Corporation Commission chair proposes office drug search - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

Corporation Commission chair proposes office drug search

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Posted: Tuesday, July 12, 2011 1:57 pm | Updated: 4:10 pm, Thu Sep 26, 2013.

Three of the five members of the Arizona Corporation Commission agreed to let their private offices and those of their aides be searched by dogs for illegal drugs after a small quantity of marijuana was found last week in a private bathroom.

Chairman Gary Pierce, who made the request, said the search is important to preserve public confidence in the commission which has oversight of the rates charged by private utilities, the sale of some securities and the filing of papers of new corporations.

"I feel the need to prove to the best of my ability that my decisions at the commission are not made under the influence of marijuana and that I am not responsible for its presence," he said. "Arizonans depend on us to make decisions which are thorough, thoughtful, legal, and are made with the assurance that no one in that decision-making process is impaired through the use of illegal drugs."

Bob Stump and Brenda Burns, Republicans like Pierce, readily agreed to the searches.

Pierce, who told Capitol Media Services he never has used marijuana, also agreed to have both his urine and his hair tested for the presence of metabolites of marijuana, and to make the results public. Here, too, the other two Republicans agreed to go along.

Democrat Sandra Kennedy refused to comment. But in a prepared statement released later, Paul Newman, the other Democrat on the commission, said he will not subject himself or his staff to a such an intrusion "where there is no crime." He said both the state and federal constitutions guarantee the right of citizens to be free of improper searches.

Newman also accused Pierce of "political hysteria" in wanting to bring in police dogs over "a few scraps of green plant material."

"It is excessive beyond reason," he said.

A staff attorney told Pierce he has no right to search the offices of the two Democrats, absent a warrant and probable cause.

Pierce, interviewed later, said his desire to reassure Arizonans about the decisions the commissioners were making did not extend to having them tested for being drunk before key decisions.

"If we were to suspect someone was impaired here, we would do something about that," he said. But he said that impairment would have to be something that was obvious and people could see.

"I'm not going to speculate on the unknown, only on the things we can see," Pierce said.

The chairman conceded, though, he has no indication that any of his colleagues have been impaired by marijuana. Instead, Pierce said his proposal - and his offer - came only because something was found in the bathroom which is accessible only to commissioners, their aides and their secretaries.

Frank Ceballos, an officer with the Capitol police department, said he went to the commission officers after an employee reported finding $5.85 in change in the bathroom. As he and others were counting the loose change, a commission employee saw "some green plant material, which he believed (to be) marijuana in with the change."

The substance - which the Department of Public Safety says tested positive for marijuana - was confiscated and set to be destroyed. DPS spokesman Bart Graves said the amount was too small to weigh.

"We had something found and who knows who, what, how," Pierce said. "And so, because of that, we have to deal with it as cautiously as we can, not making any accusations because that would be irresponsible because who knows where it came from."

And Pierce said he saw nothing wrong, in pursuing his goal, with asking his colleagues to waive their constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure of not only their offices but their bodies. He said the public has a right to be certain that commissioners do not have illegal drugs in their systems.

"Those who we regulate, and their customers, I think need to know that we are sober," he said.

The whole public discussion appeared to irk Newman who showed up late for the discussion that originally was posted to start at 9 a.m. In fact, Pierce postponed the meeting until Newman arrived nearly an hour later, telling reporters he was "on my way up from Tucson."

"I just don't understand why that's appropriate," Newman said when the meeting finally started and Pierce outlined his plan, asking the chairman if there was "recourse to discuss this off the record."

Pierce responded that he feels the issue needed to be addressed - and before the commission voted on any of its regular business.

Burns said she understands the need for the sweep.

"I don't know that we are going to find out who left the marijuana in the bathroom," Burns said. "It would be nice to know that."

Newman, in his statement, said he could not be the offender, saying he was in Tucson the day the marijuana was found.

Pierce said he was not saying who might be to blame for the marijuana.

But the event recalled a 2004 incident involving Newman while he was a member of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors. The other supervisors revoked his privileges to drive a government vehicle after a Border Patrol agent said he found marijuana residue in the car.

Joe Navarro said because there was not a "seizable" amount of marijuana the decision was made to simply make a report and let Newman go on his way.

Lance Crosthwait, at the time the chief deputy county sheriff, said a decision was made not to pursue criminal charges because his agency did not learn of the incident until more than a month later. Crosthwait said there was a "lack of physical evidence," with the Border Patrol reporting marijuana residue along with ashes from burnt marijuana and rolling papers.

Newman, asked about the incident in 2008 when he was campaigning for the Arizona Corporation Commission, refused to answer questions, instead providing a written response saying the incident "is a chapter in my life that I consider fully closed."

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