Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh made complaints of employee quid pro quo in the Pinal County Attorney's Office last year without any factual basis, an investigation commissioned by Pinal County found.
The investigation findings are the latest twist in a legal drama that began in April when two County Attorney's Office employees, Chief of Staff Garland Shreves and Finance Manager Amanda Stanford, sued Cavanaugh. They alleged he had started a rumor that Shreves had hired Stanford in exchange for sexual favors.
In court documents, they alleged that Cavanaugh has a propensity for lying and had made up the story after Shreves refused a job offer with Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh had wanted to hire Shreves so that he could undermine his boss, County Attorney Kent Volkmer, according to the lawsuit.
The allegations, the employees say, led to both of them being investigated. Although the issue ultimately was dismissed by Volkmer, their supervisor, the lawsuit claims that the ordeal left their reputations permanently damaged and caused emotional distress.
"My mother-in-law believes everything that I'm accused of, so my home life is (expletive)," Shreves told The Arizona Republic. "I have hardly been able to live in my own house since this occurred ... my wife doesn't believe it, but she's hurt over it."
The investigation report was released after much discussion by county supervisors and a vote against it from Cavanaugh himself. The Republic obtained the document via a public records request.
"The investigative finding, based on the facts available to be collected, is that Mr. Cavanaugh did not have a reasonable basis for bringing these allegations forward, which also suggests that Mr. Cavanaugh had some other motive, other than the fulfillment of any official obligation, for his actions," the report reads.
The report was prepared by consultant Investigative Research Inc. for attorney James Jellison, representing the Pinal County Board of Supervisors.
Its release also underscores increasing tensions between Cavanaugh and other county supervisors, some of whom have verbally sparred with Cavanaugh at recent board meetings.
Cavanaugh insisted in a special board session on the report's release that he has additional evidence that wasn't considered during the investigation. He called its findings "incomplete." He would not discuss any specific evidence publicly during that meeting, saying he wanted to maintain his attorney-client privilege.
When The Republic reached Cavanaugh by phone, he did not comment beyond calling the lawsuit's claims "clearly bogus." He declined to answer any questions, saying he needed to consult with his attorney first.
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The lawsuit against the county supervisor
Cavanaugh first approached Shreves about taking a job as his executive aide early in 2021, according to the lawsuit.
The job, Cavanaugh promised, would come with a substantial pay increase for Shreves, according to the lawsuit. In 2021, Shreves made little over $100,000 annually as Volkmer's chief of staff, according to The Republic's government salary database.
In exchange, Shreves would need to help Cavanaugh double-cross other county officials to gain political power, the lawsuit states.
"He literally told me that he was working for God; that he was on a mission from God and that I was one of his soldiers," Shreves told The Republic. "I was supposed to come and work with him to rid the county of corruption, and it was his mission that I was to help him literally destroy and lie about the reputation of both the county attorney and the sheriff."
Cavanaugh told Shreves that the other county supervisors were "stupid mindless puppets," the lawsuit said.
"The stupidest one of all was (Chairman) Jeff Serdy," Shreves said. "That's exactly (Cavanaugh's) words, not mine."
Shreves and Stanford's lawsuit originally named the Pinal County Board of Supervisors, but the board was removed from the suit.
In its initial reply to the lawsuit, outside attorneys for the board did little to defend Cavanaugh, who is represented by his own outside counsel in the case. The board, the attorneys argued, had no power to reign in Cavanaugh, who was elected by voters.
"It's sad, but they elected him and there's nothing we can do about it," Shreves said. "I oftentimes ask myself how to deal with such a rogue elected official. The problem is, we don't want to weaponize the ability to get rid of a political individual because it could be used in a harmful way."
No one backed up Cavanaugh's claims, report says
Cavanaugh pointed to three people to support his allegations around Shreves and Stanford, according to the investigation report: former County Attorney's Office spokesperson James Tanner, Cavanaugh's former administrative assistant Deb Mellado and an unidentified constituent that Cavanaugh claimed ran up to him while he was walking his dog to speak with him about the matter.
It was based on those claims that he filed a formal complaint with Volkmer and Deputy County Manager Mary Ellen Sheppard, he told investigators.
But when investigators spoke with Tanner, he denied ever telling Cavanaugh anything about a sexual relationship between Shreves and Stanford, according to the report. Mellado didn't directly speak to investigators because of an ongoing discrimination claim she is pursuing against Cavanaugh, but she submitted a signed declaration indicating that she never spoke with him about the allegations.
And based on descriptions from Cavanaugh, investigators tried to track down the unidentified Coolidge resident that he claimed chased him down to tell him about Shreves and Stanford. They were unable to find the woman.
"Given that the other two attributions of information (to Tanner and Mellado) by Cavanaugh were unsupported by the evidence as well as the information that follows, this investigator is skeptical about whether Mr. Cavanaugh did indeed have several conversations with a Coolidge resident, name unknown, as he has described, while he was out walking his dog," the report read.
