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County attorney

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Former county officials Lando Voyles and Paul Babeu maintain the RICO funds were not misspent.

Former Pinal County officials are at the center of a report from the Arizona Auditor General that found their offices allegedly misused anti-racketeering funds and violated conflict-of-interest policies.

The report, published Aug. 20, focused on $2.4 million managed by the offices of former Sheriff Paul Babeu and former Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles from January 2013 to December 2016.

Auditor General Lindsey Perry forwarded the report to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office for further review.

RICO Funds

Anti-racketeering monies are forfeited to law enforcement agencies and include cash and proceeds from auctioning forfeited properties.

Those funds are supposed to be awarded to nonprofit community organizations to support substance abuse prevention, education, and gang prevention efforts.

The report found Voyles allegedly did not always follow procedures to ensure the money was spent appropriately.

Expenditures not monitored

Of the 82 awards given to 225 community organizations during the time period, 77 did not provide a memorandum of understanding with the county attorney.

“Accordingly, the uses of the awarded monies could not be determined,” the report stated.

Additionally, half of all the awards did not have applications or written proposals from the beneficiaries and those that did, included incomplete or missing documentation. The County allegedly could not provide documents to show the Community Outreach Fund Committee evaluated the awards as procedure requires.

In a majority of those awards reviewed by the state, the county attorney allegedly did not monitor the organizations’ expenditures.

“For example, monies were spent on unauthorized purposes such as appreciation events for county sheriff employees and their families and construction for a church dance studio,” according to the report.

Current Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer said in a response included with the report that his administration took action to account for and document all requests for anti-racketeering money when he took office in January 2017.

PCAO now requires those requests be accompanied by applications. Applicants must submit a letter explaining the intended uses and goals of expenditures.

Voyles previously threatened Volkmer with legal action in 2016 when Volkmer spoke out about the previous administration’s handling of RICO funds.

Former sheriff’s staff did not disclose conflicts of interest

The report also alleges Babeu and his staff allegedly violated conflict of interest policies and often did not abstain from involvement in anti-racketeering award decisions.

The Arizona Public Safety Foundation received the largest number of awards out of any organization, equaling a total of $683,406.

County sheriff employees held officer positions on the foundation’s Board, performed accounting functions, approved transactions, held foundation credit cards in their names and allegedly initiated some of those funds on the foundation’s behalf.

In all, the report states the former sheriff and county attorney dispersed $151,645 of community outreach award monies for unauthorized purposes that benefited their own programs, such as Babeu’s morale, welfare and recreation programs.

“These included events such as golf outings, holiday banquets, a Diamondbacks baseball game and movie nights,” the report stated.

More than $60,000 was used to produce public service announcements for both offices, unrelated to substance abuse prevention, education and gang prevention.

Current Sheriff Mark Lamb said PCSO has separated from the Public Safety Foundation and instituted a new process for the review of anti-racketeering fund requests. A new committee was formed to review those requests, along with other policy changes.

Former county officials say report found no wrongdoing

Babeu and Voyles maintained RICO funds were not misspent, according to a written statement sent to InMaricopa Thursday.

“The violations noted are not laws or statutes of Arizona or federal government,” Babeu wrote. “They are policies and procedures put in place by the former County Attorney Lando Voyles, as guidelines.”

Voyles said he welcomed the audit and it proved his office and Babeu’s were compliant with state and federal laws.

“I knew the audit would prove what every independent audit said, that we’ve vastly improved policies procedures and reporting,” Voyles said.

In 2017, those policies turned to law, according to Volkmer.

House Bill 2477 amended state law and required authorized purposes for county anti-racketeering funds. The law also now requires documentation and information to request and award those funds.

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.

Incoming Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer talks about why he came to Arizona from Ohio.

Soon to be the new Pinal County Attorney, Kent Volkmer sat down with InMaricopa to talk about the campaign against fellow Republican Lando Voyles, changes he wants to make in the office, how he will work with a new sheriff and his opinion of state Prop 205. Volkmer has been in private practice in Pinal County for nine and half years. He won the GOP primary in an upset and has no competition in the Nov. 8 General Election.

