Taxpayers forced to fund County Attorney’s re-election campaign through shrinking Bad Check Program

Pima County Attorney bad check program

You have seen them on billboards, on cash registers, and in the windows of local businesses. Their presence is ubiquitous in our community. Signs and stickers warning consumers that writing bad checks is a crime and featuring, in large full-color print, the name and badge of Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall.

For years Ms. LaWall has touted her Bad Check program as “the #1 in the nation.” What has gone unmentioned – besides the wisdom and efficacy of it being the 21st Century and our County Attorney not supplementing a bad check program with a credit card fraud and electronic ID theft program – is just how much money the Bad Check program costs, what exactly that money is being used for, and how many bad checks the Pima County Attorney’s Office (PCAO) actually prosecutes.

First a word on the program’s efficacy. According to Pima County’s budgets for FY2015/2016 and FY2016/2017, the number of bad checks that county businesses have submitted to the Pima County Attorney has dropped exponentially over the last few years. In FY2013/2014 the PCAO received 1,362 bad checks. The County Attorney herself estimated that this number would plummet to 640 by the very next fiscal year, and planned to receive only 320 bad checks by FY2015/2016.

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However even the PCAO’s own estimates proved to be too low. The Office received only 513 bad checks in FY2014/2015 (not 640), and revised its planning downward from receiving 320 bad checks in FY2015/2016 to receiving 240 instead. In FY2016/2017, the County Attorney plans on receiving only 132 bad checks. If current trends continue, the PCAO will receive less than 100 bad checks by FY2017/2018

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Given the ever-smaller number of bad checks that the County Attorney receives in the 21st Century, it is worth asking how and when Ms. LaWall chooses to promote the program, and how much money her promotions cost Pima County taxpayers.

In February 2016, six months before her first contested primary election in 20 years, Ms. LaWall sent a package to 4,023 local businesses. The package included a Bad Check sticker and a large Bad Check placard, along with a letter from Ms. LaWall to business owners in which she asked them to place her promotion material “prominently in your place of business.”

screen-shot-2016-11-19-at-7-38-57-amThis postage alone for these packages cost taxpayers $5,712.66. We don’t know how much the stickers and placards cost to make, because the Pima County Attorney’s Office has stated that they did not preserve records of these purchases.

However, we do know what the expenses and revenue of the Bad Check program are. The General Accounting Office (GAO) of the State of Arizona maintains an official transparency website “that serves as a single point of reference for citizens to view information about the financial activities” of city, county, and state government agencies.

According to the GAO, in FY2015/2016 the Pima County Attorney’s Bad Check Special revenue fund brought in $45,547.45.

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But during that exact time period the exact same program had expenses of $53,784.75

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So, during the last fiscal year, the Pima County Attorney’s Bad Check Special revenue fund lost more than $8,000 at a time when Ms. LaWall spent more than $5,000 of her agency’s money – and almost certainly a whole lot more – to help ensure that her name and badge prominently appeared in more than 4,000 businesses across Pima County. Ms. LaWall spent this money to promote a program that collects geometrically fewer bad checks every year, and her taxpayer-funded promotion just happened to occur when Ms. LaWall was facing her first contested primary election in 20 years.

Perhaps there is an innocent explanation. Perhaps the money to pay for the Bad Check promotion came from a different source of revenue, such as general fund money that the Board of Supervisors budgets to the County Attorney’s Office each fiscal year. But if this is the case, why did Ms. LaWall spend taxpayer money from the general fund to advertise herself and her Bad Check program in an election year, at a time when that program is shrinking and losing large amounts of money? At the very least we should be asking why this program is hemorrhaging money from its special fund if, as Ms. LaWall claims, it is the “number one” bad check program in the country.

Answers to these questions would help restore faith in the Bad Check Program, and reassure taxpayers that revenue from that program – which is $8,000 less than expenses – wasn’t used for illegal electioneering.

– Joel Feinman