Despite having cast a historical vote to expel Yuma Republican Don Shooter on February 1, some lawmakers in the Arizona House of Representatives tried to put one of his victims — a colleague of theirs — on trial.
Shooter was expelled by a vote of 56-3, including his own no vote, making him one of only three lawmakers and the first Republican to be ousted from the state Legislature.
She was just the first woman to publicly accuse Shooter of harassing her during his time at the Legislature, and investigators later determined several incidents she recounted had violated the House’s sexual harassment policy.
Yet before and after Shooter’s departure, some of her colleagues became fixated on Ugenti-Rita and sought to expose some of her skeletons.
Shooter inflamed suspicion toward her in his final hours at the Legislature through a letter he sent to his colleagues in which he implied Ugenti-Rita was also guilty of sexual harassment. He also filed a notice of claim in which he said his expulsion was the result of a greater scheme against him and Ugenti-Rita was part of it.
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard rejected Shooter’s attempts to shift the focus away from his actions and onto others, including himself, but especially Ugenti-Rita.
She may have been the catalyst for others to come forward with their own accounts of his behavior, Mesnard said, but the problem with Shooter was bigger than her.
“There was a slew of woman that came forward, and it wasn’t a small number,” Mesnard said. “It wasn’t an incidental number of accusations. But he’s making it all about Ugenti-Rita.”
Neither Ugenti-Rita nor her attorney Kurt Altman immediately returned requests for comment.
After his expulsion, Shooter’s attorney Kraig Marton filed a notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit against the state, alleging Ugenti-Rita had been a pawn for the Ninth Floor.
He claimed he’d fallen victim to a scheme orchestrated by Mesnard and Gov. Doug Ducey’s Chief of Staff Kirk Adams to prevent him from uncovering “serious issues of malfeasance in state government contracts.”
In Ugenti-Rita’s case, she was also accused of making “inappropriate sexual comments made and recorded during a hearing,” an accusation first leveled against her by Shooter as he lashed out at her for naming him as one of her harassers.
And in the letter he sent to lawmakers on the morning of the vote, he claimed investigators had sought to cover up or give less weight to the affair and claims that the staffer shared sexually explicit communications of her with other House employees.
Shooter said a young woman with whom the messages were shared met with investigators to describe the “humiliating experiences.”
“Yet, inexplicably, the pattern of outrageous conduct that she described, including comments allegedly made directly to her by her elected boss, as well as being subjected to her boss’ exposed genitalia, were not detailed in the report,” Shooter wrote.
Former House staffer Brian Townsend told investigators he shared “unsolicited, sexually explicit communications” with the intent to “hurt and humiliate” Ugenti-Rita, to whom he was engaged.
Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, voted to expel Shooter but latched onto Townsend’s statements, alleging his actions were potentially “unlawful acts” and demanding further investigation by local law enforcement agencies under Arizona’s revenge porn law.
Shooter and other third parties had told investigators about the messages, adding that Ugenti-Rita may have known about them or even participated in the “unsolicited, unwelcome, and harassing contact.”
Ugenti-Rita “unequivocally denied” that, and investigators deemed her shocked denial credible.
That antiquated verbiage, and the politically charged rhetoric behind it, is fading fast even in red state strongholds like Arizona. In its wake, a new movement has formed under a far more millennial catchphrase: smart on crime.
Caroline Isaacs, Arizona program director for American Friends Service Committee, said everywhere else in the country, “criminal justice reform” is old news.
In its place is a movement to be “smart” in tackling criminal justice.
Arizona may be lagging behind other states, including Republican strongholds like Georgia and Texas, in this arena, but the effort has steadily drawn support from across the political spectrum.
Last summer, the Arizona Supreme Court’s Task Force on Fair Justice for All offered 65 recommendations aimed at improving the criminal justice system, which led to the introduction of bills seeking to halt unfair penalties on the poor.
Dave Byers, the task force’s co-chair and director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said by “hook or crook,” the courts are finding ways to implement changes.
“High-risk people who have access to money get out,” he said. “A poor guy, (a) working folk who’s got a ticket and can’t pay the bail because his license is suspended or whatever the issue is, sits in jail. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Repeatedly penalizing a single mother caring for a child with cancer, for example, may do no good, he continued.
“It is humanity. It is individual justice,” Byers said. “We don’t treat everyone the exact same way.”
Gov. Doug Ducey said it’s the right thing to do. He noted the recidivism rate is approaching 50 percent, and if offenders do not find opportunities after serving their time, that problem will persist.
“It costs a lot to house and feed someone and shelter them,” he told the Arizona Capitol Times. “If you can get them on the other side of the equation, where they’re a productive, taxpaying citizen who has a career, a job or an opportunity, well, that’s just a better direction to go in.”
Lauren Krisai of the libertarian Reason Foundation said Arizonans now see that tough talk is “losing rhetoric,” and incarceration is not a catchall solution.
“It’s not like you’re either against crime or you want our communities to be crime-ridden,” she said. “That’s a false dichotomy. We can’t incarcerate our way out of this problem… That makes us less safe.”
‘States are at the front line’
Attorney Kurt Altman said the movement is being driven by the return – or lack thereof – from investing in the criminal justice system.
“We forget that 95 percent of the people that we send to prisons are going to come back into society,” said Altman, the state director of Right on Crime. “We’re not doing anything right now to help them reintegrate and stay in that society without going back.”
