County rejects funds for Arpaio's 'birther' probe

by Michelle Ye Hee Lee - Jun. 20, 2012 10:58 AM
The Republic |

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday rejected by a tie vote $5,000 in private donations intended to help cover travel expenses for the sheriff's cold-case posse as it investigated President Barack Obama's birth certificate -- the so-called "birther" probe.

Supervisors split their votes following a heated discussion over the use of public funds and whether to accept private donations for the sheriff's investigations. Supervisors Don Stapley and Mary Rose Wilcox voted not to accept the donations. Supervisors Andy Kunasek and Max Wilson voted to accept them. Supervisor Fulton Brock was absent.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio in May sent a volunteer cold-case posse member to Hawaii to investigate documents pertaining to Obama's birthplace and citizenship. He also sent a taxpayer-funded deputy, citing "security" issues.

Deputy Chief David Trombi, who oversees the sheriff's patrol resource bureau, explained to the Board of Supervisors that the final cost for the sheriff's deputy has yet to be determined. But he said the $5,000 donation would cover the deputy's travel expenses and "a good portion" of his hourly wages. There also may be overtime charges, he said.

Trombi added that the Sheriff's Office potentially could receive funds from other posses to offset the deputy's outstanding expenses. By accepting the donation, the sheriff is trying to keep from paying the cost of the "birther" investigation out of taxpayers' pockets, he said.

About 30 members of Citizens for a Better Arizona, an anti-Arpaio activist group led by Randy Parraz, attended the meeting Wednesday to protest the agenda item. Members asked the board not to accept private donations to "back fill" the Sheriff's use of public funds. They argued the investigation was "well outside the jurisdiction of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and the duties and responsibilities of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors."

When Kunasek began explaining to the activists that the supervisors and sheriff are separately elected, and that he believes the supervisors should not have a say in what criminal investigations the sheriff pursues, the crowd began heckling. Parraz pointed and yelled at Kunasek, accusing him of allowing public funds to be used for what Parraz called a waste of taxpayer money.

Stapley and Wilcox, who have filed legal claims against Arpaio and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas over previous grievances, agreed with Parraz and other activists. Stapley said the board's acceptance of private funds would cover up what he believes was misspending of taxpayer funds for the Obama investigation.

Kunasek, who also was targeted by Arpaio and Thomas investigations, spoke out against Stapley and Wilcox. He said he was disappointed that his colleagues were stepping out and purporting to "inject themselves into a criminal (investigation), telling the sheriff ... who to investigate, who not to investigate."

"To sit here and, I guess, have the audacity to say what to go after, what not to go after, is bordering on, I think, going into a very dangerous area," Kunasek said.

The supervisors asked county budget staff to provide them a report of the sheriff's expenses for the investigation.

Sandi Wilson, deputy county manager and budget director, said her staff will review budgetary items involved in sheriff's travel and staffing expenses by next month. She said her staff reviews costs after they are incurred, and will look at whether it was an "appropriate use of the travel, make sure it fits all of our travel procedures and policies, as well as take a look at the total cost of the trip."

County rejects funds for Arpaio's 'birther' probe