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County questions whether Sheriff's Office is spying on employees

Attorneys working for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors want to know if the Sheriff’s Office has been spying on information technology employees, according to a letter sent last Friday and obtained by The Republic.

The letter asks sheriff’s attorneys why a sheriff’s commander has been seen watching employees – and in one case, watching county attorneys – from an unmarked SUV equipped with radio and satellite equipment on the roof.  

 The letter underscores the increasing level of mistrust among county and sheriff’s officials during an era marked with unprecedented legal battles. 

 Attorneys Eric Dowell and Kerry Martin work for the sheriff. They said Monday morning that the letter is part of an ongoing campaign by the county to “discredit” the commander, who has not been spying on anyone. In fact, they pointed out that the commander works in the very building he is suspected to have staked out.

 Martin said the vehicle has “no such capabilities to listen through walls, track cell-phone numbers” and perform other surveillance measures: “Do you really think MCSO has some vehicle with some capacity to penetrate through cement walls and listen to cell-phone communications?”

Martin said the vehicle essentially is a command center on wheels. He said it works as a data center to help sheriff’s officials respond to hostage negotiations and other emergencies.

“Give me a break,” Martin said. “(The commander) has an office in that very building, the parking lot he’s accused of staking out is right across the jail and near that building. He belongs there – he’s a county employee. It’s a joke.”

For more than a year, the Sheriff’s Office and county have battled in court over who can oversee a criminal-justice database.  The Sheriff’s Office sued, and the case is ongoing in Superior Court. The case has cost at least $1.6 million in public funds, mostly on attorneys fees.

In the letter,  attorneys Julie Pace and David Selden ask sheriff’s attorneys to answer by 4 p.m. Friday whether the commander has the capabilities to monitor communications inside of buildings and on sidewalks, whether he can intercept cell-phone conversations, whether he has monitored phone numbers or license plates and  whether he has tried to track or monitor visitors to the county’s information-technology department or its employees. It also asks whether he or the Sheriff’s Office has monitored attorney-client privileged information. In addition, the attorneys also ask for any documents that may have resulted from “MCSO’s surveillance.”

Dowell responded to Pace in a letter sent Monday afternoon: "The answer to all your questions is no."

He demanded Pace, her firm, and the county to preserve "any and all evidence and documents related to this matter," including correspondence with the media.

County spokeswoman Cari Gerchick disputed that the commander is based out of the information technology building, although she said some of his employees office there. "That's why we don't understand why he was there," she said. "The information we have is that he does not physically have an office there, which leads us to ask these questions."


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