Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said Tuesday he will no longer prosecute cases handled by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which has an open investigation involving Goddard.
That investigation deals with whether Goddard cut a favorable plea deal with the former state treasurer in return for a $1.9 million payment of legal fees. Goddard said the sheriff’s investigation creates a conflict of interest for him to continue prosecuting other cases brought by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Tuesday’s decision means 15 criminal cases and five civil cases will be farmed out to other prosecuting agencies.
The biggest case is the state’s 25-count indictment against Maricopa County Schools Superintendent Sandra Dowling. That case was dealt a major setback last month when a Maricopa County Superior Court judge threw out 12 charges against Dowling because information that could have indicated her innocence was withheld from the grand jury that indicted her.
Goddard’s office had been weighing whether to appeal that decision or seek new indictments from the grand jury.
The U.S. Attorney’s office will take over that case and make the decision on how to proceed, Goddard said Tuesday.
Arpaio’s investigation of Goddard dates to at least April 11, when media reports first surfaced. Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas confirmed at the time that they would investigate whether there was any impropriety in the attorney general’s office receiving a $1.9 million payment from the state treasurer in June 2006 as payment for legal fees in a civil case.
At the time, Goddard was investigating then-Treasurer David Petersen, who pleaded guilty in October to a single misdemeanor count of failing to report about $4,200 in commissions from a nonprofit organization on his state financial disclosure statement.
The sheriff’s office was the lead investigative agency in the Dowling case.
Dowling’s attorney raised the issue of a potential conflict of interest because of the two sheriff’s investigations, Goddard said. After hiring an outside lawyer to review the matter, and checking with the State Bar of Arizona, Goddard concluded a potential conflict would arise if he continued prosecuting the cases brought by the sheriff.
“It basically jeopardizes our independence as the prosecutors,” Goddard said of the difficulty of being under investigation while pressing cases brought by the sheriff. “The best thing for these prosecutions was for us to recuse the office from further involvement with cases that the sheriff’s office investigated.”
Cases that have not yet resulted in charges will be sent back to the sheriff’s office, which can take them to other agencies for prosecution, Goddard said.
Two high-profile cases fall into that category.
In April, sheriff’s deputies arrested four men they alleged ran illegal Internet-based sports gambling operations. No charges have been filed in that case, which came after a two-year investigation.
Arpaio’s office also has been working with the attorney general in a two-year investigation involving Mesa-based Cactus Towing and its former owner, Lee Watkins.
Both of those cases will be sent to the county attorney’s office for prosecution, Arpaio said Tuesday.
None of the cases investigated by the sheriff’s office will be jeopardized by Goddard’s decision to back out of the prosecutions, Arpaio said. It also will not affect his ongoing probe into the payment from the treasurer’s office, he
Barnett Lotstein, special assistant Maricopa County attorney, did question Goddard’s choice to declare a conflict of interest now, but not a year ago when he was investigating Petersen.
At that time, Goddard was waiting for the $1.9 million payment from the treasurer’s office but did not see a conflict of interest in conducting a criminal investigation of the treasurer, Lotstein noted.
“He doesn’t seem to find a conflict if money is involved,” Lotstein said of Goddard. “If there’s a conflict here, how come there wasn’t a conflict in investigating Petersen at the same time he’s negotiating for that money?”
Goddard’s office spent eight months last year investigating allegations of fraud and theft against Petersen. While there was no evidence to back those charges, the investigation did reveal Petersen had received unreported commissions from a nonprofit organization that pushes character education in schools.
In the midst of that investigation, the attorney general received the $1.9 million payment from the treasurer, which was to reimburse the office for legal fees in an unrelated case.
The sheriff’s investigation is to determine whether that payment played any role in the deal prosecutors cut with Petersen.
Goddard made clear in a letter he sent to Arpaio on Tuesday that his decision to back out of pending cases was not an attempt to pressure the sheriff.
“I want to emphasize that my decision in this matter is not negotiable or intended in any way to influence investigative decisions,” Goddard wrote.