And the states, he added, are more in tune to the effects of that failure.
“The states are at the front line of this,” he said. “The states are looking at their communities, their workforce, their budgets and saying, ‘We need to do something.’”
In Altman’s view, Arizona has a difficult road ahead because of its “law and order” history, but he noted changes made this year.
Legislation signed by Ducey requires licensing authorities to grant regular or provisional licenses to convicted offenders who are otherwise qualified applicants.
That law may have changed the life of one of Altman’s former clients, a man who ran a barber operation while in prison but who was denied a license when he was released.
“He knew how to do two things, and when he couldn’t do the legitimate one, he turned back,” Altman said.
He predicted that getting people, especially low-risk offenders, back to work will be a priority in the years to come.
In those low-level cases, diversion programs may be the answer, said Amy Kalman, president of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
She said giving offenders the tools to find employment, maintain stable housing and take care of their children makes families more cohesive and helps get people more engaged in normal spending that boosts local economies.
And those changes get to the root of what Kalman characterized as the underlying causes of minor crimes: housing instability, lack of education and addiction.
Kalman said “common sense reforms” are still dismissed as being soft.
Yet she remains hopeful for a “meeting of the minds.” After all, even Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s opposition could not stop changes to civil asset forfeiture.
Civil asset forfeiture coalition ‘did the impossible’
Isaacs of American Friends Service Committee said the coalition behind civil asset forfeiture reform “did the impossible” by rolling over a “shot-caller” like Montgomery and heavy opposition from the law enforcement community.
The changes proposed by Farnsworth in HB2477 proved to Isaacs that more could be done sooner rather than later.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona was among the bill’s supporters.
“Regardless of whether or not you think that the changes to civil asset forfeiture was really criminal justice reform, what’s important is you saw a broad coalition of organizations come together in order to reform Arizona’s laws and were able to do so over the very public objections of law enforcement,” said ACLU Policy Director Will Gaona. “Moving forward, it means this is possible in Arizona.”
The ACLU found an unusual ally in the Goldwater Institute.
Director of National Litigation Jon Riches said the state’s forfeiture laws, which have drawn the ire of conservative groups, have been “an affront to due process.”
The matter involves clear due process issues, Riches said.
“Look, if the government is going to try to take somebody’s property, the presumption should be that the government has to prove some sort of doing,” Riches said.
He said more should be done on the civil forfeiture front.
He pointed to the “perverse incentive” created when the proceeds of forfeitures go back to the seizing agency, and the fact that a criminal conviction is not needed to seize property.
For those changes and others to be made, Isaacs said the movement will continue to rely on broad support.
“Let’s all hold hands and jump,” she said. “We don’t need a champion. We don’t need one person to stick their neck out. Let’s all just say, ‘This is what we want to do. How do we get it done?’”
Maricopa County Assessor and alleged child trafficker Paul Petersen will find out if he is suspended without pay from his elected post when the county board of supervisors votes on October 28.
Petersen is facing felony charges in three states, including Arizona, for running an illegal adoption fraud scheme.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, who met in executive session for roughly two hours today, determined they have enough reason to vote on whether Petersen should face a 120-day suspension. Under Arizona law, Petersen must have fives days notice of the vote, including the weekend. He’s in federal custody awaiting arraignment in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Arkansas.
The board, by law, can seek Petersen’s removal, but Chairman Bill Gates, who is the only supervisor to talk to media after the meeting, did not say what would happen after the 120-day period is up.
“We will cross that bridge when we get to that,” Gates said.
The Board decided to call a vote for next week based on two accounts of Petersen’s “neglect of duty,” a clause in Arizona statute that would call for a county official to be suspended.
“He is currently detained so he is unable to perform the duties of the job,” Gates said. A partially done county internal audit also found that there is a “multitude of documents” related to Petersen’s adoption business on his county computer.
Gates said he would not draw any further conclusions from there, but county policy says all employees should not be doing private work on their county computers.
“We would hope elected officials would live up to that,” he said.
A county spokesman said the audit is not yet complete, but the plan is to release it publicly once it is.
Even while Petersen was not detained, he still did not spend much time in the county office, the Arizona Republicreported.
According to parking records, Petersen only showed up to the Assessor’s Office 53 days this year. And on those days, he would apparently only stay for an average of four hours.
Petersen’s new attorney, Kurt Altman, said recently Petersen has no intention to resign from his office.
Under state law, a suspension will take effect immediately upon a unanimous vote of the board and a replacement will be appointed. Petersen will have a right to a hearing if the vote isn’t unanimous, but it will still be the board that makes the final decision.
The board can also ask the Maricopa County Attorney to seek Petersen’s removal during the 120-day suspension. The removal process requires the county attorney to get a grand jury to allege “willful or corrupt misconduct in office” and a jury could ultimately decide whether he’s removed.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously today to suspend County Assessor Paul Petersen without pay on the grounds he’s in federal custody in Arkansas and can’t serve.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates said they sent Petersen a letter before the vote asking him to provide any sort of proof that he could still do his job. They also asked why and how more than 1,000 documents relating to his adoption business came to be on his county computer. That information was provided to the Board through an internal audit that should be made available to the public later today.
Gates said Petersen did not respond to their letter.
