Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas has spent about $2.5 million in public money on public service advertisements, most of which he’s been in, since taking office three years ago.
While officials with his office said the televised announcements — focusing on truancy, drunken driving and anti-drug messages — are an important part of his duties, critics say Thomas is using the cloak of public service to promote himself politically.
The spots have aired thousands of times in the past three years, and Thomas himself is prominently featured in most of them.
“Look, over that time the county has grown and the number of cases we prosecute has also grown,” said Barnett Lotstein, spokesman for the county attorney’s office. “We’re not going to apologize for these ads.”
Thomas was unavailable to talk about the ads, according to Lotstein.
But Lotstein said it’s important that people know who is prosecuting offenders and that is why Thomas should appear in the ads.
Since Thomas took office three years ago, he has sharply increased spending on these kinds of ads, raising costs for his agency nearly fivefold.
In 2005, his office paid about $314,000 for an identity theft campaign. The following year he upped that to about $780,000, according to public records.
But the biggest spike has come this year. Ad campaign spending has risen sharply since October, as Thomas heads into the 2008 election year. He is up for re-election in November and is widely thought to be considering running for governor in 2010.
Of the $1.6 million spent on ads this year, $1.4 million was spent in or committed for the last quarter of 2007.
Lotstein said Thomas’ predecessor, Richard Romley, spent about $1.6 million on spent on similar public service campaigns — but that was over an 18-month period. Lotstein also worked for Romley.
During his last six months in office, Romley spent about $580,000 on public service ads in which he rarely appeared, Lotstein said.
Romley, county attorney for 16 years who also presided over a period of rapid growth, was surprised at Thomas’ spending on the advertisements.
“Wow, that’s a lot of money,” he said last week.
During his time as county attorney, Romley said, he tended to shy away from appearing in too many ads. Instead he preferred having a high-profile personality such as an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball player or Phoenix Suns basketball player deliver the message.
“I think kids will listen to someone like a Luis Gonzalez (a former Diamondback) more than they would listen to me,” he said.
Romley also said he primarily used confiscated drug or gang money to pay for resources that would help prosecutors with their cases.
Lotstein said ads produced while Romley was in office carried the county attorney logo and Romley’s name.
According to county attorney records, Thomas will spend the $1.4 million in the last three months of this year on two campaigns — one urging people not to drink and drive and the second encouraging children to stay in school. The ads will run 3,100 times on network and cable TV stations through the beginning of next year.
Those ads will air night and day during some of television’s most highly watched shows and sporting events. Some of those spots can cost more than $10,000.
Thomas’ office has booked time during the BCS Championship college football game as well as other high-profile bowl games. He’s also reserved spots during popular morning and nighttime television shows.
There’s no way to tell if the ads have been effective. Lotstein said his office has not performed any follow-up studies to determine how well the campaigns work.
Most of the ad campaign money has come from cash confiscated in drug and gang-related cases. The rest is provided through state and federal grants.
Thomas isn’t the only Arizona politician acting as the spokesperson for public-service causes. Others have come under scrutiny as well.
Last year, Secretary of State Jan Brewer took some heat for reminding voters to bring their identification to the polls in a series of ads that ran shortly before the election, one in which she was on the ballot for re-election. And Gov. Janet Napolitano also was criticized for having her image on interstate billboards welcoming travelers to Arizona. State Attorney General Terry Goddard, also considered a likely gubernatorial candidate, is currently appearing in radio ads warning against drunken driving.
Chuck Coughlin, a GOP consultant, said appearing in ads is often part of the job of a public official.
But he says he is uncomfortable with Thomas’ latest efforts because they are so self-promoting.
He was referring to billboards that purport to deter people from drinking and driving by including the mug shots of convicted DUI offenders on huge signboards throughout the Valley. They focus more on Thomas than on the cause he is promoting, Coughlin said.
So far, Thomas’ office has spent more than $500,000 in public money on the DUI billboards and Web site, with another $200,000 coming from the governor’s office for the campaign, which also includes ads on radio and TV and on Harkins theater screens.
The billboards feature a man convicted of drunken driving, and direct readers to a Web site carrying the names and faces of other convicted drivers.
However, Thomas’ name is prominently splashed in a broad red strip with large lettering across the bottom of the billboards. The letters used for Thomas’ name are as large as the letters in the board’s message.
“I have a real problem with that,” Coughlin said. “A majority of that ad should be about informing the public. And those billboards clearly don’t do that.”