Sheriff Chris Vasquez is running a tightknit campaign and bumping up his public affairs staff before a bid for a first full term as Pinal County's top law enforcement official.
It's so tightknit that his campaign committee's address is the Coolidge home of one of his right-hand men, Mike Minter, Vasquez's top public information officer.
Vanessa White was added as a second public affairs officer to the sheriff's office four months ago, as the campaign season nears.
Vasquez enjoys the political support of some of his staff, which is allowed under county policy.
Minter and his wife, KC Jones-Minter, a real estate broker, have contributed $390 to the sheriff's re-election bid, the maximum amount allowed in local elections under state law.
Jones-Minter is serving as the volunteer treasurer for Vasquez's campaign, according to committee information filed with the Pinal County election office.
Vasquez's campaign efforts are already under way. Minter planned to take a vacation day last week to campaign for Vasquez at the Pinal County Fair, which brings thousands of people from all over the county.
The benefits inherent in an employee volunteering for his boss creates ethical questions, according to academic experts.
"I would say yes - that this creates an appearance of conflict," said Carolyn Warner, an Arizona State University professor who studies government corruption. "It doesn't sound good, but I suspect that it is something that happens a lot."
Vasquez, a Democrat, is expected to face Paul Babeu, a Republican, in the Nov. 4 election, in what is expected to be a tough contest. But new candidates can still enter the race, as the filing period for the race has not closed.
Babeu said that the bolstering of the sheriff's public affairs office is suspicious at a time when Vasquez is calling for 250 more sworn peace officers to his department of 650 employees.
"When the county is struggling financially it is absolutely outrageous to ... add another public information officer."
Vasquez said he shuffled around positions to create White's spot at no extra cost to taxpayers by adding responsibilities to another position. White makes $38,542 annually, according to records obtained from the county's human resources department.
Arizona state statute prohibits public officials from using their office to run campaigns or influence an election by using county-paid employees or other government resources.
For instance, Minter or White would not be allowed to use county equipment, such as a cell phone or city e-mail, to coordinate campaign activities for Vasquez.
However, Pinal County allows a broad array of political activity by its employees, according to a 2004 county policy.
Vasquez and anyone working under him are free to make political donations, solicit donations from others and advocate for the election or defeat of any candidate - although it's prohibited from occurring while at work.
The addition of a new public affairs officer could free up Minter from some of his daily duties. Minter plans to continue to take vacation days to volunteer in the campaign, he said.
"Everyone can have their own opinion (about a potential conflict)," Vasquez said. "I didn't ask Mike to do any of this."
White was added as a second public affairs officer to handle the duties of the growing office, issuing news releases and dealing with an increasing demand from a number of media outlets, Vasquez said. The move was not to gain a political advantage by freeing up Minter to take vacation days and volunteer for his campaign, Vasquez said.
"They don't go out on county time and say rah, rah - (Vasquez) is doing a good job," Vasquez said.
Vasquez was appointed by the Pinal County Board of Supervisors as sheriff in March 2005 after the resignation of Roger Vanderpool, now the director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Vasquez won election in 2006 for a two-year term. His likely opponent, Babeu, is a Chandler patrol officer who lives in the Queen Creek area.
The county is experiencing a shift in its election demographics. Traditionally a county of Democrats, its voting statistics now show a nearly even split between Democrats and Republicans.
Much of it is due to the influx of suburban neighborhoods in Pinal County, one of the fastest growing areas in the nation, said Gilberto Hoyos, director of the elections department.
The newcomers are not necessarily beholden to old political networks.
Babeu said new blood is needed in a county that was rocked in 2005 by a scandal when Stanley Griffis, the former county manager, was jailed for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from county coffers.
"Pinal County needs new leaders who will be honest and independent of the good old boy system," Babeu said.