Arizona authorities arrested Petersen in early October in connection with indictments in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas on allegations he ran an illegal adoption scheme.
The process to appoint an interim County Assessor has begun, but Gates did not say how long it would take before they name Petersen’s temporary replacement, just that it would not be done today.
Petersen’s lawyer, Kurt Altman, previously told 12 News that Petersen has no plans to resign even though Gov. Doug Ducey, the entire Board of Supervisors and others have called on him to do so. Altman did not immediately respond to a request for comment today.
Gates said Petersen or his lawyer can now opt to appeal the decision.
“We will address that if it happens,” Gates said.
The Board chairman did not say whether the county plans to change the locks or remove Petersen’s access to the garage in order to keep him off the premises.
According to the state statute used to suspend the county assessor or treasurer, the Board of Supervisors may ask the County Attorney to seek the person’s removal from office after suspension by way of a grand jury.
Fields Moseley, a county spokesman, told Arizona Capitol Times that the Board and newly-appointed County Attorney Allister Adel, who was in attendance at today’s vote, have discussed all legal options, including the possibility of removing Petersen via a grand jury, but that she has not yet been asked to do so.
A spokeswoman for Adel could not comment on if Adel was asked either.
Kurt Altman, the state director for Right on Crime, a group that pushes conservative solutions to reduce crime, went to college to play baseball, but he ended up an attorney whose career has taken him from facing down and defending criminals in county and federal courtrooms to lobbying for “Right to Try” legislation in 46 state Capitols. The legislation allows dying patients and pharmaceutical companies to bypass the federal government to use unproven drugs.
“Some people would say I can’t keep a job,” the Erie, Pa. native said.
The walls of his downtown Phoenix office tell the story of his more than 20-year career – badges from when he worked at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, his assistant U.S. attorney credentials, the Executive Office for United States Attorneys’ Director’s Award (the highest award given to assistant U.S. attorneys) – a photo alongside former FBI Director James Comey, and a U.S. flag flown on a plane in a bombing raid done in Altman’s name in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2004.
“I’ve had an interesting career. Unless I could have played for the Diamondbacks or something I wouldn’t change what I’ve done,” he said. “And it’s still progressing. Who knows what I’ll be doing next year.”
So, you played college baseball?
Baseball was one of my great passions growing up. I was an all-state high school baseball player. Went to college to play baseball. But by the time I got out of college, frankly, I was kind of washed-up in the game. I was going no further, I had some injuries and things, so I had to do something and ended up in law school.
What attracted you to the law profession?
I always envisioned myself being a litigator. I liked the aspect of justice, as corny as that sounds. I think things should be fair and was always interested in that. I originally went to law school with the intent of becoming an FBI agent. When I got out of law school, the FBI wasn’t hiring. I ended up in Arizona as a state prosecutor, then left the state prosecutor’s office to be an FBI agent for a short time. I left the FBI and came back to Arizona, which by that time really had been my home.
You worked in the family violence bureau at the County Attorney’s Office. Did that take an emotional toll on you?
I prosecuted primarily child homicide cases. Not child sex cases, it was all child abuse or homicide cases, and also domestic relations type cases. Looking back, sometimes I wonder how I did it. I think it would be more difficult for me now than it was then. I didn’t have children then, so not because I have children now, but I think actually I was just younger and more oblivious to things. I was able to separate myself. But they do take a toll because you build relationships with not only the officers and the people you’re working with but the victims’ families and everybody involved in the system. It’s tragic on everybody’s side, so they’re very difficult, but you power through.
Is there one case that has stuck with you all these years later?
There’s a couple. I tried the only federal capital case to take place in the District of Arizona and it was two defendants in the murder of a 69-year-old grandmother and her 9-year-old granddaughter during a carjacking. And that one sticks out for a number of reasons. Not only was that case super emotional and draining, my first child was born right in the middle of the trial. It was funny, all the lawyers and the judge knew it was close and back in those days we had pagers and not phones. I had a pager on my hip and I’d be at the podium with a witness on the stand and my pager would go off on vibrate and I’d look down, I’d shut it off, it would be nothing, and I’d look up and I’d realize that everybody that knew, the judge, the court staff, the defense lawyers, the FBI agent, they would all be looking at me and I’d look around the courtroom and slyly go ‘It’s fine.’ So that case ended on a Thursday, my wife went into the hospital on Friday, the jury came back on Friday, I was not there for the verdict, my son was born on Saturday and I was back in trial on Monday.
You started lobbying a couple years back while working at the Goldwater Institute. Has it been a hard transition coming from a criminal justice background?
I think it has come pretty naturally. I’ve always said the law is a relationship business. … And I think that’s exactly what lobbying and public policy work is and I think that’s something that I’ve been able to do.
Are there any similarities to cross examining a murderer and lobbying the Legislature?
You know, I don’t think any lawmakers are murderers by any means, but yeah, there are similarities to cross examining a defendant and making a point with a lawmaker. I try not be combative at all because it’s certainly a different atmosphere. … But I do use similar tactics where I try to walk them logically down a path that they agree with, and they agree with, and they agree with, and then I’m like ‘Then why?’ And I often get blank stares. I try to get them to a point where they can’t do anything but agree with me based on everything I’ve said, if that’s possible.
Which part of your career have you enjoyed more?
