With an estimated $30 million seized from an illegal gambling operation at stake, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office fought a bitter battle this summer over who would prosecute the case and ultimately pocket the money.
The dispute included accusations of unethical conflict and conflict of interest and ended only when highly placed Sheriff’s Office officials flat out refused to cooperate with the assigned prosecutors.
The case came back to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
The battle came to light Thursday in public documents obtained by the Republic and the Tucson Citizen through a contested public records request.
At its center was lightning-rod attorney Dennis Wilenchik, who would be at the center of two scandals in November, first when he demanded that a Maricopa County Superior Court judge step down from all cases involving the County Attorney’s Office and then when his office ordered that two New Times executives be arrested for revealing the contents of a grand jury subpoena.
In the back-and-forth documented in letters and e-mails, Deputy Pima County Attorney David Berkman called a Wilenchik e-mail “the most outrageous and unprofessional correspondence I have received from an attorney in my 33 years of practicing law.”
In that message, Wilenchik had strayed from matters at hand to suggest that the Pima County Attorney’s Office step up its enforcement of the state’s human-smuggling and death-penalty statutes and accused the prosecutors of playing politics.
He suggested that Pima County “spend some time cleaning your own house . . . and spend more quality time helping our citizenry rid itself of the evil that permeates our society rather than focusing on how you might help Terry Goddard in his political wranglings and machinations.”
Arizona Attorney General Goddard had purportedly sent the case to Pima County to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.
He was under investigation by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s and Attorney’s offices for accepting attorney’s fees in another political case.
“If he had sent the case to the Maricopa County Attorney’s office, it could have looked like he was trying to pay them off by giving the forfeiture assets to them while he was being investigated by them,” said Chief Deputy Pima County Attorney Amelia Cramer.
But that’s where Sheriff Joe Arpaio wanted the case to go.
“Why would Pima County get all this money when they had nothing to do with this case?” Arpaio said. “It was my detectives that worked hard. This county did all the work.”
Arpaio put Wilenchik to work on the case.
The battle over who should try the case has so far eclipsed the case itself.
In April 2007, sheriff’s deputies broke up four associated online gambling rings after serving search warrants and arresting 31 people in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Bettors placed wagers online while bookies collected the money in local bars and restaurants. Early media reports claimed that the rings had mob ties and that up to $145 million in assets had been seized.
More recent estimates place the amount at $30 million to $35 million, still a considerable sum that can be split among the court, the prosecuting and investigating agencies under racketeering laws.
In fact, according the Sheriff’s Office, no criminal charges have yet been filed. But the civil case needed to take the seized money is well under way.
In mid-June, facing investigation by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s and Attorneys offices over his office’s handling of former state Treasurer David Petersen’s case, Goddard decided to send the forfeiture case to Pima County prosecutors. They in turn would try the case in Maricopa County Superior Court.
Wilenchik immediately sent a 10-page letter to Goddard and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, calling the move an “unlawful exercise of authority, dominion or control over the Sheriff’s files.” And he threatened to sue.
Then on June 22, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Chief David Hendershott, according to the documents obtained, told chief criminal Pima County Attorney Berkman that his department would not cooperate with the prosecution.
Berkman, in a letter to Arpaio, reiterated his concern that there was a conflict of interest for the Maricopa County attorney to handle the case.
Wilenchik accused Berkman’s office of “interfering in the matter set in Maricopa County for no good reason other than to carry Mr. Goddard’s water.”
In response, Berkman called Wilenchik unprofessional, and Wilenchik upped the ante.
“Your effort to create a conflict is vindictive, beyond petty, and is damaging to the case and client.
“Unfortunately for you, the record of your actions and misdeeds will speak louder, as to whose efforts were ‘unprofessional,’ than your words. I was going to let your letter sit, as the final rant of someone embarrassed by having to concede over the files, without admission of wrongdoing, and overlook your churlish remarks until I was informed of your most recent missive.
“. . .Your purposeful rant is noted but rejected as being just that. Any more hysterical and self-serving comments will be similarly rejected. Your efforts to avoid any discussion, notwithstanding my repeated calls, and then your obvious self-serving and erroneous letters propounded thereafter without any basis will not be overlooked. We too, will take whatever actions are appropriate to deal with this abuse of power by you.”
By July 12, the Citizen had become aware of the dispute and attempted to obtain this correspondence, and the court battle shifted.
“The conduct exhibited by your office is nothing less than appalling,” Wilenchik wrote to Cramer. “The mere fact that the alleged public records request comes so conveniently on the heels of my warning to Mr. Berkman regarding potential disclosure obligations surrounding his allegations about the Maricopa County Attorney’s ‘conflict of interest’ reeks of conspiracy and malice. It is blatantly clear . . . that your office has turned to a journalistic plant . . . as a means to publicize your vindictiveness against the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.”
The Pima County Attorney’s Office threw up its hands, especially in light of Maricopa County’s supposed refusal to cooperate.
“That would make it physically impossible to prosecute” because of the volume of information and paperwork and the time deadlines involved,” Cramer said.
They asked the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office which agency they would work with and the case went to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Capt. Paul Chagolla declined to comment on the particular language Wilenchik used in correspondence with Pima County. However, Chagolla added that “he must have been effective because (the civil case) came back to the county.”
Goddard’s office did not comment.
Special Assistant Maricopa County Attorney Barnett Lotstein summed up his office’s opinion.
“We feel that the sheriff acted absolutely appropriately in an attempt to recover that particular case . . . and we feel that the attorney general acted inappropriately in sending the case to Pima County.”
In an e-mail to the Republic, Wilenchik said, “Other than the fact that we finally prevailed on them to return the files they were wrongfully withholding there is not much else to say about it.”
Cramer was left with a bad taste.
“The most disturbing aspect from our standpoint was that it didn’t appear he or his clients were most focused on the best interests of the state but upon some political process.”
Reporter Lindsey Collom contributed to this story.
In the back-and-forth documented in letters and e-mails, Deputy Pima County Attorney David Berkman called a Dennis Wilenchik e-mail “the most outrageous and unprofessional correspondence I have received from an attorney in my 33 years of practicing law.”
On behalf of Maricopa County authorities, Dennis Wilenchik suggested that Pima County “spend some time cleaning your own house . . . and spend more quality time helping our citizenry rid itself of the evil that permeates our society rather than focusing on how you might help Terry Goddard in his political wranglings and machinations.”