Comparing Two Arizona Scandals

A Phoenix newspaper investigation in November found that Valley Metro Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Steve Banta appeared to have abused his expense account by several tens of thousands of dollars. Valley Metro is the metropolitan Phoenix public mass transit district that manages the local bus and light rail system.

Banta subsequently resigned and the district’s new interim CEO, Eric Anderson, told the district’s governing boards that Valley Metro’s travel budget will be reduced and all employee travel expenses will be scrutinized from now on. The City of Phoenix, the largest contributor to the district’s budget, is conducting an audit of all of the organizations travel expenses back to 2010.

Valley Metro operates with public funding, so there was justifiable outrage when Banta’s inappropriate expenditures were revealed, especially from local conservative politicians. The three most conservative members of the Phoenix City Council sent a letter to Arizona State Attorney General Mark Brnovich calling for a criminal investigation into Banta’s spending. Brnovich, also a conservative Republican, responded by recently announcing that his office will conduct a criminal investigation of Banta’s questionable expenditures.

Conservative Republican state Rep. Warren Petersen also reacted to the scandal by announcing he will introduce legislation to crack down on public officials who commit fraud and misappropriate public funds. “Termination from a high position in government office should not be like winning the Lotto,” Petersen said. He was referring to the fact that Banta will still be entitled to a $265,000 annuity that was part of his employment contract. There’s already a state law that disqualifies government employees convicted of felonies committed while they’re on the job from collecting a state retirement pension, but Petersen says his proposal will go further.

Joe Arpaio
Joe Arpaio (Phoenix New Times)

In the meantime, malfeasance by conservative Republican Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio since he assumed office in 1993 has cost county taxpayers an estimated $142 million in legal settlements, court awards and legal fees.

Furthermore, in 2013 U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow ruled that Arpaio’s office was guilty of violating the constitutional rights of Latino drivers by stopping them for essentially “driving while brown.” The judged ordered Arpaio’s office to cease using race or ancestry as a grounds to stop, detain or hold occupants of vehicles.

The sheriff’s office didn’t comply, so in January of 2015 Judge Snow announced he was initiating civil contempt charges against Arpaio for failing to follow his orders. One of the things that was revealed during the court testimony was that Arpaio paid at least $250,000 in public funds to a Seattle investigator before he figured out the investigator was a con artist. The plaintiffs in the case submitted evidence that Arpaio paid the investigator to see if Judge Snow was participating in a conspiracy against him. Mike Zullo, a member of one of Arpiao’s volunteer posses, oversaw the operation and testified in court that the investigation wasn’t intended to hurt the judge. Arpaio may have committed perjury too when he first denied any knowledge of the investigation and then later testified he knew about it. This prompted Judge Snow to declare in court that Arpaio, “has not been fully forthcoming with this court.” After testimony concluded in contempt hearings Judge Snow warned that a criminal contempt case my result from the testimony of Arpaio and his minions.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which is controlled by Republicans, has failed to take any actions against Arpaio. Instead, they recently raised property taxes and one of the reasons was to help pay the additional bills the county has incurred as a result of Arpaio’s offensive behavior.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich hasn’t yet announced that he’s investigating Arpaio. The same can be said for conservative Republican Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

It’s obvious there are two types of government scandals in Arizona, and local conservative politicians and media outlets are deciding which ones matter the most.

Updates

On November 8, 2016, Maricopa County voters finally wised-up to Sheriff Joe Arpaio and voted him out of office by a margin of 66 to 44 percent.

On July 31, 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton found Joe Arpaio guilty of criminal contempt of court for violating a court order to stop racial profiling by his deputies.

On August 25, 2017, President Donald Trump pardoned former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

On September 10, 2018, former Valley Metro CEO Steve Banta pleaded guilty to misusing public money on dining and travel expenses.

On November 20, 2018, former Valley Metro CEO Steve Banta was sentenced to probation and a $6,000 fine.

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