A criminal case against Phoenix New Times fell apart Friday amid a crush of public outrage and admissions that a special county prosecutor made serious mistakes.
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas dismissed all charges against the free weekly newspaper less than 24 hours after two New Times owners were arrested for publishing details of a grand-jury subpoena that demanded the Internet records of any person who had visited the newspaper's Web site since 2004.
Thomas' announcement came just hours after the State Bar Association confirmed that it had received multiple complaints and had launched an internal investigation into Thomas and special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik for their actions in the New Times case and an unrelated one.
Thomas, who looked contrite and atypically uncomfortable as he faced cameras in a news conference, said he had no prior knowledge of the arrests or the demands set forth in the subpoena that his office sought.
"It has become clear to me that this investigation has gone in a direction that I would not have authorized," Thomas said, adding that he holds the First Amendment in great esteem and that it needs to be upheld.
"There have been serious missteps in this matter," he said. "I am announcing that Mr. Wilenchik will no longer serve as special prosecutor."
The mea culpa was a gigantic victory for New Times, which for three years has battled the County Attorney's Office over charges that reporters and editors broke the law when they published online the home address of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
"This really is a win for the Constitution," said Michael Lacey, executive editor of Village Voice Media, which owns Phoenix New Times and several other papers across the country. He also said it was a victory for readers, who won "the right to read whatever they want without government interference."
On Thursday night, Lacey and New Times owner Jim Larkin were arrested on charges that they broke the law by publishing details of the subpoena in Thursday's paper.
Lacey and Larkin acknowledged in their cover story that they risked prosecution but said the issues were too important to keep from the public.
The two said the subpoena was part of an investigation orchestrated to get back at reporters and the critical stories they wrote about Arpaio, Thomas' political ally.
Public backlash over the arrests and the subpoena was immediate and overwhelming Friday, with conservatives and liberals saying Thomas had made an assault on free speech.
"There is only one place for friends of freedom to stand at this moment: shoulder to shoulder with the New Times," the conservative Goldwater Institute wrote in defense of the alternative newspaper.
The case, which has cost taxpayers undisclosed thousands of dollars, dragged on for years. It started when New Times launched an investigation of Arpaio's real-estate holdings in 2004.
The story alleged the sheriff abused a law that allows peace officers to keep their addresses from being made public. It said Arpaio used the law to hide nearly $1 million in cash real-estate transactions while leaving his actual home address on public rolls.
Thomas said Friday that he still believes New Times committed a crime by publishing Arpaio's home address.
"It was inappropriate. It was wrong. It was arguably illegal," Thomas said.
After Thomas dropped the case, Arpaio simply said, "I'm the victim." He declined further comment.
Sheriff's spokesman Capt. Paul Chagolla said, "From the beginning, the behavior and activity that the New Times engaged in victimized the sheriff and his spouse. To this day, they're still victims and still being victimized."
Because of Thomas' contentious relationship with New Times, which has repeatedly criticized his office, Thomas turned the case over to the Pinal County Attorney's Office for prosecution in 2004. The case was returned after two years of inaction.
To avoid a conflict of interest, Thomas selected Wilenchik to act as a special prosecutor and continue the investigation.
Wilenchik is a private Phoenix attorney for whom Thomas worked before taking office in 2004. Since then, Thomas has often hired Wilenchik as a contract attorney for the county and appointed him as Arpaio's exclusive attorney. Maricopa County has paid Wilenchik's firm $1.9 million since May 2005, county records show.
Thomas said Friday that because of Wilenchik's "missteps" in the New Times case, he will no longer be used for criminal prosecutions. Those missteps include the decision to make arrests and the subpoena, which demanded years of reporter and editor notes on several stories and records involving the Internet habits of every visitor to the New Times Web site in three years.
Thomas, however, defended Wilenchik as a good attorney. He said Wilenchik could still be used in civil cases and his firm will remain on a list of outside attorneys used by the county.
State Bar of Arizona
But Wilenchik and Thomas are now the subjects of legal and ethical complaints with the State Bar of Arizona.
The Bar, which has oversight of Arizona attorneys, can revoke a lawyer's license to practice law if it finds evidence of wrongdoing.
Arizona State Bar President Daniel McAuliffe confirmed Friday that his office has received multiple complaints against the two.
The Bar has also launched its own internal investigation into a campaign that Thomas and Wilenchik launched against Maricopa Superior Court judges, which led to an unprecedented request that all 93 judges in Maricopa County be replaced by judges from other counties.
Wilenchik and Thomas contend judges are mishandling cases involving illegal immigrants and accused the court's assistant presiding criminal judge, Timothy Ryan, of bias.
Thomas' motions to dismiss Ryan and other judges were denied.
Bar complaints have also been filed against Wilenchik in the New Times case, alleging that he violated ethical rules by enlisting a political operative to broker a private and inappropriate meeting with Superior Court presiding Judge Anna Baca, who has oversight of the grand jury.
At his news conference Friday, Thomas denied any ethical violations and accused the state Bar of engaging in rumor-mill behavior that he called disgraceful.
"What they have done is they have attempted to smear me and this office for speaking out and criticizing judges who have been issuing rulings that, in my honest opinion as a prosecutor, endanger public safety," Thomas said.
But Thomas hasn't been scoring a lot of points with the public. Newspaper Web sites experienced a crush of e-mails, message board postings and blogs ranting against his office's actions in the New Times case.
The Attorney's Office was also vilified by civil-rights and journalism organizations, which described the arrests and the subpoena as an abuse of power.
"This is the type of action that should bring everyone, Democrats, Republicans, conservatives and liberals together," Arizona Republic reader and Thomas supporter Bob Haran wrote on the The Republic Web site.
"This attack on freedom of the press must end immediately, if not every freedom- loving American in Maricopa County must help fight to preserve a free press by organizing a recall of Thomas and Arpaio for abuse of power and malicious prosecution."