Newly appointed U.S. Attorney for Arizona John Leonardo is familiar with politically charged cases and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
In 2010, the former Pima County Superior Court judge, who retired in February after 19 years on the bench, found that Arpaio “misused the power of his office” in the prosecution of Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox.
It was a ruling that set in motion the disbarment of Arpaio’s ally, former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas.
And when Leonardo was sworn in July 3, he inherited a federal grand jury investigation of Arpaio, which has yet to yield an indictment after four years. But those who know Leonardo and are familiar with his reputation say he will be fair when it comes time to assessing the case against Arpaio.
“I know he wrote an opinion about Thomas and Arpaio, and obviously he’s not going to forget what he said, but he’s going to want to look at whatever the grand jury has developed,” said Bates Butler, a Tucson criminal defense attorney who worked on many cases Leonardo prosecuted as an assistant U.S. Attorney in the 1980s.
Bill Solomon, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, said Leonardo won’t be conducting any media interviews for several weeks.
Arpaio declined to comment on Leonardo’s fairness or how he will proceed.
“It is a political appointment. I guess we all know that,” Arpaio said.
The office has been under the leadership of interim U.S. Attorney Ann Birmingham Scheel, who took over Aug. 30, when former U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke resigned amid the controversy of Operation Fast and Furious, an investigation where federal agents allowed cartels to smuggle guns across the border.
Former U.S. Attorneys Mel McDonald and Paul Charlton said any speculation that Leonardo was appointed on the basis of his previous finding on Arpaio in the Wilcox case, or mainly for the purpose of prosecuting the sheriff, is preposterous.
“I don’t see anything in this as some kind of a move to see that Arpaio will be charged,” McDonald said.
Leonardo was drawn into the Wilcox case to alleviate conflicts of interest since Thomas was at war with Maricopa County Superior Court and county leadership. Leonardo found that Thomas initiated prosecutions against his political enemies and Arpaio “misused the power of his office to target members of the (Board of Supervisors) for criminal investigation.”
Leonardo’s decision in the Wilcox case was reaffirmed by Presiding Disciplinary Judge William O’Neal in the Thomas disbarment proceedings, said Charlton, who defended County Supervisor Don Stapley from criminal charges brought by Thomas and Arpaio.
O’Neal also found that there is enough evidence to convict Arpaio of conspiring to frame Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe on bribery charges.
That finding prompted Charlton in April to join former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley and former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon in sending a letter to the Department of Justice asking that it either go forward with the prosecution of Arpaio or state publicly why it wasn’t.
Charlton and McDonald both said Leonardo has a reputation as a fair and impartial judge, a quality that will serve him well as a prosecutor.
“As for Joe Arpaio, (Leonardo) is going to be an individual who will head that office who knows what a crime looks like, who won’t be intimidated by political forces to do what’s right and who will make a decision based only on the facts and the law,” Charlton said.
McDonald, who has known Arpaio since McDonald was the top federal prosecutor from 1981-85 and Arpaio was in charge of the Phoenix office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said he doesn’t believe anything will come from the federal grand jury probe, which started in 2008.
“I don’t think he’s got a dishonest bone in his body,” McDonald said. “I don’t think Joe Arpaio’s a crook.”
Butler, who opposed Leonardo in court, said that he always found him to be reasonable and open-minded and his word was always good.
“He had a reputation as a straight-shooter,” Butler said.
But Charlton said that while Leonardo will have input in any decision on whether to prosecute Arpaio, it will be high ranking officials in the Department of Justice who will have final say.
Leonardo’s experience with county sheriffs and political firestorms goes back 31 years.
In a questionnaire he answered for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, he listed at the top of his 10 most significant cases the 1981 prosecution of a St. Joseph’s County, Indiana sheriff who was convicted of extorting a brothel owner for protection from vice raids.
“This was a very politically charged trial . . ,” Leonardo wrote.
Leonardo began his career in the Prince George County Attorney’s Office in Indiana before becoming an assistant U.S. Attorney in that state in 1975. He moved to the office of the U.S. Attorney for Arizona in 1982.
Some of his other top cases involved the murder of an armored-car driver, the bribery of a Chicago housing official, the illegal sale of firearms in Arizona, and a couple of massive drug cases on the border.