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A Violation of Trust? 9OYS probe into PC Attorney's Office spending of public funds

Posted at 3:42 AM, Sep 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-18 06:42:50-04

Our more than year long investigation into public corruption in Pima County takes another turn. This time -- the focus shifts to the Pima County Attorney's Office and how it's handled federal and state anti-racketeering (RICO)  dollars -- seized criminal money that become public funds.

Our I-Team examined piles of public records and they reveal some questionable spending and reporting practices. 

I requested an interview with County Attorney Barbara LaWall. She agreed. I provided her with a preliminary set of questions. Then days later, she bowed out of the on-camera interview and instead emailed a written response to allow more details. In the response, LaWall stated she followed state law and federal guidelines to the best of her knowledge.

What we discovered that has legal experts raising serious red flags.

Huge pots of money -- millions of dollars in RICO funds -- are handed over to County Attorney Barbara LaWall each year. Her office doles out the money to itself and law enforcement agencies in Pima County to help fight crime.

Aaron Ludwig worked in the Attorney General's Office for 6 years -- in charge of analyzing RICO laws and guidelines.

"The Pima County Attorney's office is overseeing and making sure all the money that's given into sub-accounts for law enforcement agencies are handled appropriately," said Ludwig. 

Now the office that oversees the agencies is in question.

A few months ago, I was handed documents from someone who made a public records request three years ago. These are the Pima County Attorney's RICO expenditures in 2013.
The records include a list of 59 non-profit community and government agencies -- under the category "Pima County Attorney Gang and Drug" totaling over $228,000.

We recently made the same public records request to the County Attorney Office. The formats are very different, but contain essentially the same information -- with one exception. The document that lists the agencies.

The newer document was stripped of 5 columns. Notably absent-- the category "Pima County Attorney Gang and Drug."

That's a critical category because this entire list of non-profit agencies, the amounts, and descriptions justifying the expenditures have to be reported - quarterly to the state under "Gang and Substance Abuse Prevention Education." But quarterly reports for 2011, 2013, and 2015 show nothing was entered. Pima County Attorney chief deputy Amelia Cramer's explanation: They discovered a year and a half ago that someone on the staff failed to complete the detailed pages.

"So the watchdog, the overseer, the Pima County Attorney's Office, needs to have someone watching it," said Ludwig. 

Another stripped column contains the voucher numbers. Using those numbers from older public records, we were able to get the program descriptions that justify the expenditures.

Paul Avelar, an attorney in the Institute for Justice's Arizona office, describes potential abuses in the system. "What could be anti-drug education might turn out to be linked to a non-profit connected to an elected official and money for advertising might be illegal politicking on the government dime," said Avelar.

So what is allowed?  We checked state law. It stipulates programs should have a criminal justice nexus, hence the "Gang and Substance Abuse Prevention Education" category. 

But in LaWall's written response, she includes  "youth programs and activities" to the list. She referenced a federal guideline -- which allows programs that "are supportive of and consistent with law enforcement efforts."  

The guideline also gives the example of "a youth program with drug and crime prevention education." Both legal experts pointed to a list of questionable non-profit community expenditures by Barbara LaWall.

Starting with two $5,000 checks to "The Weather Bus" -- a rolling science laboratory. "That would also be impermissible because that doesn't have an anti-gang or anti-drug component," said Ludwig. 

LaWall approved $600 to the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and $500 to the Pima County Sheriff for events recognizing accomplishments of staff. The Juneteenth Festival Committee received $2,000. LaWall approved nearly $4000 for Neighborhood Associations. "Neighborhood Associations generally fight blight - pay for graffiti removal. That's not anti-gang," said Ludwig.

The legal experts question expenditures to non-profits like Metropolitan Education Commission -- Big Brother, Big Sisters, Girl Scouts. "And they may be good things, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, but what's the public really getting back from these expenditures and some of these expenditures are done for political reasons to win political favor," said Ludwig.

Non-profit agencies include:
Community Foundation for Southern Arizona
Ironwood Ridge High School -- Project Graduation
Rincon/University Baseball Program
Tucson Conquistadores AKA Conquistadores Youth Golf Fund
CDO Project Graduation
Tucson Police Foundation
University High School Parent Assoc. 
Carden of Tucson
Educational Enrichment Foundation
Christine-Taylor Green  Memorial Foundatoin
Pan Asian Community Alliance
Catalina Grad Night
San Miguel High School
Easter Seals Blake Foundation
Policia Internacional Sonora Arizona
Culture of Peace Alliance
Hispanic Women's Corporation

And with no real oversight on how the non-profit agencies spend the money that could lead to abuse of the public funds. "The government is not supposed to hand out government money to private organizations without some sort of return on that," said Avelar.

Meaning the YWCA, which received $25,000, would have to give the state $25,000 worth of anti-drug and gang services, otherwise it's a gift. 

The legal experts say that's a violation of state law -- pointing to the "Gift Clause" in the Arizona constitution.

And the dollars add up -- more than half an million in just these three years.
2011 -- $172,000
2013 -- $228,000
2015 -- $174,000

"There are a number of questions that need to be answered here both legally in the judicial system, but also the public needs to know what's going on. What are at the bottom of government funds, public funds. How are they being used," said Avelar.

We examined other spending of RICO funds by the Pima County Attorney's Office, which the legal experts are also calling into question. Our investigation continues in the coming days.

Barbara LaWall response:

Permissible uses of anti-racketeering funds include support of community-based programs and community non-profit organizations whose missions and community based programs are supportive of and consistent with a law enforcement effort, policy and or initiative. My Office and other local law enforcement agencies have had a longstanding commitment of supporting such community based programs.

Use of anti-racketeering funds is law enforcement's commitment to a drug and crime free community, and a recognition of the importance of the roles of prosecutors and law enforcement that address crime, drug and gang prevention, substance abuse prevention or education, or youth programs and activities, which are supportive of and consistent with law enforcement efforts. IN 1993, when tean area law enforcement agencies including my office participated in a coordinated program, the grant program was recognized for its outstanding contributions to the community by the Innovations in State and Local Government Program jointly operated by the Ford Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Data Journalist: James Parisi