SUPERIOR — Proof of stolen cash from town coffers has led to an uprising of people calling for the resignation of Superior Mayor Jayme Valenzuela, who is also a commander with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.
First, there were allegations last month from former town clerk Rachel Sanchez that a town debit card was used to make four cash withdrawals totaling $1,300 for personal use, including at Wild Horse Pass Casino in Chandler.
At the time, Sanchez didn’t know Valenzuela was the one who used the card, but the mayor admitted he had made a mistake with the card after her comments at a Dec. 9 council meeting.
The town then ordered a third-party audit of its finances by a private firm, and the audit results not only confirmed Sanchez’s claims but showed the problem was worse than she thought. Valenzuela used the town’s card eight times since 2012 to withdraw $2,300 for personal use, according to the audit.
At last Thursday’s council meeting, the council voted to have the Arizona Department of Public Safety conduct a criminal investigation into Valenzuela.
An overflow crowd of local residents jammed into the council chambers, with several citizens — and other council members — demanding Valenzuela’s resignation.
Last Friday, Town Manager Margaret Gaston abruptly resigned amid the scandal. Attempts to reach Gaston for comment were unsuccessful. Additionally, David Romero, financial officer for the town, has not shown up to work yet this week, though he has not officially tendered a resignation.
According to copperarea.com, Sanchez dropped the bombshell at the Dec. 9 Town Council meeting. She was on a mandatory six-month probationary period as the town clerk, and the council was to vote on whether or not to retain her.
After Sanchez publicly announced the alleged misconduct, the council voted 4-3 to terminate her, and Valenzuela cast the deciding vote.
Councilmember Mila Lira, who voted to retain Sanchez as clerk, told the Casa Grande Dispatch she was “shocked” to hear of the misuse of taxpayer money.
“As a council member, it’s hard to trust him,” she said of Valenzuela, adding the community and town staff has also lost trust in him. “I really wish the mayor would resign.”
Valenzuela has said he paid the money back before the Dec. 9 council meeting.
However, the audit report showed Valenzuela made the payment in two checks, both of which were delivered after that meeting.
Councilmember Michael Alonzo was blunt at last Thursday’s meeting, accusing Valenzuela of stealing and demanding his resignation.
Lira said the mayor’s actions weren’t a mistake, as he’s stated.
“It’s hard to make an accident eight times,” she said.
Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Sanchez agreed with Lira’s comment, saying one mistake could possibly be understood but not eight separate times, adding, “He was lying.”
When the vote on whether or not to retain her reached 3-3, Sanchez said Valenzuela turned to her.
“[Valenzuela] looked at me and said, ‘I get the deciding vote, and you’re terminated,’ ” she said. “And then he smirked at me.”
Sanchez first discovered the town debit card had unusual expenditures on it in November, after Gaston told her to do some “bank reconciliations.” Sanchez then alerted Gaston about what she found.
“I tried to bring it to her attention, but she wouldn’t listen to me,” said Sanchez, who added the reaction was likely due to Gaston’s cozy relationship with Valenzuela.
“(Gaston) and the mayor had a very close relationship. … She pretty much didn’t work for the council; she worked for him,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said she was unfairly terminated. In essence, she said, she was fired for doing her job. She said she’d love to have her job back but admitted that likely won’t happen as long as Valenzuela is mayor.
There is talk of initiating a recall election if Valenzuela doesn’t resign, she said.
Citizens have also banded together to voice their support for the mayor’s ouster.
Nancy Vogler, who has lived in Superior for nine years, is part of a politically active citizens’ group comprised of about 80 people. That group has been at odds with Valenzuela for the last four years because of his refusal to work with Resolution Copper on a large mine project in the area.
Vogler said she and some other group members are “very concerned” about the financial misconduct by Valenzuela.
“The mayor … thinks the rest of us will stay quiet, but we’re outraged,” she said.
Valenzuela ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 2000 and 2008. When he was defeated in the 2008 Democratic primary by Chris Vasquez, Valenzuela pledged his allegiance to Republican Paul Babeu, who soundly defeated Vasquez in the general election.
Valenzuela had a long career with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office dating back to 1982 and ultimately left the department in 1999.
In 2002, Valenzuela applied to be an officer with his hometown Superior Police Department. After a background investigation, Superior PD ruled him ineligible for hire for several reasons, including not disclosing a demotion and 10-day suspension while at PCSO.
It was also discovered Valenzuela lied on his employment application, saying he was attending classes at University of Phoenix. He had enrolled at the college but never attended a class.
During the course of the background investigation, Superior PD contacted PCSO and found out Valenzuela was on the department’s “do not hire” list, which he also failed to disclose on his application.
Shortly after Babeu took office as the new sheriff in January 2009, he hired Valenzuela to be commander of program services at the Pinal County jail in Florence at a salary of more than $73,000. PCSO Chief Deputy Steve Henry told the Phoenix New Times in 2013 that Valenzuela passed an “exhaustive background investigation” prior to being rehired.
Valenzuela still works in that position in addition to serving as the mayor of Superior.
Tim Gaffney, director of administration for the Sheriff’s Office, said Valenzuela was forthright with the department about his “mistake” regarding cash withdrawals with the Town of Superior debit card.
“(Valenzuela) notified his chain of command at PCSO and said that he would immediately reimburse the town and ensure that it didn’t happen again,” Gaffney said in an email.
Valenzuela does have access to a county-issued credit card in his role as jail commander, but Gaffney said there have been no issues regarding him misusing county funds.
“The limited transactions he has made have all been directly related to the needs of our jail,” he said.
Valenzuela was also terminated by a former employer, Southwest Gas, for falsifying meter reads.
Councilmember Lira said Superior can’t continue with Valenzuela as its mayor and added the situation has reached a boiling point.
“The community is coming unglued,” she said. “The majority of people who have contacted me believe the mayor should resign.”
Calls and voicemails left on Valenzuela’s cellphone seeking comment were not returned.