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Arizona Attorney General Confiscates Utility Regulator's Cellphone
The saga of Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump’s deleted text messages took an unexpected twist this week when the Arizona Attorney General’s office decided to get involved.
A nonprofit watchdog group in Washington D.C. has been hounding the Corporation Commission for months for access to Stump’s cellphone in order to recover hundreds of deleted text messages.
After months of back and forth, the commission agreed, but in its most recent search for a private investigator to recover the texts, it was seized Tuesday by the AG’s office as part of its ongoing whistle-blower investigation into former Commissioner Gary Pierce.
“The AG contacted the commission’s counsel and asked for Commissioner Bob Stump’s cell phone that had been placed in the Commission safe,” Jodi Jerich, the commission’s executive director, said in an emailed statement. “We turned the phone over to the AG representatives on Tuesday … We were assured that the AG would retain the appropriate chain of custody and were also told they would keep the phone until the conclusion of their investigation.”
Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for the AG’s office, said the phone will be returned when investigators have finished recovering any existing data that may be relevant to the Pierce probe.
“Based upon media accounts, our investigators felt the phone was relevant to their ongoing investigation with the Arizona Corporation Commission whistleblower claim,” Anderson said.
He said that would happen in “due time," but declined to give a specific timeframe.
“It’s certainly not the intent of this office to have this phone sit here for a great period of time,” he said.
The controversy stems from a public records request sent by the watchdog group, called the Checks and Balances Project, earlier this year. The records Checks and Balances obtained showed that, leading up to last year’s primary election, Stump exchanged hundreds of text messages with an Arizona Public Service official; current Commissioners Tom Forese and Doug Little, who at the time were running for office; and the head of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a dark money group that spent millions of dollars -- of which APS is widely believed to be the source -- to help get Forese and Little elected.
Checks and Balances said that implies Stump could’ve been helping coordinate between Forese and Little’s campaign and independent groups, which is illegal, but only the actual text messages will tell.
Stump, however, deleted the messages, so the watchdog group has been in a struggle with the commission for access to his phone. The commission ultimately agreed, but amid its search for someone to perform the extraction, the AG stepped in.
The controversy has become so lively in recent weeks that the Arizona Republican Party released an attack ad on Tuesday against Dan Barr, who is Checks and Balance’s attorney in Phoenix and a First Amendment expert.
“It’s so stupid that it’s funny. I mean obviously, somebody’s panicking,” Barr said. “Even if nothing is ever found off that phone, their behavior raises a lot of questions.”
He said the cell phone still is a matter of public record by law, regardless whose possession it’s in, but being in the hands of the AG for an unspecified amount of time complicates the situation on his end.
“We’re obviously keeping a close watch,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have all the access that we have under the public records law to that phone that we would otherwise have.”