Doing noble work isn’t enough to snag you a RICO grant anymore.

Every year, the Pima County Attorney’s Office collects a pool of money seized in racketeering investigations. County Attorney Barbara LaWall likes to shower the office’s good fortune on deserving local charities, taking applications for grants as big as $5,000.

LaWall and other attorneys filter through the applications and grant these awards to groups they decide are defensibly part of a “law enforcement effort, policy, and/or initiative” as the law requires. They’ve even offered up to $10,000 to some.

But although they’re attorneys, they seem to have been a little too loose with their giving.

Because of a change in state law, the Pima County board requested an outside review of the Pima County Attorney’s Office proposed spending of $254,100 in so-called RICO money. The outside attorney’s conclusion: 15 of the 50 groups that LaWall wants to give money to aren’t justified recipients under the law, at least not without further documentation.

“The language of the guidelines is somewhat broad,” attorney J. Arthur Eaves said after reviewing LaWall’s proposed spending, “but clearly funds are not meant to go to every noble community-based group.”

Among LaWall’s proposed spending is $1,000 to the First Tee of Tucson program, which teaches kids about golf. As the applicant wrote in the request for a grant, “We keep kids in school and offer life lessons through the game of golf.”

Eaves wasn’t buying it.

“The First Tee’s application makes reference to reducing crime by building self-esteem, but any connection to crime reduction seems tenuous at best,” he wrote. “First Tee has failed to demonstrate a real connection to gang prevention, substance abuse education or support a tangible goal of law enforcement.”

He made similar comments about other groups to which LaWall had approved grants. Among them:

  • Angel Heart Pajama Project ($5,000)
  • Casa de los Niños ($5,000)
  • Marana Broncos Youth Football ($5,000)
  • Rincon Optimist Club ($3,000)
  • Sunnyside Neighborhood Association ($5,000)

Eaves said of that neighborhood group, “SNA’s mission is all over the place,” and he recommended approving just $500 for tools and supplies for a neighborhood cleanup that would be permitted under the law.

Eaves also questioned why LaWall approved two grants of $10,000 when she had previously set a limit of $5,000.

The first-of-its-kind review shows how any pool of public money under control of a given official can turn into something akin to a slush fund, even when attorneys are in charge of it, even if the recipients are apparently doing good work.

Go back to 2014 and recall Supervisor Ally Miller pointing out that some supervisors were donating unneeded money from their office budgets to charities they considered deserving. Most interesting were the donations totaling about $13,000 by Richard Elías, now the board’s chair, to Chicanos Por La Causa, a group he previously worked for.

The board changed the policy allowing those donations in 2015, requiring a new, outside committee to approve such spending.

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Next go forward to 2015-2016 and the controversy that emerged over the Pima County Sheriff’s Department’s use of RICO money. My colleague Caitlin Schmidt revealed questionable spending on a cafeteria, and then it emerged $500,000 had gone to the sheriff’s auxiliary volunteer fund for its own spending.

Then-Sheriff Chris Nanos may well have lost the 2016 election because of that controversy.

Or recall the years of former Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu's reign, regularly marked by controversies over how he spent RICO money, from a $53,000 trip to St. Louis for 25 staffers in 2011 to a mailer sent out on his behalf while he ran for Congress in 2016.

Eaves doesn't allege anything egregious like that, and he did not even think LaWall’s judgment was bad. On the contrary, he said, “Overall, her procedures are acceptable.”

And the one grant she offered that drew a rebuke from a legislator was approved as fine by the outside attorney. Rep. Bob Thorpe, a Republican from Flagstaff who has consistently shown poor judgment during his years in the Legislature, got all puffed up about one proposed grant in a message he sent the board on Feb. 6.

“LaWall’s current requests, that include a $5,000 payment to the Perimeter Bicycling Association of America, Inc., demonstrate to me that further state legislative action is needed in order to hold county officials personally accountable for their decisions,” he wrote.

Eaves noted in his review that the bicycling group’s program is for juveniles found delinquent and sentenced to community service. “I disagree with Mr. Thorpe,” he said.

Amelia Cramer, the chief deputy county attorney, told me Tuesday that the office puts the grants through three layers of review and is willing to provide additional documentation if necessary to justify individual grants.

As Eaves showed, it is necessary. You can never, ever, trust an official with a pool of money to distribute on their own, even if they’re putting it to seemingly noble causes.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Columnist

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.