A conservative Arizona watchdog group is requesting files from Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu’s office to determine if his office has properly handed out thousands of dollars in seized civil asset forfeiture cases.
The Goldwater Institute filed a pair of record requests on Monday seeking records, communications and other documents related to the expenditures of what’s commonly called RICO funds.
Goldwater attorney Jared Blanchard said they decided to look at Pinal County after questions were raised about funds being used to promote Babeu in a way that could benefit his congressional campaign. Blanchard said they also want to make sure the public is receiving something “equal in return” from the gifts. That’s something is required by law, he said.
“Once it hits the coffers, it’s public money and has to be used according to the law,” Blanchard said. “There is a problem with the government giving out public money with nothing in return because it feels good or makes them look good."
In late January, ABC15 exposed a damning home video showing Babeu touting the abusive and inhumane treatment of special needs children at a boarding school he used to run.
In the weeks since, Sheriff Babeu has personally delivered multiple checks to community groups. The checks total at least $15,000. Many of the gifts have been publically documented with pictures on Facebook.
On pages for both the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and Babeu’s run for congress, there are multiple pictures showing Babeu smile as he hands off checks. In almost every instance, the pictures of Babeu handing out PCSO money were first posted on his campaign page.
A sheriff’s office spokesman confirmed that Babeu posted the pictures on both Facebook pages himself.
“That’s one of the reasons we sent out this request to see what kind of decision are being made at the Sheriff’s Office,” Blanchard said.
The Sheriff's Office was also accused of sending out a RICO-funded recent newsletter to politically promote Babeu.
A Sheriff's Office spokesman disputed the allegations saying, "the goal of the newsletter is clearly to provide community outreach and education along with assisting us in recruiting new employees and volunteers."
The newsletter was sent out to Pinal County voters, officials said.
But the PCSO newsletter and Facebook posts raised serious questions for another civil forfeiture expert.
“It’s very questionable, at best,” said Paul Avelar, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which has been studying civil forfeiture laws for the past decade. “It does look very questionable the way this money is being spread out and immediately used to advertise his run for congress.”
In response, Babeu wrote a letter defending use of the RICO funds.
“The ‘Goldwater Institute’ said in their News Release, they want to know what we get back from these donations… The answer should be obvious, it is a safer community for our residents to live and raise their families.”
A full copy of Babeu’s letter can be seen here:
The Sheriff’s Office further denied that any of the RICO expenditures were improper or political, saying the agency and Babeu were handing out funds long before he announced a run for congress.
County Attorney Lando Voyles also released a prepared statement supporting the PCSO newsletter.
“The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office newsletter appears to be a great use of RICO funds. Aside from the newsletter providing community outreach and being educational, it works as an excellent recruitment tool to bring volunteers and serious applicants who wish to join the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.”
In a related matter, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and County Attorney’s Office are both being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging the constitutionality of seizing money and property from people even if they haven’t been charged with a crime.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at firstname.lastname@example.org.