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6:21 PM Tue, Jan. 22nd

State: Maricopa County probes past use of RICO funds

PHOENIX - Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery is looking into reports that his predecessor's staff paid law firms with money earmarked for crime fighting.

The Arizona Republic reported Sunday that Andrew Thomas' office dipped into the RICO funds to pay for private civil attorneys representing the county attorney's office and the sheriff's office.

The racketeering money comes from cash and assets seized in criminal investigations. It generally is used to combat certain crimes spelled out in state and federal statutes.

Law enforcement agencies have wide discretion in how they spend the money, however, and there is little oversight of how the money is spent.

Records reviewed by the Republic show Thomas' office spent more than $127,000 in RICO funds to pay four outside law firms that represented the county attorney's and sheriff's offices in civil court matters between November 2008 and March 2010.

The newspaper said much of the money went to - or was funneled through - a law firm that is battling the county Board of Supervisors over payment of more than $1.1 million in contested legal fees.

County officials now allege that firm may have violated county policies and spending rules, but the firm counters that the supervisors are retaliating against it for representing Thomas and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Thomas and Arpaio were embroiled in legal, financial and political battles with the supervisors, who had imposed countywide budget cuts and slashed Thomas' budget for civil litigation. At the same time, Thomas was stripped of his duties representing the county in civil litigation matters after he filed criminal charges against one of the supervisors.

Thomas' former chief deputy, Phil MacDonnell, said the RICO fund spending was appropriate, carefully reviewed and necessary because the agency was scraping for money amid budget cuts.

MacDonnell was in charge of day-to-day management of the agency under Thomas and said he helped write the state's original RICO statutes.

Montgomery characterized the payment of outside attorneys with racketeering funds as "questionable" and directed his staff to review the invoices to determine if the payments were appropriate. He said he might also refer the matter to an independent law enforcement agency for review.

Montgomery said he learned of the questionable RICO payments after the Republic submitted a public-records request seeking any documents regarding the use of racketeering funds for civil cases dating to 2007.

The request produced about 150 documents, including detailed invoices, copies of checks and emails about the expenses.