A former Democratic candidate for sheriff and a local journalist are among those who have been interviewed in recent weeks as part of the state’s ongoing criminal investigation of last year’s Maricopa County sheriff’s race.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office has been investigating several allies of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the winner of that race, since at least March, according to reports by the Phoenix New Times and other news outlets.
At first, the probe appeared to be focused only on suspected illegal campaign contributions from deputies and a number of high-profile businessmen. But the recent interviews hint that the state could be taking a broader look at Arpaio’s campaign tactics.
Dennis Welch, a journalist with the Arizona Guardian, said that a senior investigator with the state visited him on Wednesday, asking questions about his coverage of the 2008 race.
Investigator Michael Edwards, the special agent supervisor in the AG’s criminal division, wanted to know about why Welch asked to see certain legal documents from the sheriff’s office while he was covering the campaign for the East Valley Tribune, the reporter said in an interview Thursday.
Welch had asked the sheriff’s office for copies of interviews conducted by lawyers with the sheriff’s Democratic opponent, Dan Saban, during a earlier lawsuit involving the agency.
In the interviews, Saban admitted to a sexual indiscretion on the job 30 years ago and also discussed being sexually abused by his adoptive mother when he was a teen.
The request was not all that unusual, but its timing seems to be what raised questions with the state investigator.
“He was asking me if anybody had prompted me to submit a public-records request,” Welch said.
Welch happened to file his request at about the same time the Arizona Republican Party made a similar request for the records. And both took place at roughly the same time that former Democratic politician Gerald Richard was told by the sheriff’s chief deputy, David Hendershott, to take a look at the records also. Richard declined Hendershott’s offer and instead went public, saying the sheriff’s right-hand man was playing dirty tricks with the campaign. (Richard has since been hired as an adviser to the attorney general.)
Essentially, three separate entities — the reporter, the political party and the Democratic politician — happened to be interested in Saban’s depositions at the same time. Was it a coincidence? Or was somebody inside the sheriff’s office coordinating the smear campaign? The Attorney General’s Office appears to be trying to find out.
Welch said he told the AG’s investigator he could not remember what prompted him to ask for transcripts of the Saban interviews. “We were all covering a dozen elections last year,” Welch said. “I told him I couldn’t remember.”
Welch said if it was a confidential source within the sheriff’s office, however, he would keep his promise to not reveal to the person’s identity.
Welch also said he and other staffers at the Guardian tried to ask the investigator more about the scope of the criminal probe. “We asked him,” Welch said, “and he was probably as vague as we were.”
Out of the three groups interested in the Saban files that year, only one did anything with the information. The Republican Party used the details in a vicious campaign attack ad that was so graphic it hardly aired on television. (Some local stations refused to show it.)
Now, that ad and how it was funded are at the center of the attorney general’s criminal investigation. According to records obtained by the Phoenix New Times, the office is looking into whether the Republican Party paid for the ad using money from an illegal and unregistered campaign committee funded by high-ranking Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies — including Hendershott — and several wealthy businessmen.
Saban has also been questioned in the AG’s probe, according to a private investigator who helped the Democrat with his lawsuit and campaign. The investigator, Rich Robertson, said Saban answered questions for the AG’s office about a month ago when investigators there contacted him. “Dan has been interviewed,” Robertson said, however he did not know the specifics about what was said at the time.
Saban himself declined to confirm he was cooperating with investigators, saying he did not want to compromise the ongoing probe. “I just can’t confirm or deny that I was interviewed,” he said Thursday.
Even so, Saban praised the fact that an investigation was taking place at all. “It’s about time that somebody had the guts to stand up to these people,” Saban said. “I do seriously believe that this is the smoking gun we’ve all been waiting for.”
Steve Wilson, a spokesman for the AG’s office declined to comment on the case, calling it a “sensitive” investigation.
A spokesman with the sheriff’s office said Thursday the agency would not be able to comment until sometime Friday. Heat City will post the comments when and if they are made.