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RICO

Kent Volkmer (left) defeated fellow Republican Lando Voyles in last year's race for Pinal County Attorney.

An attorney for former Sheriff Paul Babeu and former Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles threatened current County Attorney Kent Volkmer with “legal remedies” if he doesn’t apologize for statements he has made about the previous handling of RICO funds.

Volkmer brought in the Auditor General’s office to look at the records, which had been controversial both in the acquiring and the dispensing of the funds. The FBI has also investigated the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.

Volkmer said his public statements on the matter were always guarded with the term “if.”

“We said ‘if they did these things,’ or ‘if they did that,’” Volkmer said. He added, “The public trust deserved an investigation.”

Monday, Marcus A. Kelly of the Scottsdale firm of Goldman & Zwillinger sent to Volkmer’s office what Kelly titled a “defamation letter” but Volkmer’s staff is calling an “anger letter.” It requests an apology and retraction.

“I don’t know what statement they want me to apologize for,” Volkmer said.

The letter does not specify quotes by Volkmer but claimed he accused Voyles, Babeu and former PCAO chief of staff Dwight Fujimoto of criminal activity.

“The statements are demonstrably false and made with malice,” Kelly declared in the letter to Volkmer.

He also claimed Volkmer did not do his homework on the history of RICO in the county before calling in investigators.

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970 allows law enforcement agencies to claim the property of organized-crime suspects as forfeiture. They can sell or keep those items, with the funds used to support law-enforcement efforts. The funds may also be distributed to community organizations with goals of law enforcement, gang prevention or intervention.

That was left wide open to interpretation, and controversy followed. In 2015, American Civil Liberties Union brought suit on behalf of a San Tan Valley resident who was not involved in a crime committed by her son but had her pickup seized as forfeiture. Last year, a Pima County deputy chief was in court on seven counts of misuse of RICO funds.

When Volkmer came into office this year, he put a hold on the RICO Community Outreach Fund that Voyles started. That program accepted proposals from county organizations to use the funds as long as they were used to “support gang prevention and/or substance abuse education and prevention.”

Despite the process involving a committee and annual audits, residents were still suspicious of politics in the process, and especially of the close ties between PCSO and favorite recipient Arizona Public Safety Foundation. It became a heated part of the election.

Volkmer said because the county’s RICO program is a “very formalized process,” most assets are handled properly. But he said there are a “handful of outliers,” like the San Tan Valley case, that deserve investigation.

At the moment, he said, there are no funds in the county RICO account. If the program is restarted and the funds are there, they will be used “to support our office and make us better prosecutors,” Volkmer said. RICO funds will be set aside for the county before the community programs.

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Paul Babeu

By Paul Babeu

To the residents and business community of Pinal County:

Over the past few months, you may have seen news reports that the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the State of Arizona, including the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, regarding the use of criminal monies that have been legally seized under the “Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations” act of 1970 (RICO funds).

Now this week, the Goldwater Institute submitted a public records request to our office and sent out their written opinion to local news organizations asking for information explaining how the seized funds are used, the groups these funds are given to, and what the County receives in return for the funds.

Much of the criticism over our use of the RICO funds have been leveled at our donations to Pinal County youth programs, organizations that help disabled veterans, shelters that assist domestic violence victims and organizations that help prevent teen suicides. The Goldwater people said in their “news release,” they want to know what we get back from these non-profit organizations.

To the people of Pinal County, the return is very clear. These programs make for healthier communities, yes, and safer communities for our residents to live and raise their families. Pinal County is rural and we don’t have the same funding sources as many urban population centers in our state. These programs would not thrive and grow in our communities if they didn’t receive financial assistance like that given by our office.

The Goldwater attorneys say they want to ensure “taxpayer money isn’t being misused for personal gain or in violation of the Arizona constitution.” The RICO funding is not taxpayer money, but it is public money that we have legally seized from organized crime syndicates like the Mexican Drug Cartels. Our choice to spend this public money to support our communities’ youth is well within the rules of the Department of Justice and the state laws governing the use of RICO funds. Our use of RICO funds is not in any way supplanting funds for normal government expenses, as has been alleged by the Goldwater attorneys. It is a legal and recognized proper use of these funds.

The Department of Justice has stated that up to $25,000 of Federal RICO funds can be used to “support of community-based programs.” The State RICO statutes say, “at least 10 percent of the monies in the fund shall be provided to private, non-profit community based organizations and gang prevention and intervention programs.” We are clearly following the directives of these regulatory agencies.

Over the past seven years, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office has donated approximately $1.5 million of seized criminal money to support youth programs like the Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, High School Graduation Night Lock-in events, youth sports programs, victim assistance programs and drug rehabilitation programs such as the “Home of Hope.

The primary job of law enforcement is to protect our citizens. We are doing just that by using money we have seized from drug dealers and other criminals and reinvesting the money into programs to improve the quality of life in Pinal County. As long as the bad guys keep trying to make a living through committing crimes, we will continue to fight them by seizing their illegal gains and use the money to support organizations that help victims and help keep our youth free from drugs, criminal activity and gangs.

Paul Babeu is the sheriff of Pinal County.