I’ve probably done 150 to 200 felony jury trials as a prosecutor. … I kind of feel like I miss that but I also feel like that’s maybe a younger person’s game right now. I will, and I have a couple of cases that may go to trial, but I don’t know that I can do a 13-week trial again. So in that respect, I like what I’m doing at the Legislature. I feel like I’m helping create, especially when it comes to criminal justice, a better framework for the folks that are taking over to work within the system. Maybe that helps justify what I’m doing, but that’s kind of what I think.
How do you find time for hobbies?
I was afraid you were going to ask me that. I have three kids too, so my hobbies end up being a bus driver for my kids on the weekend. My life is not my own. But when I can I like to golf. Both my boys like to golf. They’ll play with me, so it’s kind of nice and it’s kind of an excuse for me to say, “Hey, we’re going to go,” instead of, “I’m going to go golfing.”
If you or a family member has been injured in an auto accident or diagnosed with mesothelioma, a barrage of television ads will remind you that you can sue.
But if a police officer shoots you, sics a dog on you or breaks into your house, you probably have no case. That’s thanks to the decades-old legal doctrine of qualified immunity created by the U.S. Supreme Court, a doctrine activists on both the left and right want to change.
Limiting qualified immunity at the state level made a list of five policy changes House and Senate Democrats hope to make during a special session they requested in response to the police killings of George Floyd in Minnesota and Dion Johnson in Phoenix. At the federal level, Libertarian Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan introduced a bill this week to prohibit qualified immunity in federal civil cases.
And the Supreme Court is set to decide any day whether it will hear at least one of more than a dozen cases challenging qualified immunity in its next term.
“The issue is coming to the forefront again,” said Kurt Altman, state director of Right on Crime. “I really anticipate at some point, maybe not this year but soon, the court will take another look at it.”
Over the past several decades, the Supreme Court first established and then strengthened the doctrine of qualified immunity, effectively letting police officers and other public officials off the hook unless the court determines they clearly violated civil rights and a “clearly established” law — court language that requires that the court already found similar actions committed in a different case illegal.
In 2018, the Supreme Court used this doctrine to rule that a University of Arizona police officer was immune from a lawsuit filed by a Tucson woman he shot four times. Three officers, including Andrew Kisela, responded to a call about a woman hacking at a tree with a kitchen knife in 2010.
Kisela shot Amy Hughes four times through a chain-link fence, citing a fear that she would harm her roommate. The roommate later said the situation was under control and she wasn’t afraid of Hughes, who had a bipolar diagnosis and didn’t initially understand the officers’ orders. Hughes survived, with injuries, and sued Kisela.
Most lawsuits filed against police officers cite violations of rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and are kicked to federal court. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, not state legislatures, are the outlet for reversing qualified immunity at the federal level.
“I think it’d be pretty difficult for a state statute or state-level policy to change Supreme Court doctrine,” Altman said. “The biggest thing would be for the state to get cases to the Supreme Court to try to change that precedent.”
Armando Nava, a Phoenix criminal defense attorney and member of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, agreed.
“The bulk of cases that take place under qualified immunity are federal,” Nava said. “It’s not that the Arizona Legislature couldn’t do anything. They could erode at it. They could pass statute here, but it’s not going to fix the overall doctrine.”
The Supreme Court introduced the doctrine of qualified immunity in 1967, nearly a century after a Reconstruction-era law first allowed citizens to sue government officials for violating their civil rights and toward the end of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1982, in a decision on a case that involved aides to President Richard Nixon, the court refined the doctrine to include a requirement that officials be protected unless they violate a “clearly established” law. That simple two-word clause has led judges to throw out cases unless a previous court has already upheld a suit in an extremely similar case.
“There are many plaintiffs’ attorneys who will not take a case if there isn’t clearly established law,” Nava said.
For instance, one case up for review in front of the Supreme Court, Baxter v. Bracey, involves a Tennessee man bitten by a police dog officers unleashed on him while he was seated with his hands in the air. Previous cases established that officers violate the Fourth Amendment when they unleash police dogs on suspects who are lying down, but lower courts disagreed on whether that should extend to a seated suspect.
“This is where qualified immunity gets ludicrous,” Nava said.
While reversing or amending the doctrine of qualified immunity will likely happen at the federal level, state policymakers see some opportunities to address the issue in Arizona.
The state has its own doctrine of qualified immunity in tort cases, said Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Laveen. Rodriguez, an attorney, said the Legislature still can change Arizona law to ensure officers can be sued.
Legislative Democrats are calling for new statutes that will allow Arizonans to sue law enforcement officers for negligence and remove a defense of justification for officers who are found to have acted unlawfully. They’re also seeking to end a practice of cities and counties paying settlement costs for individual negligent officers.
And Rodriguez expressed optimism that Republican colleagues in the Legislature and federal lawmakers and judges from both parties will see their way to enacting what he views as a “common-sense reform.”
When the Supreme Court first established the doctrine of qualified immunity, cases typically came down to an officer stating one thing and a plaintiff stating another. Courts sided with officers who described split-second decisions.
But the prevalence of cellphone videos, body cameras and surveillance cameras now provide more opportunities for judges and juries to see what happened, and it demonstrates that police reports aren’t the most reliable source of information, Rodriguez said.
