Arizona Republicans deny security detail for Secretary of State Fontes and family
By Bob Christie
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- An Arizona Legislative committee on Thursday denied a request from Secretary of State Adrian Fontes to use $250,000 already in his office budget to pay for a private security detail to protect him and his family from "credible security threats,'' a move that comes after Gov. Katie Hobbs also denied a request to assign state troopers to protect Fontes.
The decision by the chairman of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, was backed by the full committee following a brief discussion. Livingston, however, did approve the shifting of $100,000 from the secretary's election-related budget to beef up security at the secretary of state's offices in Phoenix and Tucson.
Fontes, a Democrat who was elected in November following a heated campaign that pitted him against Republican Mark Finchem, has been using money left in his campaign account to hire private security for protection, Assistant Secretary of State Keely Varvel told the panel.
And he’s seeking $500,000 for personal security in his office budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That request is part of an effort to secure a big boost in funding for his office, mainly to address election security issues.
Election officials across the nation have been subjected to increasing threats in recent years.
Hobbs herself received a DPS security detail several times following the 2020 election -- she was secretary of state at the time -- because of death threats. That detail was approved by her predecessor, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, who served as Ducey’s budget director until he left office in early January, questioned Varvel closely about the threats her boss has received and Hobbs' response.
"Have the threats changed?'' Gress asked.
Varvel said she assumed they were "similar in nature'' to those that Hobbs faced. One was serious enough that Fontes had his staff work from home the following day and have Varvel request an urgent meeting with Hobbs' staff to discuss a security detail, according to The Arizona Republic.
She noted that media report during Thursday’s meeting. And Varvel told lawmakers that the secretary's office is in daily contact with staff at the state’s Counter Terrorism Information Center about threats, including the one that prompted Fontes to send his staff home.
There have been ongoing discussions with Hobbs' office on the need for permanent funding for protection, Varvel said.
"We certainly made it clear that we were interested in the secretary having some form of personal security,'' Varvel said.
Hobb’s spokesman, Christian Slater, did not immediately respond to requests for information about whether she would back Fontes' budget request or whether the governor had changed her mind about the secretary's need for security.
Varvel said there is a need for an analysis of "the right kind of security for him and the office … and the threats that he sees personally to him and his family.
"We have indicated (to Hobbs' staff) that we're open to negotiate that,'' she continued.
"We just would like to get that funded,'' Varvel said. "And we have been consistently pushing to have some recognition of that and hopefully some funding provided for what law enforcement considers the appropriate security for him.''
The staff report for the request the committee considered noted that Fontes needed the money "due to personal safety threats that have been deemed credible by law enforcement.''
The $250,000 would pay for an assessment of personal security needs, two months' of private vendor security coverage for the remainder of the budget year, and the vendor’s startup costs.
It is unclear how long Fontes can continue funding his own security using campaign money. He ended 2022 with just over $223,000 in his campaign account.
Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, wanted to know whether the $100,000 for office security was enough. Bennett, himself a former secretary of state, said he did not want to leave staff vulnerable if more money was actually needed.
Livingston promised that more cash to boost physical security at the secretary’s offices would be quickly approved if it were needed.
But he was not so keen on providing money to protect Fontes personally.
"I wanted to provide $100,000 for hard security that will be (for the secretary’s office),'' Livingston said at the start of Thursday's meeting.
"That will be long-term permanent security,'' he said. "I was not comfortable providing security off-premises for the secretary of state.''
Fontes did not attend the meeting. But in a brief interview after it ended, he acknowledged he was frustrated that despite facing real threats because of his job as Arizona's chief elections officer, he could not get the state to provide appropriate protection.
"When I was in the Marine Corps we were deeply underfunded as an institution,'' Fontes said.
"We made do with what we had,'' he said. "I’m going to do the same as secretary of state.''
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