SHOW LOW - Arizona's top law official said he feels the hiring of former Apache County Sheriff Brian Hounshell as an investigator for Apache County violates the intention of Hounshell's plea agreement.
According to the county, Hounshell will be handling cold cases and other more complicated cases requiring extensive follow up.
While on his way back to the Valley, Terry Goddard, Arizona attorney general, stopped in Show Low to talk to The Independent. He said he feels Apache County Attorney Michael Whiting's hiring of Hounshell contradicts the agreement reached between the former sheriff and the courts which stipulated Hounshell would no longer seek or occupy public office.
Hounshell was the target of a lawsuit filed by Goddard in May 2005 for alleged misuse of county employees and equipment for personal use or benefit and misappropriation of more than $8,000 in taxpayer dollars while sheriff of Apache County.
That suit led to a plea agreement between Hounshell and Special Assistant Attorney General Grant Woods in which Hounshell agreed to certain conditions for having the Class 6 felony charge dropped to a misdemeanor.
Among conditions of the agreement were that Hounshell would vacate his office as sheriff, perform community service, give restitution payments and would not hold public office.
Goddard said it is the part about not holding public office that concerns him.
He said he has not had a chance to speak with Whiting about the matter yet, pointing out that Whiting's predecessor was the person who was originally handling the case, but he is sure Whiting is aware of his position on the issue.
Whiting was quoted in the Aug. 18 Independent as saying, "The committee found Mr. Hounshell to be the best qualified applicant for the investigator position. The committee investigated his resignation as Apache County sheriff, the charges against him and the two corresponding civil lawsuits. The results of the investigation determined he is eligible for hire by Apache County."
Goddard sees it a little differently.
"He was charged and found guilty of some very serious crimes involving public trust," Goddard said. "Part of the agreement struck with the court was that he would not be involved with or running for public office and that eventually he would find other kinds of work."
He said he is "very concerned that someone with a record of abusing the public trust" would be put back into the same position of public trust that he previously violated.
However, Goddard said he will not second guess the Apache County attorney in his decision, adding that he is certain Whiting is aware of the conditions of Hounshell's plea agreement and that he can only assume Whiting must feel he has placed sufficient "check and controls" in place in the hiring of the former sheriff.
"But it is still a concern and it is doubly so because of the penalty which was enacted by the court," he said. "It does not look like the penalty has any staying power."
Goddard eyes governor's seat
One of the questions asked of Arizona's attorney general was whether he will run for governor in the next election, a query which has been on a lot of people's minds.
While he would not commit to throwing his hat in the ring yet, Goddard said he is looking in that direction.
"I have some thoughts, and we may do an exploratory, but the Legislature just went out of session and I absolutely committed to myself that as long as they were hashing around with the budget, we didn't need anymore political noise," he said.
"But now that they have finished and the governor may sign it soon, it might be time to at least take a look at whether or not to run."
Goddard said he is "mystified" by the whole process surrounding this year's budget.
"We are two months into the fiscal year, we have no budget and it is hell-on-wheels for everybody who works for the state, or needs something from the state, because nobody knows what they have to work with," he said.
He said the budget is the guiding principle in state fiscal activity and not having one by this late date is a violation of the state Constitution.
"For 90-plus years we have been able to make it work, but this year it didn't," he added.
He said the impact to his office has been widely felt.
"The hit to our office (in layoffs) in 2009 and then the cumulative 2009-2010 impact is about 20 percent," he said. "The parking lot is empty these days."
The impact has been felt even more during this economic downfall, he said, adding that it is during these kinds of economically depressed times that the services offered by the Attorney General's Office are even more critical to the public.
He said the Child Protective Services division of his office has especially been affected.
"One-third of our lawyers in the AG's office are working for Child Protective Services, so anytime a kid is abused or neglected and it becomes a court action, there's an AG involved and their case load has soared in the bad economy," he said.
"So we are down at precisely the time when we are needed the most."
Wait-and-see strategy regarding Mexico's new drug policy
Goddard was asked what is his opinion of the recent move by the Mexican government in decriminalizing small-scale possession of certain illegal drugs.
Goddard said he is taking a wait-and-see stance at this time because he honestly does not know yet what the implications for border states like Arizona may be.
"There is nothing we can do about it, they have made that decision, but at least so far, I do not see any immediate impact. They still criminalise transportation and sale, so frankly in terms of a law enforcement continuum, I just don't get it," he said.
"How can the manufacture of drugs be illegal, transportation is illegal, distribution and sale is illegal but possession is OK?" he asked.
"I'm sorry but the ultimate user, the ultimate purchaser is the reason everything else works, so I think there is an inconsistency about what they are doing."
Goddard said his office is still actively cooperating with both Mexican border and national law enforcement against drug cartels violence and drug distribution to curtail the flow of cash and weapons across the border and it is still a main concern for the AG's office.
He does not at this point see any change in the mutual emphasis by Mexican and U.S. law enforcement efforts toward that end and in his words ,"it better not."
"I do not think it is a huge change in their policy (he said Mexico has never been very punitive in drug possession enforcement in the past).
"Where it might impact us the most is we have a pilot program we have started because in our own country, although we don't have that policy, we have had the federal abstention policy, which because of the huge number of drugs that are intercepted every day at the border, says they basically do not prosecute for under 500 pounds.
"That is a lot of drugs, so the deal I have struck with the Mexican prosecutors is, and we are just about ready to do the first couple of cases, if we have a Mexican national who has been arrested and is bringing in less than 500 (pounds of drugs) in and we choose not to prosecute them in the United States, we are going to package up the evidence and return them to Mexico on the commitment that they will be prosecuted and incarcerated if convicted there, and frankly I'm pretty excited about that."
Goddard said response from the Mexican government on the aforementioned program has been very favorable and he does not think the recent decriminalization of specified amounts of certain drugs within that country's borders will have any impact on it.
According to the change in Mexican law, the maximum amount of marijuana for "personal use" is allowed to be in possession of is five grams, the equivalent to about four marijuana cigarettes, a half gram for cocaine, the equivalent of about 4 "lines," as well as 50 milligrams of heroin, 40 milligrams of methamphetamine and .015 milligrams for LSD.
The new law also stipulates that anyone caught with illegal drugs will be encouraged to seek drug treatment and counseling and that after a third time a person would be required to undergo drug treatment.
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