“I would venture to say that if many of those courts were able to see what we can see now, I think qualified immunity would have had a much, much tougher path,” he said.
Nava, likewise, said he can picture the court soon backtracking on the qualified immunity doctrine, as momentum continues to build around ending it.
“Ten years ago, you hardly heard from anybody about it,” he said. “I couldn’t have imagined somebody proposing the legislation that Representative Amash did a year ago, let alone 10 or 20 years ago.”
Former Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen, who was accused of paying women from the Marshall Islands to deliver their babies in the U.S. and of organizing the children’s adoption to American families, today pleaded guilty to four fraudulent charges.
He will face time in prison and has to pay fines of up to $650,000.
Petersen faced 32 felony charges in Arizona. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich will drop the remaining charges per a plea agreement. The charges that Petersen pleaded guilty to entail between 3 and 12.5 years of imprisonment.
Petersen pleaded guilty to fraudulent schemes and artifices, a Class 2 felony, and fraudulent schemes and practices, a Class 5 felony. These are nondangerous, non-repetitive offenses under the state criminal code.
The $650,000 in fines will go to Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System in Arizona, the state’s Medicaid program. Petersen must also pay $11,000 to one of the victims and $18,000 to the Attorney General’s Office for extraordinary investigative costs.
“Any money obtained as a result of a forfeiture order in Maricopa County Superior Court shall be applied as a credit against the restitution order in this case,” the judge ruled.
Petersen’s official sentence will be set within 90 days, which falls on Sept. 16, 2020.
Authorities accused Petersen of smuggling and adoption fraud in Arkansas and Utah, and with defrauding the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System in Arizona.
Petersen charged upwards of $35,000 for his adoption services, and paid the mothers, through a third party, around $10,000 per baby, though he would often skim expenses out of the final payments, according to court documents.
Brnovich ordered to freeze Petersen’s assets in November, which included Petersen’s Mesa property where the pregnant Marshallese women lived, and Petersen’s law office.
The warrant to seize his assets revealed that a prostitution camp in the Marshall Islands provided many of the birth mothers caught up in the illegal adoption scheme, according to statements attributed to his co-defendant.
Petersen resigned from his elected position in January after the County Board of Supervisors suspended him for three months.
Petersen still has a case pending in Utah and in a federal court in Arkansas, his attorney Kurt Altman said.
“It’s anticipated and scheduled frankly that Mr. Petersen is also going to enter pleas of guilty in those two cases,” Altman told the judge.
Paul Petersen, the recently suspended Maricopa County Assessor, today pleaded not guilty for the second time in two weeks on allegations that he ran a child smuggling ring.
He also hired a prominent political lawyer to argue that his suspension is unconstitutional.
Petersen showed up to court in Maricopa County exactly one week after his first arraignment in federal court in Arkansas.
Authorities accused Petersen of paying women from the Marshall Islands to deliver their babies in the U.S. and of organizing the children’s adoption to American families. He is charged with smuggling and adoption fraud in Arkansas and Utah, and with defrauding the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System in Arizona.
His lead attorney, Kurt Altman, said they are preparing for the next court date in Arkansas on December 5 and Arizona on December 19, though he added those dates could change.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on October 28 to suspend Petersen for 120 days, the full suspension period allowed in statute. He will not be paid four months of his $77,000 salary during his suspension. The board subsequently appointed Bill Wiley, the county’s former director of flood control and air quality, as acting administrator of the Assessor’s Office. Wiley will earn nearly twice as much as Petersen would per hour.
Altman called the suspension “outside [the board’s] authority” and deferred questions to Petersen’s new lawyers, Kory Langhofer and Tom Basile, who were also present after the hearing.
Langhofer, a prominent GOP attorney who represented the Arizona Republican Party under Chairman Jonathan Lines, said the board’s decision to suspend Petersen is unconstitutional.
“Nobody is saying Paul Petersen didn’t do his job as county assessor very well,” Langhofer said, adding the position of assessor is equal to the supervisors, so neither of them should be able to kick out the other from office.
“Everyone agrees he did the job, he showed up, he did what needed to be done. That’s not the issue at all,” Langhofer said.
The Arizona Republic reported that Petersen only spent 53 days at his county office during the year, citing parking records, and worked on an average of four hours each day. The county has since revoked Petersen’s access to the garage and his office due to his suspension.
On top of only showing up for 53 days, an internal audit showed several documents on Petersen’s county computer pertaining to his adoption business. Only five percent of the documents found pertained to county business at all.
Langhofer said he plans to write a letter to the Board of Supervisors to handle things “amicably,” and if things cannot be settled that way, then his client will take the matter to court.
Since conservatives got on board with revamping Arizona’s sentencing laws, bills to do that no longer lay unheard, not considered. And as the movement has taken hold over the past few years, a host of groups and people have made their presence known at the Legislature. Following are some of them.
Rep. John Allen
John Allen, R-Scottsdale, chairs the House Judiciary Committee, so he’ll have a say on whether any bills that propose changes to the sentencing laws.
Allen has exercised that power by giving a hearing to only two of 13 bills sponsored by Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, that proposed changes to the criminal justice system. He allowed a hearing on Blackman’s bill that allows nonviolent prisoners to earn credit to be released at a faster pace, but on the condition an amendment he proposed be attached.
