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Maricopa County Special Prosecutor Padded Résumé, Law Partner Quits

by Matt Clarke

Regular readers of PLN are familiar with Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, who bills himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” [See, e.g., PLN, March 2007, p.14]. Dennis Wilenchik, a private attorney known as “Arpaio’s Bulldog,” was hired as a special prosecutor by Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas to investigate the Phoenix New Times.

The New Times, an independent weekly, had published Arpaio’s home address on its website in a 2004 story about the Sheriff concealing millions of dollars of commercial real estate transactions. Posting the address may have violated a little-known state law.
When the grand jury investigating the case issued a subpoena for large quantities of personal information about the New Times’ online readers, the publication’s founders, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, went public. They were then arrested for revealing confidential grand jury information. [See: PLN, August 2008, p.12].

Within a day, the charges were dropped and Wilenchik was dismissed from the case. The New Times subsequently filed a lawsuit against Wilenchik, Arpaio, the Sheriff’s office, Thomas and the County Attorney’s office, which was removed from state to federal court.
On October 6, 2008, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton dismissed Thomas, the County Attorney’s office and the Sheriff’s office from the suit, and dismissed several claims against Arpaio and Wilenchik and their wives. The case is on-going. See: Lacey v. Arpaio, U.S.D.C. (D.Ariz.), Case No. CV-08-00997-PHX-SRB.

Judge Bolton, incidentally, had unsuccessfully sued the Phoenix New Times herself before she became a federal judge, over an article she felt shouldn’t have been published. So much for avoiding conflicts of interest.

Wilenchik’s law partner, Bill French, 76, a well-respected attorney and former Superior Court judge who was brought into the New Times prosecution as co-counsel, resigned amid the clamor over the wide-reaching grand jury subpoena and subsequent arrests of Larkin and Lacey.

French doesn’t understand why there were any arrests at all. He said that on October 18, 2007, “there was somebody from the Sheriff’s office there who said, ‘Here are your options: citation, information...’ and the third was arrest. Wilenchik was not there. I said, ‘Let’s do the citation.’” A citation would have resulted in something similar to a traffic ticket being issued. “That’s what was being prepared,” French continued. “I left about 4:15 on that day and was amazed when I found out what had happened. I couldn’t comprehend it. I think objectively not anybody could.”

Yet Wilenchik was busy that day. On October 18, 2007 he filed a motion requesting the court to hold the New Times, its founders and three of their attorneys in contempt and fine them up to $90 million. Wilenchik and everyone else involved in the investigation deny responsibility for the arrests.

Wilenchik’s removal from the New Times prosecution hasn’t slowed him down. He still is employed as a “special prosecutor” and his firm has been paid over $200,000 in legal fees by Maricopa County since his dismissal. He continues to be a favorite of Thomas and Sheriff Arpaio, and continues to represent Arpaio in Hart v. Hill, a long-running jail conditions case, and other civil litigation. Since 2005, Wilenchik and his firm have collected over $2 million in taxpayer money for providing legal services to the county and Sheriff’s office.

Wilenchik’s legal credentials, however, are questionable – with his law firm profile claiming experience and positions that he reportedly never had. He claims to have been a judicial assistant/commissioner. He was not; rather, he was a bailiff. He says he was assigned to the special operations unit of the County Attorney’s office. He never worked there. He referred to himself as “Presiding Criminal Judge, Maricopa County” in 1977, before he had even passed the bar. He claims to have had a judicial clerkship at the Arizona Supreme Court, which the court has denied.

This résumé padding by Wilenchik seems to result from his need to succeed at all costs and an attitude that the rules simply don’t apply to him.

So what do you do if you have an impeccable professional record that you’ve earned, and find yourself hitched to a person like Wilenchik? You quit. Which is exactly what French did. “I worked very hard to achieve [a stellar reputation],” he said. “This is not a time in my life when I want to tarnish it, though.”

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether Wilenchik can salvage what’s left of his sullied reputation following the bungled New Times prosecution, his removal from that case, and the subsequent lawsuit naming him as a defendant. Plus his continued close relationship with Sheriff Arpaio, which raises additional moral and ethical concerns.

Source: Phoenix New Times

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