Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is appealing a ruling that his political fliers attacking attorney general candidate Rick Romley were a violation of election laws.
The county election department had determined that the filers violated election law and generated dangerous conflicts of interest. That ruling stemmed from the second of two complaints filed by Romley.
But the Re-Elect Joe Arpaio 2012 committee claims the election department had a conflict of interest because employees there were political supporters of Romley.
Chad Willems, campaign manager for the Re-Elect Joe Arpaio 2012 committee, said the committee also plans to file a lawsuit in federal court against the ruling to protect Arpaio’s First Amendment rights to free speech.
Jeff Messing, legal counsel for the county elections department, ordered the committee to cease and desist because the fliers were a “ruse” for promoting Arpaio’s re-election in a non-election year. The committee is also facing a fine of up to three times the amount it spent on the fliers because the department said it was an independent expenditure and not a re-election committee, according to the ruling.
Letters obtained by the Tribune from Willems claim Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell and Messing supported Romley, who is currently the interim Maricopa County Attorney. Purcell only recused herself after Arpaio’s camp discovered she was working for Romley’s campaign, according to Willems.
The Arpaio committee contends that allowing county elections director Nancy Osborne to continue the investigation and Messing to make a ruling was not appropriate.
In a press release issued by the Re-Elect Joe Arpaio Committee on Aug. 24, Willems said, “This is perhaps the lamest election day stunt ever pulled. The order was conveniently issued on election day and leaked to the press by the county attorney’s office. It’s obvious that Rick Romley, in desperation, pressured his friends at the county to make these baseless, non-sensical allegations in a last-ditch effort to earn votes today. It’s pathetic. This was clearly orchestrated to be an election day stunt.”
Messing said, “If Mr. Willems is saying that I’m a supporter of Romley, I don’t know where he is getting that information. We were going to have Greenlee County Attorney Rapier review Romley’s second complaint, but he said they were too busy to do it. If and when anyone files a lawsuit, I’ll respond to it. I litigate my cases in the courtroom, not in the media.”
The Arpaio committee also plans to file a complaint with the Arizona Elections Department against Purcell.
Osborne declined to comment about the allegations from Arpaio’s committee.
Romley, who was defeated by Republican challenger Bill Montgomery in the primary election, claimed the fliers hurt his campaign. His initial complaint centered on television commercials aired by the Arpaio committee. That complaint came while Messing said he was on vacation, so it was forwarded to Greenlee County Attorney Derek Rapier, who deemed the television ads OK. The Arpaio camp contends Rapier was involved to avoid any conflict of interest allegations within Maricopa County.
Romley later filed a second complaint — this one concerning the print fliers as well as the TV ads. Messing ruled on that complaint, concurring that the TV ads were acceptable but that the fliers violated election law.
“I find that curious,” Willems said. “Is Mr. Messing the only attorney they can get to make a determination? What was not all right was all of a sudden all right. It all has to do with avoiding a conflict of interest, and they’ve never answered that. I believe they re-opened the complaint because they were getting pressured from Romley and his campaign. This just doesn’t pass the smell test.”
The county elections ruling stated that the TV ads were not “expressly advocating the defeat” of Romley, whereas the fliers did.
Willems claims that Rapier’s office was fired from investigating Romley’s second complaint, but Rapier told the Tribune that Messing was back to work when Romley filed the second complaint and they agreed that Messing would make a determination on the television ads and fliers.
Yvonne Reed, spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Elections Department said Thursday, “The primary election is over. We’re moving on, now. We have a general election to run in November.”