In an act of political retaliation on February 5, Allen held a slate of criminal justice bills and said they would likely never be heard when Blackman joined Democrats on the committee to vote to hold one of Allen’s bills. Although two of the bills he held were his own, Tucson Democrat Rep. Kirsten Engel’s proposal to expand the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission was a casualty.
Americans for Prosperity
With chapters throughout the country, Americans for Prosperity is a conservative libertarian political advocacy group working to build grassroots campaigns, work with coalitions and put policy first. Their national efforts include expanding educational opportunities, implementing discretionary and mandatory spending to reverse the debt crisis, reform current immigration policy and more. In Arizona, the mission is more direct – restore all human dignity and work with legislators who align with the values of the organization.
This year, the group has focused their lobbying efforts on remaking criminal justice at the local level. They have worked closely with Blackman to ensure that their policies provide long-term solutions, like removing barriers for individuals post-release and determining which programs are actually attainable.
While Americans for Prosperity has a specific slant, the group cares more about the position of legislation and initiatives than the position of whoever proposed it.
American Friends Service Committee
Founded more than 100 years ago, the American Friends Service Committee is a Quaker organization working for peace and social justice as a practical expression of faith. They have volunteers in states all over the country who advocate for international peace building, inclusivity, immigrant rights, economic justice and ending mass incarceration.
Arizona’s chapter is based in Tucson where they challenge criminalization, oppose prison expansion and are constantly working to change public opinion. In 2012, the Tucson staff published an in-depth critical analysis of the for-profit prison industry in Arizona. The report claimed the state was wasting money on prison privatization and the prison corporations were buying influence in Arizona government.
Today, the group is educating people on the law that requires Arizona inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentence. They also submitted a proposal this session, reflected in HB2069, that would create a Citizens’ Oversight Committee to hold the Department of Corrections accountable.
Rep. Walt Blackman
Walt Blackman, who represents Snowflake in the House, has made the remaking of the state’s sentencing laws his signature issue this session, working with several lobbyists and across party lines to propose a host of bills that would ease access to prison data, provide specific definitions and ranges for punishment and change health care options within correctional facilities.
He even turned down entreaties from the National Republican Congressional Committee to run in the swing 1st Congressional District because he wanted more time in the Legislature to work on criminal justice issues, and he spent the summer leading an ad hoc committee focused on changing how Arizona sentences prisoners.
As the deadline neared for bills to be heard in their chamber of origin, only two of his 13 proposals have gotten a hearing. Blackman has spoken boldly as he’s gone about his crusade, saying he doesn’t answer to influential people at the Capitol who might stand in his way. For instance, when Arizona Supreme Court Justice Bill Montgomery was the Maricopa County attorney he wielded a lot of power at the Legislature and was a barrier to many proposed criminal justice changes, but that only seemed to spark Blackman’s fighting spirit.
“I do not need Mr. Montgomery’s permission to do what I plan to do,” he said in August, before Montgomery’s appointment to the high court.
As a progressive lobbying firm that supplies Arizona organizations with money, advice and direct legislative action, Creosote Partners wants to ensure that the politics and legislation reflect the changing diversity of the state. Some of their clients include the American Friends Service Committee, CHISPA, Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the Arizona School Counselors Association and more.
The organization works with other lobbying groups to create a coalition that builds “consensus” policy that aids both political parties, said Marilyn Rodriguez, one of the four main Creosote lobbyists.
“The advocacy community has done a great job at making sure [criminal justice policy] doesn’t become too political,” Rodriguez said. “By the sheer magnitude of the problem, we cannot be partisan.”
Rodriguez pointed out a disconnect between criminal justice change and immigration policy in Arizona, saying that “immigration policies are criminal justice reform” and she took a long pause before saying that it is “difficult to point to public policy” that has been good for the criminal justice system in Arizona.
Rep. Kirsten Engel
Democrats have long sought changes to Arizona’s criminal code, but their bills – even in this era with a conservative push to revamp the criminal justice laws – have been left to die without a committee hearing. And although Engel’s bills this year were killed by Allen as the House Judiciary Committee he chairs was about to hear them, she’s still the voice of the Democrats on the matter.
The Tucson lawmaker said she was not optimistic about what the incident with Allen may mean for the rest of the criminal justice change agenda from the Democratic caucus or Republicans who are also in favor of revamping the criminal justice laws, at least in the House.
“We haven’t seen any of the reform bills that we have introduced or we’re supporting that are being introduced by Republicans,” Engel said.
Sen. Eddie Farnsworth
Eddie Farnsworth, the Gilbert Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, is perhaps the ultimate committee gatekeeper, and many criminal justice bills die without hearings in his committee. He’s also, ironically, the legislator with the best track record when it comes to passing bills to change the criminal justice system. The only criminal justice reform bill to pass in 2019 was a Farnsworth measure to allow certain people convicted of low-level drug offenses to earn time off their sentences by completing treatment programs. He also championed legislation to overhaul the state’s civil asset forfeiture statutes in 2017.
Farnsworth enjoys a cozy relationship with Montgomery and the two men share a skepticism of sweeping changes to the criminal justice system. But in his last term before retirement from the Legislature, Farnsworth has relinquished his iron grip a little, voting on the floor for bills he may have opposed in previous sessions and joking about “senioritis.” He agreed to hear one Senate criminal justice bill — a proposal by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, to require counties to report sentencing data — and hasn’t entirely ruled out entertaining House bills that make it his way.
