The plea bargain dismisses all seven felonies, with the former official admitting to three misdemeanor theft counts in $500,000 embezzlement case.
A former chief deputy for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department will do no prison time — and apparently will retain his state pension — under terms of a plea deal reached Friday with federal prosecutors in a $500,000 embezzlement scheme.
Christopher Radtke, 55, once second in command of the Sheriff’s Department, was indicted on seven felony counts of money laundering and theft after investigators discovered deputies misappropriated roughly a half-million dollars seized from criminals over 18 years. Radtke admitted that for six years he was involved in the practice of making it appear the Sheriff’s Department was donating misappropriated dollars to the Sheriff’s Auxiliary Volunteers.
It is unclear from the indictment how much money Radtke spent unlawfully.
The plea deal was condemned Friday by critics, including a sergeant who tipped FBI agents about the scheme.
Radtke could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Sean Chapman, did not return a call Friday afternoon.
The plea bargain dismisses all felonies, with Radtke admitting to three misdemeanor theft counts. He agreed to not seek employment as a law-enforcement officer or with Pima County government. In return, prosecutors will request one year of probation without incarceration and will not prosecute Radtke for other offenses.
The deal allows Radtke to receive an $82,800 annual pension from the state Public Safety Personnel Retirement System and a one-time $505,000 payment from the system’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan, according to the retirement system’s records. Within six years, Radtke will receive more than $1 million in state retirement benefits.
Had Radtke been convicted of any of the felony charges against him, he would have been required by law to forfeit his state pension because the crime was committed in the course of his role as a public official for a government employer.
The plea was accepted by Magistrate Judge Eric Markovich. Sentencing is scheduled for April 7 in U.S. District Court in Tucson.
It is common in criminal court for prosecutors to offer reduced charges with lesser sentences, thereby expediting justice and avoiding trials with uncertain outcomes. But it is unclear why federal authorities granted such terms in a case that involved a law officer and so much public money.
John Huber, U.S. attorney for Utah, said the plea deal represents a “just outcome,” adding, “This investigation and prosecution has cleaned the Pima County Sheriff’s Office of years of corruption and ensures it will not return.”
Prosecution was handled by a Justice Department office in Utah because the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona recused itself. Sheriff’s administrators and federal prosecutors work together extensively, building professional relationships on task forces and during criminal investigations. Elizabeth Strange, the acting U.S. attorney for Arizona, previously oversaw the agency’s Tucson office.
Melodie Rydalch, an office spokeswoman, declined to discuss the terms of the deal.
‘He is getting a huge break’
Kevin Kubitskey, a Pima County sheriff’s sergeant, was among the whistleblowers who first tipped the FBI about the embezzlement scheme in November 2015. He said he was stunned by the plea deal.
“They allowed seven felony charges to be knocked down to three misdemeanors. It seems politically driven in order to keep his pension,” Kubitskey said. “If you are a law enforcement official and you violate the public trust, you shouldn’t get a pension … He is getting a huge break.”
Kubitskey, also chairman of the Pima County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said the plea bargain would have made sense only had Radtke produced testimony to convict others in the scheme. According to a spokeswoman at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah, no other suspects have been charged.
“Why dream of offering a plea like this with nothing in return?” Kubitskey said.
Former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, who has prosecuted numerous white-collar fraud cases, described the plea deal as “lenient.”
“You’re kidding me,” Romley said upon learning of the terms. “He (Radtke) was in a position of public trust. Nobody’s above the law.”
The controversy contributed to voters kicking out the incumbent sheriff, Chris Nanos, in November. Voters instead chose Republican Mark Napier. Nanos had been appointed to the job in July 2015 following the retirement of longtime Democratic Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.
During the FBI investigation in June, former sheriff’s Chief of Staff Brad Gagnepain committed suicide.
Court records indicate the thefts occurred over a period of nearly two decades, most of which overlapped Dupnik’s 35 years in office. The former sheriff did not return a call Friday.
Where the funds went
Under the agreement, Radtke pleaded guilty to three thefts of less than $1,000 from the sheriff’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) fund. He admitted spending more than $700 on model airplanes, $250 on a restaurant bill and $500 to create a menu for a cafe within the Sheriff’s Department that was owned and operated by his niece.
According to the indictment, deputies collaborated to make it appear money was being donated to a sheriff’s auxiliary when, in fact, it was being misappropriated.
The RICO account contains cash and proceeds from valuables that have been seized from criminal organizations. The forfeiture troves have for years been the subject of criticism for unfairness and lax accountability. Last year, the FBI reportedly investigated RICO expenditures at the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.
“If anything, this is going to raise more questions about a lack of RICO oversight in Arizona,” Romley said of the Pima County case.
The indictment included a notice that the government, using provisions of the RICO law, would attempt to seize cash and property acquired illicitly by Radtke.
Radtke resigned at the time of his indictment in September. Jack Lane, executive director of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training agency, said a case will brought to consider stripping Radtke of his law-enforcement certification.