A close analysis of public documents reveals serious questions about how the Pima County Attorney accounts for and spends RICO funds.
Under Arizona law “racketeering” is defined as a laundry list of criminal acts that are committed for financial gain. If the police seize a person’s property whom they suspect of committing a racketeering (or RICO) offense, that property can be forfeited and auctioned off, even if the person is never actually convicted of a crime. That is, innocent people who have never been suspected of committing a crime can – and do – lose their property to RICO forfeiture.
Recently Pima County’s RICO procedures were subject to FBI scrutiny, and in October the second in command of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department resigned after being indicted by the Department of Justice for misusing RICO funds.
What has been subject to far less scrutiny is the role the Pima County Attorney plays in determining how RICO money is spent. Under Arizona law, County Attorneys may distribute the RICO funds allocated to their county to whichever agencies they see fit. Though RICO laws were first written with the intention to fund gang, crime, and substance abuse prevention programs, in FY2015-2016 County Attorney LaWall only allocated 0.08% of available funds to these efforts.
RICO laws and forfeiture proceedings generate considerable amounts of money every year. According to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, which was created in 1982 by the Arizona legislature to monitor and report on RICO spending, the Pima County Attorney’s master RICO account contained more than $12.6 million at the beginning of fiscal year 2015 – 2016. Out of this sum, the County Attorney chose to give the Pima County Sheriff Department’s “Financial Services Unit” more money than any other law enforcement agency received – $533,000.
Per the Sheriff’s Department, that is the unit responsible for budgeting and finance, not operations or investigations. To all other Sheriff’s Department units, Ms. LaWall allocated $0, while eight other Pima County law enforcement agencies – including the Pasqua Yaqui and Tohono O’odham Police Departments – also received $0. The Pima County Attorney did see fit to spend the second-largest sum of RICO dollars on her own office – $491,278.
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Significantly, at a time when both law enforcement officers and line prosecutors are clamoring for long-delayed raises, former Sheriff Chris Nanos and current County Attorney Barbara LaWall simply banked hundreds of thousands of RICO dollars. At the end of FY2015 – 2016 Ms. LaWall chose to bank more than $500,000, instead of spending that money on crime prevention.
This practice is not necessarily the norm in Arizona. In FY2015 – 2016, the Maricopa County Attorney spent every cent of their RICO money.
Examining the Pima County Attorney’s RICO accounts over the last sixteen years reveals bigger problems than end-of-the-year surpluses. Between June 30 and July 1, 2005, almost $60,000 seems to have disappeared from the books. And while public documents reveal that the County Attorney had $438,524 in its account on June 30, 2011, the office reported that it didn’t have any money at all in its account on July 1, 2011. Indeed, according to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, the Pima County Attorney did not have one cent of RICO money from July 1, 2011, until January 1, 2012, when they suddenly reported a positive balance of $622,467.
Finally, public databases reveal idiosyncrasies in the way Ms. LaWall spends RICO funds. Per the Arizona State Government’s General Accounting Office, in fiscal year 2015 – 2016 the County Attorney spent $4.6 million in RICO Special Revenue funds. This money went to expenses as varied as parking subsidies, advertising, and life insurance. Almost $13,000 went to “promotional items,” $14,000 went to “vacation payouts,” and $1.277 million was spent on “other miscellaneous charges.” The Pima County Attorney has never publicly defined “miscellaneous,” nor explained why such an opaque line item consumes such a large portion of the fund.
These documents make clear the critical need for a comprehensive audit of how the Pima County Attorney accounts for and spends RICO funds, a need made even more pressing by the recent FBI and Justice Department investigations into the matter. Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall is the sole distributor of county RICO funds, and as such must be held accountable for their use. It is important to remember that the original intention of the RICO laws was to fund gang, crime, and substance abuse prevention programs. While spending $13,000 on promotional items and $1.2 million on “miscellaneous charges” may not be prohibited by law, the Pima County Attorney’s primary responsibilities are to administer justice and prevent crime. Ms. LaWall has the capacity to use RICO funds to fulfill these responsibilities for the residents of Pima County, but there are troubling signs that justice is not being served as well as we need and deserve.
– Joel Feinman