PHOENIX - Auditors say former seven-term Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada and a former top aide may have violated state laws governing the use of public money and the solicitation of fraud when the sheriff’s office approved $196,000 of unworked overtime pay to dozens of employees over a five-year period.
The Arizona Auditor General’s Office said Thursday that it submitted its report on the unworked pay from June 2013 through September 2018 to Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office, which declined to comment on whether it was conducting a criminal investigation.
A report by state auditors said Estrada confirmed that employees were given additional compensation for special duties — such as serving as training officers — through unworked overtime. They also said Estrada believed county officials didn’t prioritize public safety and would have told him there was no money available if special duty pay had been requested.
In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Estrada denied personally profiting from the practice and confirmed that he believed county officials didn’t adequately fund law enforcement. "The only one that profited out of it was public safety in Santa Cruz County," Estrada said.
Estrada served as sheriff of the border county for 30 years and retired late last year. He is known for his unapologetically liberal views in a state where sheriffs are often known for being politically conservative.
The audit report said Estrada confirmed that every officer and supervisor who signed falsified timesheets did so only because of his office’s instructions. It said sheriff’s supervisors and command staff instructed employees to claim one hour of overtime each day they performed duties beyond their pay grade and that supervisors signed off on timesheets that falsely claimed overtime.
Auditors say Estrada and the former top aide may have concealed the practice from county officials.
The auditor general’s office said it didn’t corroborate the claim by Estrada and the former top aide that certain county officials knew of the practice, though Estrada insisted to AP that county officials knew of the practice.
"I didn’t personally benefit from it financially," Estrada said. "It was in consideration of what I thought was fair for some of the responsibilities that people were doing above and beyond what we expected of them."
Auditors say a county manager told Estrada in an October 2018 email that she learned the sheriff’s office had been paying employees for unworked overtime, that the practice wasn’t allowed and to stop it immediately.
The next day, the top aide emailed Estrada and other top leaders in the sheriff’s office saying, "The Sheriff is asking that we proceed as usual until he gives us other instructions," according to the report. Auditors said the county manager stopped the practice the next week.
Estrada told the AP that he figured that since he hadn’t gotten any news on the auditors’ examination over the last two years, he concluded there was no basis for a complaint. When the county failed to adequately fund law enforcement, "we had to adjust the best way we possibly could," Estrada said.
The Auditor General’s Office didn’t return a phone call seeking the name of the former top aide mentioned in its report. Estrada also declined to name the aide during the AP interview.