George Soros sinks $9.6 million in law enforcement races
PHOENIX -- Liberal hedge-fund tycoon George Soros has poured $9.6 million into local law enforcement races across the country in a bid to remake the criminal justice system, including sinking $2.3 million into trying to unseat the six-term sheriff of metro Phoenix.
The longtime bankroller of liberal causes had focused his political giving in the past on mostly federal races, but has broadened his contributions over the last year by backing Democrats in local district attorney races in Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Mississippi, Texas, Missouri, Florida, Colorado, Georgia and Arizona.
Campaign finance reports from earlier in the election cycle showed that Soros had spent nearly $4 million on various local law enforcement races. That figure has more than doubled in recent weeks.
So far, all but one of his favored candidates have won either their primaries or have been elected to office. The spending helped topple a well-known incumbent in Orlando and drove a Republican candidate from the race in Albuquerque.
Michael Vachon, a Soros adviser who serves as his spokesman, said Soros contributed to candidates in these local law enforcement races because of his longtime interest in ending mass incarceration, combatting racial disparities within the criminal justice system and abolishing the death penalty. Soros believes that society benefits when the criminal justice system is fair.
Vachon said Soros opposes Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio's immigration enforcement efforts and harsh jail policies, including his practice of incarcerating inmates in surplus military tents. He believes the Maricopa County sheriff is the "poster child" for abusive practices.
A political group funded largely by Soros has run TV ads that criticized Arpaio for botching hundreds of sex-crime cases after they were reported to the sheriff's office. The group also supports Paul Penzone, the sheriff's Democratic challenger.
Chad Willems, Arpaio's campaign manager, said Soros was trying to buy the sheriff's race in Phoenix. He said the reasons Soros wants changes in the sheriff's office "don't match with what they are putting on TV."
Another Soros-funded group has been running ads attacking Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, whose campaign against little-known Democrat Diego Rodriguez was regarded as sleeper race until the billionaire put $1.3 million into the race against the incumbent.
One of the anti-Montgomery ads mentioned that mistakes by the prosecutor's office let a former sheriff deputy accused of corruption go free. The case against the sheriff's deputy accused of helping a cartel-connected heroin smuggling ring was dismissed after a key wiretap document in the case disappeared. Montgomery's office had accepted blame for not filing the document with the court.
Montgomery said he publicly disclosed the case's dismissal at a news conference. "I believe that for all the information that I have provided to the public, for all the good we are doing, I owed the public the courtesy, if you will, that if we made a mistake, I would own up to it," Montgomery said.
Vachon said Soros, in making political contributions in the two races in metro Phoenix, isn't trying to tell people in Arizona how to vote. Vachon said Soros is leveling the playing field against the $12 million raised by Arpaio, whose contributions have come from people mostly living elsewhere.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jacques-billeaud.