Middle Ground Prison Reform
By working with public education, legislative advocacy and litigation, Middle Ground Prison Reform uses volunteers to address issues that concern prisoners and their families. They highlight that Arizona has a harsh criminal code with a lack of medical care, negligent treatment of the mentally ill, overuse of solitary confinement and a shortage of adequate rehabilitative opportunities.
Last year, the group was the only prisoner rights advocacy group to support SB1310, which passed, requiring the Department of Corrections to notify prisoners of the credits they earned that could lead to their early release.
The organization has taken a position on 25-30 bills that were introduced this session and has worked closely with Blackman on revamping sentencing laws.
The director, Donna Leone Hamm, has been appointed to two committees within the Department of Corrections that are now inactive. The department “didn’t appreciate input [from constituents] so meetings stopped,” Hamm said. Hamm said that it was “unfortunate” that the department is still not receptive to constructive criticism and only responds to litigation.
Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk
Even though Montgomery’s influence on criminal justice policy diminished at the Legislature because of his new role on the Supreme Court, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk is still around and not shy about sharing their opinions with lawmakers.
Polk, who has held office since 2001, has long been an ardent opponent of legalized marijuana – medicinal and recreational – and uses hardline policies in enforcing drug laws.
She was also instrumental in 2019 in the passage of a bill that aimed to stop prosecutors from using enhanced sentences intended for repeat offenders on people who don’t have previous convictions. Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed the bill after Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall and Montgomery bent his ear.
This year Polk persuaded Senate President Karen Fann to introduce legislation to require mandatory five-year prison sentences for people selling even small amounts of fentanyl.
Right on Crime
Emphasizing cost effective ways to approach enhancing public safety, Right on Crime works with several states and their conservative caucuses to pass juvenile justice reform bills, close prisons and establish committees that oversee the use of taxpayer dollars when it comes to state corrections.
The organization says the ideal criminal justice system works to rehabilitate for reentry into society.
Kurt Altman, whose career includes stints as a federal and county prosecutor and with the Goldwater Institute, is the Arizona director for Right on Crime. He promotes the organization’s positions in the Arizona and New Mexico legislatures while simultaneously running a law firm that defends criminals of all types.
Altman has published several articles, all about the organization’s values applied to policy in Arizona. In a recent article, Altman suggested that Phoenix jails should follow the models in Tucson and Pima County by reducing jail populations to save tax dollars.
Rep. Ben Toma
Ben Toma, R-Peoria, made his criminal justice debut last year as he shepherded to passage a bill that aimed to stop prosecutors from using enhanced sentences intended for repeat offenders on people who don’t have previous convictions. Toma made changes to the bill to appease county attorneys and get them to accept the legislation even though they weren’t in full support. But Ducey vetoed the bill after top prosecutors in Arizona’s largest counties turned around and lobbied him for the veto.
The problem when someone doesn’t keep their word is that you can’t trust them anymore,” Toma said at the time. “I don’t know where we go from here if someone has no honor.”
Toma said Blackman’s plan to go around Allen’s committee is good, but Toma tried the same last year with then-House Speaker Mesnard’s help. It appeared to work until Ducey vetoed the measure. Toma feels there is enough support for revamping criminal justice in both parties, but sometimes things don’t always make it “across the finish line.”
This year, one of his proposals, HB2359, would prohibit state agencies from denying an occupational license to any qualified applicant who happens to have a past drug offense. The bill has the OK from the House Rules Committee, so far.
Toma also proposes an expungement bill that would allow courts to seal arrest and conviction records, although it hadn’t received a committee hearing.
“From a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense to have people stigmatized forever,” Toma said.
Reporter Julia Shumway contributed to this report.
A report detailing economic benefits of proposed expanded earned release credits gives a look into a possible new middle ground in the debate on revamping Arizona’s prison system.
The report by Rounds Consulting Group analyzed the earned release credits proposal in the 2020 Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act ballot initiative, which didn’t make the ballot in November after it failed to get enough valid petition signatures.
The report found Arizona could save $1.4 billion in the first 10 years after enacting policy that expands earned release credits. The increase in state tax revenues due to the workforce growth resulting from fewer incarcerated people would contribute an additional $107 million, the report said.
Arizona currently has the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the country. In the report’s most optimistic projection, proposed earned release policy could reduce Arizona’s prison population by 22.6%. A conservative projection predicted a reduction of 17.8%.
This movement of people from prisons to the workforce would have an economic impact similar to 30 large-scale high-tech manufacturing businesses with a total of 15,000 new high-wage jobs, the report said.
The benefits don’t stop there. The report’s analysis didn’t factor in the impacts of more efficient uses of tax revenues and savings as a result of expanded earned release credits policy.
“Lawmakers are starting to think like business owners, and they’re thinking if we’re going to spend taxpayer dollars, we should at least get some taxpayer dollars back in return,” said Jim Rounds, president of Rounds Consulting Group. “So in this case, if we save a billion and a half, that’s great. What do we do with it?”
Reinvestment into things like infrastructure, education, economic initiatives and tax reform could stretch the impacts of earned release credit policy even further, he said.
Rounds said in discussions about prison restructuring, those on the far left prioritize social justice issues more than the economy, and those on the far right are concerned about bloated government and inefficient spending, so those two groups seem to be on board with expanding the release credits.