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In the race for county attorney, Kent Volkmer (left) is well ahead of incumbent Lando Voyles, according to unofficial totals.

Early election results in Pinal County show a pending upset in the county attorney’s race.

County Attorney Lando Voyles campaigned in tandem with sheriff’s candidate Steve Henry under the endorsement of sitting Sheriff Paul Babeu. According to preliminary results, both Voyles and Henry are losing their Republican primaries. Voyles has been outstripped by Casa Grande lawyer Kent Volkmer, who currently has 58 percent of the vote.

“I think the voters are ready for change in our community,” Volkmer said. “They have decided that the status quo isn’t good enough. They want new leaders that are not tied or beholden to any other person.”

Volkmer was endorsed by the Pinal County Deputies Association. In two candidate forums this summer, Voyles did not attend, leaving Volkmer to state his case and criticize the sitting county attorney on several points.

After Tuesday’s vote, Volkmer said his substantial lead over Voyles represented the majority’s desire to hold elected officials accountable.

“I fully expect that if the numbers hold and I become our next county attorney, the people will demand accountability from me,” he said. “If I am found wanting, the people will make their positions known with their voices and their votes.”

Volkmer admits to not being a polished polititian, which could be an asset.

“I think why I resonated with the people is because I am one of them,” he said. “I am not happy with the status quo. I feel some of our elected officials are letting us down. I think that I am viewed as an honest person who wants to do right by the people of this community.

“I am a local man that cares about his community and wants to do his part to make it better.”

There is no Democrat running for county attorney

Former deputy Mark Lamb has even wider margin over Henry, leading with 62 percent. The winner of the GOP sheriff’s primary will likely face off with Democrat Kaye Dickson, who is leading rival Kevin Taylor by a 26-point margin. See related story.

At the state level, with 90 percent of precincts reporting, Babeu leads in the Republican primary for Congressional District 1 with 33 percent of the vote. The next closest competitor is Wendy Rogers at 23 percent. On the Democrat side, Tom O’Halleran leads Miguel Olivas by 18 percentage points.

In the Senate race, longtime incumbent John McCain leads next closest rival Kelli Ward by 62,000 votes and will likely be the Republican to face Democrat challenger Ann Kirkpatrick in the general election.

Statewide voter turnout was 23 percent.

Jose Valenzuela is accused of the June 2015 murders of Tina and Michael Careccia. PCSO photo

Michael and Tina Careccia were killed and buried more than a year ago, their bodies discovered next to a home on Papago Road. Jose Valenzuela has been in jail awaiting trial ever since.

In a court hearing Friday, that trial on two charges of first-degree murder was tentatively set to begin Jan. 23, 2018, at 9 a.m. in Judge Kevin White’s courtroom in Pinal County Superior Court.

Valenzuela, now 39, had to be indicted twice and the state had to twice file notice of its intent to seek the death penalty. Pinal County Public Defender James Mannato successfully had the July 8, 2015, indictment tossed after it was determined information not in evidence had been presented to the Grand Jury.

Valenzuela was re-indicted April 6 this year on two counts of first-degree murder. Mannato has until Aug. 19 to file a new challenge to the most recent Grand Jury proceedings.

Valenzuela was present at Friday’s hearing, seated beside Mannato and wearing a brown Pinal County Sheriff’s Office jail outfit and shackles. Relatives of the Careccias filled a front bench.

Michael and Tina Careccia were last seen alive June 21, 2015, after a Father’s Day party at the home where they resided in the Thunderbird Farms area. Their son reported them missing the next day. The couple’s Honda Accord was found in the area a couple of hours later.

The subsequent investigation found Michael Careccia, 44, had telephoned Valenzuela several times after the party. The last call on his phone was to Valenzuela at 11 p.m. that night, according to court filings.

Michael and Tina Careccia lived with family members two streets away from the man charged with their murders. (Instagram)
Michael and Tina Careccia lived with family members two streets away from the man charged with their murders. (Instagram)

Between June 23 and July 1, Detectives Shawn Wilson and Andrew Converse interviewed Valenzuela four times. The final time, Valenzuela called Converse and reportedly confessed to shooting both of the Careccias.

