As the former top county prosecutor, Rick Romley has watched the five years’ of strife between Maricopa County Superior Court and the allied fronts of the County Attorney’s Office and the County Sheriff’s Office.
Now, as the interim county attorney, Romley actually has to do something to smooth it over.
Romley, who was sworn in on April 16, declared that he’s already reached out to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio — the chief ally of former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas — in an attempt to repair their strained relationship. Romley even admits to making mistakes in his past dealings with the sheriff. His call to Arpaio, though, has not been returned.
He’s had better luck with the courts. Within a week of taking over the office, Romley said he met with Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch to let her know his staff is available to begin meeting with the presiding judges of Superior court.
It might not seem like a very bold step, but Romley is hoping it will restore civility and cooperation between two government bodies that had been tangled in conflict for years.
“This is an opportunity,” Romley said. “I’ve never walked into a situation where the different governmental agencies have wanted to work together.”
Romley didn’t mention Thomas, who resigned April 6 to run for attorney general, but Romley did say “there is a lot of rancor, there is a lot of anger, to be truthful, in the community about how some matters are being approached from a criminal justice perspective.”
Thomas was elected in 2004 and has feuded with the court since late 2005, when he sued unsuccessfully to abolish special DUI courts for felony defendants who are American Indian and defendants who speak only Spanish.
Thomas’ next battle with the court came in 2007, when the court decided against questioning criminal defendants about their nationality, a decision that seemed to circumvent a 2006 voter-approved constitutional amendment known as Proposition 100 that denied bail for illegal immigrants accused of serious crimes.
While those battles and others were heated, the dispute that erupted after the November 2008 indictment of County Supervisor Don Stapley took the hostility to a new level. Thomas and Arpaio, worked together to investigate and prosecute Stapley.
Thomas first tried to disqualify Maricopa County judges from the case. Then he accused four judges of conspiring with county managers and the Board of Supervisors to hinder his investigation of the Criminal Court Tower, which is under construction in downtown Phoenix.
Thomas also filed a criminal complaint against Judge Gary Donahoe, alleging bribery in connection with the court tower. Thomas, who has never said what the alleged corruption associated with the court tower was, eventually dropped both cases.
Romley feuded with Arpaio during his years in office.
In 2003 and 2004, Romley refused to prosecute a prostitution sting conducted by undercover deputies who stripped and had sexual contact with prostitutes. Deputies began tape recording conversations with prosecutors over distrust stemming from the failed sting. And as far back as 1996, the men traded a war of words over the death of a jail inmate, and Arpaio filed an ethics complaint against Romley with the State Bar of Arizona.
Romley said his confrontations with Arpaio over the years don’t serve either of their offices, and that he wants to repair the relationship.
“Look, it’s a new day, and I want to look forward. The times of the past, and maybe the emotions of the moment, got the best of us all, and I’m going to be the first to admit it. Maybe I didn’t communicate well enough, maybe I even heated up the rhetoric,” Romley said. “I hope that I do a better job of communicating.”
Romley said he’s already asked for a lunch meeting with Arpaio. Although Arpaio hasn’t responded, Arpaio’s chief deputy has set up a meeting with Romley’s law-enforcement liaison.
Arpaio said his staff is working with Romley’s, but he won’t meet with Romley unless he wins the special election to fill out the last two years of Thomas’ term.
“The bottom line is I’m supporting (Republican county attorney opponent) Bill Montgomery, but if (Romley) gets in there, we’ll go out and get some spaghetti and meatballs,” Arpaio said.
Thomas and the courts would have to interact again, as well, if he is elected attorney general, but he declined an interview for this story, not wanting to answer whether he intends to rekindle the prosecution of Donahoe, the racketeering lawsuit and the court tower investigation.
Judge Barbara Rodriguez Mundell, the court’s presiding judge, and Judge Norman J. Davis, who will take over Mundell’s job in July, also declined interviews. Davis cited judicial ethics for declining the interview.
Romley, too, had spats with the court during his four terms in office from 1989 through 2004.
On rare occasions, Romley spoke out against individual judges when he believed they were being too lenient. For example, he criticized the decision of Judge Steven Gerst to sentence Bishop Thomas O’Brien, formerly the leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, to probation and no jail on a conviction for a fatal hit and run collision. He also likened former presiding judge Colin Campbell to a ruler rather than a judge after Campbell blocked release of a grand jury probe of a 15-day hostage crisis at a state prison.
The court also is going to have to work out the messy complications certain to arise when Stapley, Donahoe and some court employees file suit against the county, which they have promised to do.
Stapley was indicted twice in separate cases. One alleged he didn’t file financial forms required by elected officials and the other alleged he used campaign funds for personal gain.
Donahoe’s criminal complaint stemmed from a ruling in which he disqualified Thomas from investigating the court tower issue. Thomas said that by shutting down the criminal investigation, Donahoe gained a $340 million court tower.
All three cases were dismissed, but the Gila County attorney has agreed to look into the allegations against Stapley.
Further complicating matters, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office would normally defend the county in a lawsuit, but Romley may have a conflict of interest because he served as a consultant in 2008 and 2009 to the Board of Supervisors in matters pertaining to a power struggle between the board and Thomas.
Donahoe’s attorney, Michael Manning, sent word to the county that Donahoe is “investigating and intends to pursue all his legal options for the actions leading up to and arising out of the investigation, arrest and malicious prosecution” of Donahoe. Manning warned the county not to throw away any evidence, but he has yet to file a notice of claim, which is a precursor to a lawsuit.
Stapley did file the notice-of-claim in March with the county and is alleging that he will have a bevy of claims that include gross negligence, malicious prosecution, defamation against Thomas and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Manning, who also is representing some court employees and other county employees who allege they were threatened and treated abusively by sheriff deputies investigating the court, said he intends to file his clients’ lawsuits in Maricopa County Superior Court.
“We expect most, if not all, of the judges would recuse themselves,” Manning said.
Cari Gerchick, a spokeswoman for the Board of Supervisors, said the county is developing a special process to handle the claims.
“We do understand the inherent appearance of conflict,” Gerchick said, “It is complicated and it’s going to take a while.”
Romley, who was sworn in April 16, hired an ethical adviser to help him sort out his conflicts of interest.
Manning said his clients and Stapley have strong cases that Thomas and Arpaio abused their power, adding that the criminal case against Donahoe had “an utter absence of evidence” and Stapley’s case had “scant” evidence.
They are cases, he said, that should be “tried and aired,” but the county would be smart to settle.