Wilenchik, the former special prosecutor assigned to the case.

It accuses them of negligence, conspiracy and racketeering, and violating the constitutional rights of the two journalists by arresting them for publishing details of an overreaching grand jury subpoena.

Among other things, the subpoena demanded that the alternative weekly turn over the names and addresses of its online readers, as well as details of their Internet viewing habits.

“You can’t threaten the readers of an American newspaper, which is unprecedented,” said Lacey, executive editor of Village Voice Media, which owns New Times and several other papers across the country.

Thomas deflected questions about the suit after it was filed Tuesday by calling attention to a racial slur that Lacey uttered at an awards dinner earlier this month.

Arpaio criticized the paper and the Phoenix attorney who brought the suit, Michael Manning.

“They can’t take their own medicine, so they have to be like crybabies and file a lawsuit against the sheriff and the county attorney,” Arpaio said. “So you know what? I welcome the lawsuit. I welcome being sued. They’re going to have to answer a lot of questions.”

Wilenchik did not return a call seeking comment.

The arrests of Lacey and Larkin came three years after New Times published a series of articles critical of Arpaio. In one 2004 story they violated an obscure law by publishing Arpaio’s address online; publishing the information in a newspaper is legal.

Arpaio pressured Thomas to prosecute the case and Thomas tried unsuccessfully to farm it out to the Pinal County attorney, according to the lawsuit. Thomas then appointed his former employer, private attorney Wilenchik, as special prosecutor.

Wilenchik issued a subpoena demanding documents related to the reporting and publishing of several articles and information about New Times’ Web site readers.

While fighting the subpoena, Larkin and Lacey learned that Wilenchik had tried to arrange an unethical private meeting with the judge hearing the case.

At that point, they decided to violate the judge’s order not to publicize the case. They published a story about the subpoena and the case against their writers, and they were arrested the night the story came out.

Thomas announced that the charges were dropped the next day.

In April, Lacey and Larkin filed a notice of claim with the county seeking $15 million. When it was rejected, they filed suit.

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