The Pinal County Attorney’s Office alleges Valenzuela borrowed a friend’s backhoe to bury the bodies in a red blanket and a blue tarp next to the house he was living in, which belonged to his parents. It was two streets north of the Careccia home.

Valenzuela allegedly told detectives he was “tripped out” on meth at the time and that both of the Careccias were also using meth. A coroner’s report filed last August showed the presence of methamphetamine and amphetamine in the victims’ systems.

The cause of death in both cases was gunshot to the head by a .22 revolver.

In testimony presented to the first Grand Jury, the Pinal County Attorney’s Office tried to prove premeditation and motive by suggesting Valenzuela had been romantically interested in Tina Careccia, 42. Mannato said there was no evidence of that or the state’s version of how the victims were shot, and allowing that to go before the jury denied Valenzuela due process.

Mannato has a pending motion to officially dismiss the first bill of indictment to prevent future confusion.

The next court hearing on that and the state’s motion to strike certain defenses is set for Sept. 30 at 9 a.m.

The trial itself will be in front of a 12-person jury. White has set aside three months for those proceedings. The timing is only tentative because the case is advancing in what the judge called a “fluid situation.”

In the meantime, at the request of Deputy County Attorney Vince Goddard, Judge White ordered Mannato not to have any contact with family members of the Careccias until the state determines who can be classified as next of kin.

Candidates for Pinal County sheriff (from left) Mark Lamb, Steve Henry, Kaye Dickson and Kevin Taylor participated in a debate Saturday at UltraStar Multi-tainment Center. Photo by William Lange

By Ethan McSweeney

Candidates for Pinal County Sheriff and Pinal County Attorney took part in a debate at UltraStar Multi-tainment Center on Saturday morning to address county issues and the current officeholders for those positions ahead of the August primary election.

Republicans Mark Lamb and Steve Henry took the stage alongside Democrats Kaye Dickson and Kevin Taylor at the debate that was sponsored by the Maricopa Chamber of Commerce, the Maricopa Monitor, InMaricopa and the UltraStar Multi-tainment Center. The Saturday morning debates also featured candidates for Arizona’s 1st Congressional District and Pinal County Board of Supervisors District 4.

For the County Attorney’s race, defense attorney Kent Volkmer was the only candidate to take part in the debate, with incumbent Attorney Lando Voyles not attending Saturday.

Pinal County Sheriff

In the Sheriff’s race, candidates discussed staffing issues and body cameras within the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office. They also voiced some criticism for Paul Babeu, the county’s current Sheriff.

Babeu is not seeking re-election for the post, instead running for the Republican nomination in the 1st Congressional District.

Lamb, a deputy in the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, said he believes the politics that exist in the Sheriff’s Office now have affected the morale of deputies.

“I want to restore that back to just focusing on law enforcement, protecting you as the people, doing what we can to foster a good environment for businesses and people to move in to the county,” Lamb said.

“I’m going to do everything I can do to remove that political side [of the Sheriff’s position],” he added.

When asked, Lamb later said in the debate he believed Pinal County is safer since Babeu took office, but that “we still have work to do.”

Henry, who serves as chief deputy in the Sheriff’s Office and is backed by Babeu, said he wasn’t concerned by the Pinal County Deputies Association not endorsing him. The association endorsed Lamb and Dickson for the primary race.

“We have mutual issues that we talk about and other issues that we disagree on,” Henry said. “It’s just a matter of the course of everyday business, and that doesn’t go away. It doesn’t matter if the endorsement is there or not.”

Henry said more staffing is the most significant need the Sheriff’s Office has right now. About half of the county’s population, located outside municipalities that have their own police departments, is policed by PCSO.

“We need people,” Henry said. “Right now in San Tan Valley, there are 95,000 people there and we police that with 40 cops.”

Dickson, who previously worked in PCSO for decades and as the director of Pinal County Animal Care and Control, said that as Sheriff she would cooperate with a staffing study from the Pinal County Board of Supervisors to see how to effectively use officers around the county. Babeu has not cooperated with supervisors over the staffing study.

“It’s not always just about putting officers where it’s the most populated areas,” she said.

Taylor, who runs a private detective agency, said there are too many deputies focused on Saddlebrooke and San Tan Valley, which he said don’t need as much attention as they currently have.

