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Attorney general’s decision sends lucrative case to Pima

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

MESA – Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard has referred a potentially lucrative civil forfeiture case to Pima County, drawing the ire of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who wants the case to remain in the county.

Goddard’s actions followed a decision two weeks ago to remove his office from any criminal or civil case involving Arpaio’s office or the Maricopa County Attorney. He said he made the move after determining that an investigation launched by Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas into his actions created a conflict of interest.

Arpaio and Thomas have been investigating Goddard’s office to try to see if there is any evidence state prosecutors cut a deal with former state Treasurer David Petersen in return for a $1.9 million payment last year. They have not made public any details that might support their suspicions.

Among the cases Goddard returned to the sheriff was a gambling probe that led to the arrest of 34 people and the seizure of roughly $145 million in cash, cars, homes and other property.

The criminal case will be prosecuted by the Maricopa county attorney, but Goddard sent the civil case to the Pima county attorney in Tucson.

If Pima County prosecutors are successful, they would keep about 20 percent of the total money seized. The remaining 80 percent would go to Arpaio’s office.

That angered Arpaio, who said any money recovered should stay in Maricopa County.

“I don’t think that the people of Pima County should be getting the proceeds when they had nothing to do with it,” Arpaio said. “It’s the people of Maricopa County that should receive that money through the County Attorney’s Office.”

Goddard said he sent the case to Tucson to prevent any appearance that he was trying to influence Thomas’ investigation of the Attorney General’s Office.

“We felt we had to go to another county because the Maricopa County attorney is part of the investigation, and we would have been throwing him this huge bone, which is our ongoing forfeiture seizure,” Goddard said. “I don’t see how we could (counter) an allegation that we were somehow buying favor to take a very, very potentially lucrative case like that and just hand it over to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.”

Dennis Wilenchik, a private attorney hired by the sheriff’s office, said in a letter sent to Goddard last week that the sheriff has the right to decide what agency will handle both the criminal and civil cases.

For Goddard to declare a conflict of interest and then assign the case elsewhere smacks of retaliation, Wilenchik said.

Goddard’s decision “is less suggestive of an attempt to avoid an implication of ‘bribery’ than a gesture that could reasonably be interpreted as retaliatory, petty and in direct response to the sheriff’s investigation of the Petersen bribery matter,” Wilenchik wrote.

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