Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

May 20, 2009

Host: Ted Simons

Maricopa County Supervisors/Attorney Feud

  • The latest developments in a political battle between the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and the Maricopa County Attorney.
  • Mark Flatten - East Valley Tribune

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
The Maricopa county board of supervisors doesn't want Andrew Thomas to be legal counsel so they set up their own legal department. Here with more, Mark Flatten, a reporter for the East Valley Tribune, covering this story. Mark, it's been quite a story too. We've had you on a few times with all the feuding going on, now we've got -- they take $6 million and what, set up their own shop?

Mark Flatten:
They actually set up their own shop back in March. But they said they were only going to fund four positions. But what they did in the vote Monday was they actually approved the county attorney's budget, then they went back in and stripped $6 million out of it. From their civil division. They're going to move $4 million to what they call their general litigation department, which is essentially if you sue the county they're the guys that are going to defend the county. Then they got a special litigation department for another 2 million which is if those guys have a conflict of interest we're going to send in these guys. This is all an outgrowth of the indictment of Don Stapley. There's so many layers to this story that it becomes hard to keep track of at some point. But when Thomas' office announced the indictment of Don Stapley back in December, almost immediately the board took action to strip the county attorney of its right to represent the county in civil cases which county attorneys by statute do in Arizona. And they've been fighting ever since, Thomas sued them, the board moved ahead with their own litigation section, they claim that Thomas has such an inherent conflict of interest they can't trust his judgment or advice. So it's just been one big roiling mess.

Ted Simons:
The basics are that the board basically saying the guy suing us is our own lawyer. We have to do something about that.

Mark Flatten:
The board has a couple of issues. But they all revolve around this conflict of interest. The board says look, this isn't retaliation for the Stapley indictment. Stapley I should say is one of the five members of the board. They insist it's not retaliation for that. They say look, we've been fighting with Thomas for years because he sues us repeatedly, he's become a nuisance, he's investigating us all now, we can't trust our lawyer and we need a lawyer we can trust. Thomas' perspective is this is pure retaliation for indicting one of their own, on a series of violations for not reporting things on his campaign finance reports. Thomas has actually sent the criminal case to the Yavapai county attorney's office for prosecution, and when he did that he said can't we all get along now. Well, the board made it pretty clear we're not going to get along now.

Ted Simons:
No kidding. So again, this new operation answers not at all to the county attorney, not one bit. Is that legal?

Mark Flatten:
That's a very good question, and something that the courts will eventually decide. Thomas still has a lawsuit pending, but as courts go this is probably going to take a long time. The new division will answer to the county manager who of course answers to the board of supervisors. The argument was the argument from the board is we can trust these people. Their interest rez representing us and we have the power to decide how litigation is handled in the county. Thomas' argument is, look, the statutes give that power to the county attorney to create sort of a check and balance, so that if the board acts illegally you've got an independently elected attorney who can challenge them, so that's going to be settled in court. Who knows which way that's going to come down? But what the board's arguing is look; we can't wait for the judge to decide this. This could be three, four, five, six months down the road.

Ted Simons:
And wasn't there also a confusion or misunderstanding I guess regarding the timing of the board of supervisors doing something like this? Because the idea Thomas' idea was they were going to wait for a court decision. The board basically saying we can't just sit around and wait.

Mark Flatten:
Well, as part of this lawsuit, Thomas' office took a deposition of sandy Wilson, the deputy county manager. And she said in that deposition, well, you know, we got a hiring freeze in the county, we're not looking to expand this debt. So that prompted Thomas to withdraw what they call a motion, I don't remember what they call it, essentially a plosion asking the judge to prevent the county from proceeding. Well, despite what Wilson said, the board went ahead and approved that anyway. And of course now Thomas is outraged saying they lied to me, sandy Wilson said look, I didn't make any commitment that we wouldn't hire him. I told him, you know, we would like some direction from the courts but we can't sit aground wait forever for the court to decide.

Ted Simons:
This was a unanimous vote, correct?

Mark Flatten:
It was.

Ted Simons:
That's relatively, not relatively, a provocative move by the board and this is after Andrew Tom was as at least making overtures of some sort of mediation, some idea of let's try to figure this out. Etc. Does this blow that kumbaya straight apart?

Mark Flatten:
I don't think there was Kumbaya. I think they were trying to one up each other on press releases, even the court motions read as press releases, Andrew Thomas has flagrantly violated rights of his clients and board of supervisors has flagrantly lied. So you see a lot of that powerful language you don't normally see in routine court documents working its way to the filing. So you get the impression mayor trying to argue this in the court of public opinion to a large degree. In terms of the 5-0 votes, the thing that's interest building this, if you buy Thomas' argument that all of this chain of events is pure retaliation for the Stapley indictment, Stapley has voted in this whole series of moves to strip the county attorney of its civil powers to represent the county. So if indeed it's retaliation, you could probably argue Stapley shouldn't be voting on it. If it's not retaliation, then I guess its ok.

Ted Simons:
Where do we go from here? Was there supposed to be a meeting today with Thomas?

Mark Flatten:
They were supposed to meet this afternoon. I don't know what came out of that meeting. I imagine not much. But it's very clear that both sides are not prepared back down and I'm not sure that either side really can back down at this point because Thomas has a fundamental question about the powers of his office. His argument is the constitutional statute is very clear that the county attorney is the civil legal representative of the county. The board's position, they can hardly back down either because they're saying we have independent authority to handle lawsuits. We don't need to go to the county attorney. So it's beyond a feud. It's a fundamental question of laws and constitutional powers and all of that.

Ted Simons:
Its fascinating stuff, and great job covering for us, mark, appreciate you being on the show. Thanks for joining us.

Mark Flatten:
Thank you.

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