On the use of body cameras in PCSO, Henry said he supported the use of them in theory, but practically they cost too much to maintain.

“What people don’t understand … is that the cost is so prohibitive that with the current financial status we are in this county, we can’t do it,” he said.

Dickson suggested RICO funds, which law enforcement agencies generate as a result of asset forfeiture, could be used to fund body cameras.

“Those cameras create transparency and trust in government,” she said.

Taylor, who previously ran for sheriff in 2012, said the fact that, unlike the other candidates for the office, he doesn’t have a position in the Sheriff’s Office puts him at an advantage.

“I’m coming new with new ideas, with fresh ideas and right now I owe nobody in Pinal County any favors,” he said.

Dickson also said she would support working with the state’s Border Strike Force, which Gov. Doug Ducey created last year. Some border county sheriffs have come out in opposition to the new force.

“I believe that if the governor wants to step up to the plate and help protect our state, that that’s a good thing,” Dickson said. “We should take advantage of that.”

Pinal County Attorney

With incumbent Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles not in attendance, his Republican primary challenger Volkmer took his time on stage to criticize him on issues ranging from accountability to conviction rates.

Volkmer called into question the office’s accountability with Voyles campaigning together with Henry for county attorney and sheriff, respectively.

“If an officer is accused of committing a crime and you’re the victim,” Volkmer said, “are you going to believe that the county attorney who campaigned with the sheriff is going to give you a fair shake?”

The conviction rate from the Pinal County Attorney’s Office under Voyles is “abysmal,” Volkmer said. He argued that the office is only convicting 30 percent of cases that go to trial “for the most serious offenses.”

Volkmer said he supports pursing the death penalty in certain cases, but argued the rate at which Voyles is pursuing capital punishment is “too high,” which again costs county taxpayers.

“As a county attorney, you have to uphold the law, but you also have to be a steward of the county’s resources,” Volkmer said.

Volkmer also took aim at the length of time it takes for the Attorney’s Office to prosecute cases and turnover under Voyles.

No Democrats are running for the attorney position. The primary elections will be Aug. 30.

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County Attorney Lando Voyles

The Pinal County Attorney’s Office restored thousands of case files after a computer virus locked them, making them inaccessible.

In all, the virus corrupted 64,000 case files and one laptop. PCAO’s IT department fixed the files using a backup server.

While a definite cause cannot be determined, PCAO suspects an infected PC subsequently caused the thousands of case files to become encrypted.

“Due to the county’s inadequate anti-virus software, our office’s case files became the target of a virus. Luckily, it did not take long for our IT department to restore all 64,000 files. It remains frustrating as they still wasted time on this tedious task,” Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles said.

The virus, known as CryptoLocker, holds files for ransom until a fee gets paid. PCAO did not pay any money toward the unencrypting of the files.

The county is researching new anti-virus software designed to perform a more invasive scan for these types of infections.

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County Attorney Lando Voyles

A public records request led to the discovery of a malicious computer virus attached to files within the Pinal County Attorney’s Office case management database.

Last week, PCAO employees working on a records request became aware of the infected files and immediately notified Pinal County’s main IT department.

This virus, known as CryptoLocker, essentially infects and encrypts files until the user pays a ransom to unlock them. Thus, employees cannot access any infected files.

The original CryptoLocker ransomware was first posted on the Internet in 2013. It was isolated in 2014, and an online tool was created to allow victims to recover files without paying a ransom. Since then several clones and similarly named viruses have continued to propagate.

Due to the virus, PCAO’s ability to respond to some public records requests has been slowed until the issue can be resolved and the county confirms security of PCAO’s computers.

“The antivirus software utilized by the county was completely useless in protecting our data stored on county servers,” said Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles. “Now, our office’s IT department must work to repair the damage to our data files. I am frustrated by the lack of communication from the county. If we knew that the software was inadequate, the Pinal County Attorney’s Office could have taken action to prevent this from happening to our case files. Other county departments need to be aware of this issue and take necessary precautions.”

It is unknown how many files have been infected or how the county network received the virus, but PCAO is working to restore all known, infected case files and determine a solution to prevent this from happening again.