Public Corruption Probe: Pima County Supervisor wants to temporarily stop all RICO spending

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Supervisor Sharon Bronson wants to stop all RICO spending in the County Attorney's Office until an independent review is completed.

A change in state law authorizes the board of supervisors to approve requests for expenditures.

Last week, the board voted to bring in an independent auditor to review how the County Attorney handled RICO expenses over the past five years.

Bronson says she plans to add the request for a delay on the agenda for discussion during the Oct. 3 board meeting.

And here's why.

Bronson, as well as legal experts, say there are many gray areas in allowable spending, so Bronson wants to make sure she's comfortable in RICO rules before she begins signing off on expenditures.

We've already reported on the County Attorney's questionable reporting and spending of RICO dollars --- specifically to non-profits.

Once again we asked Barbara LaWall for an on-camera interview, but she declined and instead sent us some written responses.

Supervisor Sharon Bronson is taking a hard line on RICO spending. She made that abundantly clear to County Attorney Barbara LaWall in late July after LaWall sent a memo to Bronson detailing the board's new oversight role.

Bronson said, "What I received from the County Attorney was a list -- a generalized list of what she thought the RICO expenses would be."

LaWall asked the board to approve that list -- which included salaries, supplies, travel, advertising and miscellaneous charges.

Cavazos: Any of those jump right out to you?
Bronson: Well, all of them frankly because they're all vague. I need more specificity.

More details, she said, in part because our in-depth investigation into the Pima County Sheriff's Department -- which exposed misuse of the funds by command staff -- including extravagant annual awards ceremonies.

Bronson said, "It sounded like she wanted us to do a blanket approval. I basically said that wasn't acceptable. That we needed to do it on an item by item basis."

So within days, she instructed County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry to review the last five years of expenditures. About the same time, KGUN9 received documents from a public records request covering three years -- 2011, 2013 and 2015.

And we discovered similar spending practices that landed the Sheriff's Department in hot water.

RICO rules state all law enforcement agencies must avoid any appearance of "extravagance" whether it ceremonies or travel expenses that exceed per diem rates.

2013 records show LaWall stayed in posh hotels to attend training and staff recognition events in DC, LA, and San Diego. In each case, room costs exceeded per diem rates -- nearly double in San Diego.

"To the extent that it's extravagant, then it's impermissible," said attorney Aaron Ludwig is an expert in RICO rules, "There's an affirmative obligation for recipients of RICO funds to avoid any appearance of extravagance when spending RICO funds."

Paul Avelar, an attorney with the Institute of Justice, questions flying high-ranking officials for training sessions. "This can be good or abusive. The devil is in the details to figure out what's really going on."

County Attorney documents over the three years reveal staff spent nearly $21,000 dollars for food and beverages, in some cases, during training sessions. Though LaWall tells us buying food is perfectly permissible, Ludwig said meals are not allowed except for officers engaged in local operations.

Cavazos: Is that also a concern?
Bronson: How could it not be.

The board voted to adopt the stricter federal guidelines as it moves forward, which could put several yearly expenditures in jeopardy. The federal rules do not allow RICO funds to be used for personal or political use -- such as state bar dues -- required to practice law.

Cavazos: Bar dues.
Ludwig: Impermissible.
Cavazos: Membership dues.
Ludwig: Completely impermissible.

Records over the three years show memberships and dues totaled more than $23,000. 2013 documents show RICO money paid for LaWall's membership dues -- $880 --  to Women at the Top. LaWall explained to us she became a member to recruit volunteers for various County Attorney programs. Before this, RICO money paid for the yearly membership dues. but records reveal the expense has moved to the General Fund.

Several on staff, including Barbara LaWall and her chief deputy, received personal Cell Phone Reimbursements -- totaling just under $10,000. LaWall says partial reimbursement is allowed, but Avelar said these type of expenditures should be scrutinized.

Cavazos: Personal Cell phone reimbursement.
Avelar: Problematic.
Ludwig: It raises red flags that need to be evaluated more closely.

Another RICO expenditure that could come under more scrutiny -- payroll -- which averages about half a million dollars each year.

LaWall requested approval for salaries and employee-related expenses for attorneys, support staff, and Community Justice staff, but the legal experts say federal rules are far more restrictive on what kind of salaries are allowed.

Bronson said, "The buck stops as supervisor, as indicated in the board meeting, we are the final arbitrators of that decision. I need to have a comfort level of what we're doing that we are both transparent and in line with federal regulation."

Bronson plans to put the request to temporarily stop all RICO spending on the agenda to be discussed during the October 3rd board meeting.

Data Journalist: James Parisi

 

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