Arpaio Honduras project questioned
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office calls it a tool to fight crime and boost its gang-prevention efforts.
But while the Bay Island Sister Agency Project offers abundant benefits to residents of Honduras, particularly to those who live on Roatan Island, a scuba resort in the Caribbean, the advantages to Maricopa County residents are less clear.
The agency has spent more than $120,000 on Sheriff's Office employee salaries in Honduras, and an additional $30,000 in RICO funds seized from criminals. And some of the trips occurred during a time period where the Sheriff's Office overspent its overtime budget by nearly $1 million.
But aside from a February presentation to the county Board of Supervisors, sheriff's officials have been tight-lipped about what the program does for Maricopa County taxpayers.
The Sheriff's Office will not grant interviews to explain how and why the program was started and what the benefits are to Maricopa County, because officials say discussing the program fuels criticism and revealing details could put lives at risk. Instead, they say all the answers sit in thousands of pages of public documents that they have released.
The RICO spending prompted the state's auditor general to move up an audit scheduled for 2009, and questions about the program forced Sheriff Joe Arpaio to say he was reviewing the Honduras operation.
The Bay Island Sister Agency Project for Justice and Service has sent a group of sheriff's deputies, detectives and administrators to Honduras since early 2007 to train police officers, including members of the Honduran National Police, in a variety of techniques, including managing traffic accidents and homicide and sex-crime investigations.
The Sheriff's Office also supplied Honduran officials with equipment and invited a handful of high-ranking law-enforcement administrators to Phoenix for training last summer when Gov. Janet Napolitano declared June 5 "Bay Island Sister Agency Project for Justice and Service Day."
The program's benefits to the citizens of Honduras are clear and abundant.
But the advantages to Maricopa County residents are more vague, and the Sheriff's Office's reticence to speak about the arrangement doesn't help.
Documents released through the office show sheriff's deputies claim the Honduras exercise is an asset in their gang-prevention efforts.
In Arizona, the majority of foreign-born gangs originate in Mexico because of the country's proximity to the state, said Vincent Picard, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Phoenix.
But street gangs from around the world still find a home in Phoenix, just like any other metropolitan area, he said.
"Certainly, we've seen foreign-born gang members. We encounter them quite often throughout the state of Arizona," Picard said. "But that doesn't preclude gang members from other nations operating here in Arizona and in the Phoenix area."
Sheriff's officials told the county Board of Supervisors that the Honduran National Police possess the "intelligence data, knowledge and cultural experiences to benefit the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office."
In addition to claiming that Honduran authorities could help Maricopa County officials fight gang-and-drug activity in the state, sheriff's officials told county supervisors that the exercises on Roatan Island, off northern Honduras, would create more culturally aware "deputies, detention officers, detectives and command staff."
Sheriff's officials have alternately claimed that the program is a training and information-sharing operation and that discussing efforts in Honduras could endanger the lives of law-enforcement officers in both countries.
The sheriff's facial-recognition software program is supposed to be among the biggest beneficiaries of the Honduras engagement.
Sheriff's officials refused to discuss anything related to the facial-recognition program, but documents show there is a system in place at the Arizona Counter-Terrorism Information Center, a crime-fighting force that brings together 20 agencies from around the state.
David Denlinger, commander at the counterterrorism center, wrote in an e-mail that the system was available to any of the agencies that utilize the center in Phoenix.
"It provides investigators a tool that is capable of producing leads that can identify suspects using multiple identities, or produce leads as to potential identities of an unknown suspect captured on a photo," he wrote. "Any other information about the system needs to go to Maricopa County as it is their property."
Sheriff's officials wouldn't talk about the system, but according to one request for RICO funds processed through the Sheriff's Office, the system, as of May, had 5.7 million images from the state's driver's-license database, acquired through the Arizona Department of Transportation. The system had an additional 2.8 million booking photos and was due to receive about 2 million more booking photos from federal agencies.
When Arpaio was first confronted about the department's trips to Honduras, he said the agency had received "millions" of photos from Honduran officials.
But questions remain.
"Routinely if we hear anything newsworthy, we'll rethink when we need to do it," said Dennis Mattheisen, financial audit director of the Auditor General's Office. "We decided to bump RICO earlier into our audit schedule."
State law requires agencies that seize funds through the Racketeer Influenced, Corrupt Organizations Act to spend the money on drug- and gang-education and prevention efforts and law enforcement, for the witness-protection program and for investigating and prosecuting crimes related to racketeering.
The audit likely won't start for another month or so, Mattheisen said, and it could take until the end of the calendar year before it is complete.
Auditors will look for the Sheriff's Office to show that the RICO funds were used for programs that fight crime.
"The interesting thing about RICO statutes is they're extremely vague," Mattheisen said. "It's really difficult from the auditors' standpoint, when the rules are so general, to definitively say, 'It's wrong.' "
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