"All things considered, there is insufficient facts to support a finding that Cavanaugh received the information he described from a Coolidge resident, although the possibility cannot be ruled out."
Allegations against other political rivals
Cavanaugh has made other salacious allegations against Pinal County employees and officials.
The report detailed three other complaints from Cavanaugh to Volkmer.
One accused Supervisor Stephen Miller of attempting to curry favor with Deputy County Manager Himanshu Patel. Patel had purchased two new air conditioning units for his home from Al and Riley's, a local company in which Miller's son-in-law owns a small stake. He paid roughly $6,000, which an investigator for Volkmer found was within fair market price range for the units.
Two others targeted Supervisor Mike Goodman. One alleged that he had used county resources to pave his driveway; another said he hired his daughter-in-law in violation of Arizona's anti-nepotism law.
An officer sent by Volkmer to investigate the claims found that Goodman's driveway wasn't paved - in fact, there was no blacktop in a half-mile vicinity of his house. And while Goodman did hire his stepson's wife, he did so only after consulting with the county's human resources director and legal counsel.
Cavanaugh was also behind a complaint to a state legislative ethics committee against Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, and Sheriff Mark Lamb. The complaint, unsealed in February 2020, accused Cook and Lamb of colluding to stop the planned seizure of a family's farm property over back taxes, suggesting Lamb took a bribe.
A separate constituent complaint to the committee alleged that Cook was having an affair with lobbyist AnnaMarie Knorr. Her family owned the farm property almost seized by Lamb's deputies.
At the time, Lamb told The Republic that Cook contacted him about a constituent's tax problems and that he canceled plans to seize the farm's property. He maintained there was nothing inappropriate about the legislator's concerns and denied he was paid for canceling the property seizure, insisting instead that the issue prompted him to change protocols in his own office for seizing properties over back taxes.
Lamb said he even declined a campaign contribution from Knorr's father, Bas Aja, the week after Cook's call. He cited Knorr's tax issues as the reason for rejecting the contribution.
Aja, a prominent lobbyist for the ranching industry, and Knorr did donate a combined total of $450 to the sheriff's re-election campaign several months later, in June 2019. A report released a few months later by House lawmakers was not conclusive on the allegations, although it did include handwritten notes of a romantic nature between Cook and Knorr, who is no longer a lobbyist.
As an ethical guideline, government officials should be mindful of making accusations against their rivals and should not ever lie for political gain, said John Pelissero of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
"They are ethically responsible for serving the public interest while in office, not attempting to advance their political interests by making allegations against rivals that they know not to be true," said Pelissero, who specializes in local government and politics. "Honesty among public officials is an important ethical virtue."
Cavanaugh's 'nay' vote
Some of Cavanaugh's allegations seem to have rubbed his fellow supervisors the wrong way.
In discussions over whether to release the investigation's findings, Cavanaugh argued passionately that immediately disclosing the report to the public could hurt the county. He told his fellow supervisors that he had "more evidence" that hadn't been taken into consideration.
But his comments during a Feb. 1 meeting were met with clapbacks from some of his colleagues. At one point, Goodman told Cavanaugh that he wasn't sure if he actually did have further proof of his claims.
"Statements are being made that can't be validated or verified," Goodman said with frustration.
Supervisor Jeffrey McClure suggested that Cavanaugh might be trying to "change the story" by holding back the report.
Ultimately, supervisors voted 3-2 to delay the release of the investigation's findings after gathering in executive session - even as Goodman and McClure argued the report should be released immediately.
But days later, Serdy and Miller did an abrupt about-face, calling a special session to reconsider the vote. Miller said he had been under the impression that he'd voted for the report to be released on Feb. 15, in the early morning hours before the board's next formal meeting was scheduled.
When he learned that the vote had been to release the report after Feb. 15, he changed his mind, he said.
Cavanaugh wasn't spared further snark from some others at the meeting. At one point, he mentioned he wasn't a lawyer, only to be interrupted by McClure.
"But you're acting like one," McClure snapped.
This time, the vote went 4-1, with only Cavanaugh opposed.
He didn't recuse himself from either vote regarding the release of the report, even though it directly involved an investigation into his claims. Generally, elected officials remove themselves from votes in which they have a personal or financial interest in the outcome, Pelissero said.
Not doing so, he said, doesn't look especially good for Cavanaugh. "The perception among the public may be that he wants to hide negative information about his actions from being released," Pelissero said.
Shreves, the employee who filed the lawsuit, noted that Cavanaugh had pledged to be Pinal County's most transparent supervisor when he entered office. But in this case, Shreves said Cavanaugh has tried to "double down and throw more dirt," creating more stress and uncertainty for him, Stanford and their families.
"He's not a good person," Shreves said. "Not even close."
Sasha Hupka is a watchdog reporter covering Maricopa County, Pinal County and regional issues for The Arizona Republic. Do you have a tip about your county elected officials? Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SashaHupka.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Report finds no evidence for Pinal County supervisor's allegations