The report’s findings could appeal to the more pragmatic middle-aligned lawmakers who are more focused on balancing a variety of priorities, he said.
“We’re trying to show that there’s benefits that are significant, not just helping individuals get their lives back, but also helping to build the economy,” Rounds said.
Through debates over expanding earned release credit policy in Arizona the past few years, many bills have failed to gain enough support to move forward.
Under Arizona’s “Truth in Sentencing” law, people convicted of crimes must serve at least 85% of their sentences. The proposed earned release credit policy would have allowed people convicted of non-violent crimes to take one day off of their sentences for every day served and encouraged participation in rehabilitative programs.
Similar laws in other states also imposed minimum sentences in response to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which incentivized states to increase the time violent offenders spend in prison through federal grants, but Arizona was one of only two states that applied the 85% minimum across the board, not just to violent offenders.
Donna Hamm, founder and director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, said since the law was passed, smaller incremental changes to the criminal code have further lengthened sentences. Hamm said legislators are trying to increase the earned release credits in order to reduce the 85% requirement, rather than completely throwing out the current code and starting from scratch.
HB2713, introduced by Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, is a step in the right direction for loosening the restrictions in Arizona’s current criminal code, she said.
The bill would allow people with drug convictions to reduce their sentences by as much as 50% and people convicted of other nonviolent crimes by as much as 33%. The bill passed the House 47-11 in early March and is currently in the Senate.
“I think that it would be difficult for legislators to argue that 2713 is so wildly liberal, you know, let’s fling open the prison doors and release everyone type of legislation,” Hamm said. “I think it’s reasonable. From what I understand it has good bipartisan support, and hopefully it will also have the governor’s support if it makes it to his desk.”
Kurt Altman, Arizona state director for Right on Crime, said lack of education has played a major part in opposition to earned release credit policy. He said when lawmakers first come to the state Capitol, they have specific goals in one area and it can be hard to get educated on all the other issues they now have a say in.
“I always say it’s amazing how many people come in and say they’re fiscal conservatives but are willing to throw money after money after money at the prison systems in the name of public safety without really analyzing that,” Altman said. “If we’re really looking at this, fiscally are we getting a benefit out of that?”
Now, people are starting to realize there is a “human aspect” to revamping the criminal justice system, he said.
“I think people are starting to really realize, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, that on a human level, we can’t just turn [incarcerated people] loose and be like, ‘Good luck,’” Altman said. The proposed earned release credit policy would help provide the help people need after they leave prison, like treatment, housing, job training and education.
American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization advocating for peace and social justice, has worked alongside FWD.us, a pro-immigration lobbying group, on efforts toward restructuring sentencing laws in Arizona. Caroline Isaacs, Arizona program director for American Friends Service Committee, said the new report gives the state insight that hasn’t been widely considered before.
“Just a broader look at the economic benefit of people being free, that people are a resource that are crucial to our state, and if we provide them opportunities to just do what they already want to do, which is live their lives and get a job and take care of their families, then everybody wins, and to demonstrate that in real numbers I think is amazing,” she said.
She said more and more lawmakers from across the political spectrum have been speaking up about the ineffectiveness of the current criminal justice system, and she anticipates a change toward more policies like the proposed earned release policy.
“There has to be something better and it’s not a zero sum game,” she said. “It’s not like you have punishment or you have utter lawlessness, criminals running around the streets, like it is not that black and white, and there’s actual science and research and models for how to do this better, and everyone benefits.”
A Republican-sponsored bill would allow judges to depart from mandatory sentences for certain crimes.
Under House Bill 2245, the “Arizona Judicial Discretion Act,” judges can deviate from mandatory prison sentences if the judge decides that the sentence is an injustice to the defendant or is unnecessary for public safety.
“What I’m trying to do is put back the decision of sentencing in the hands of judges,” said Rep. Tony Rivero (R-21), prime sponsor of the bill.
Rivero’s bill and a handful of other Republican-sponsored bills that soften criminal sentencing have yet to receive a committee hearing as of Feb. 5, the 23rd day of the legislative session.
Rivero said he hopes to see more leniency in sentencing for minor drug crimes. Crimes that involve serious injury or death, sexual assault against a minor, and offenses involving criminal enterprises would be exempt from the discretion.
“It’s my view, personally, that in Arizona not everyone that is in prison should be in prison,” Rivero said. “But, ultimately, let’s put that decision-making in the hands of judges.”
Mandatory sentences are required sentences for certain crimes under the law that judges have no discretion over.
“There’s a lot of categories that that fits into,” said Kurt Altman, state director of Right on Crime, a group aimed at conservative criminal-justice reform measures. “From drug crimes, to violent crimes to different types of crimes where you can find yourself into that mandatory prison sentence.”
Rivero does not think that completely doing away with minimum-sentence rules would get far in the Legislature.
“You need 31 people in the House, 16 in the Senate, and the governor,” Rivero said. “So, I don’t think that you can get it out of either chamber with just a full elimination of mandatory minimums.”
Altman said that completely doing away with mandatory-sentence rules for judges seems like a good idea, but is politically unrealistic. “There are so many different sentencing statutes, and so many different crimes,” he said.
Arizona would not be alone in a measure like Rivero’s. Republican federal lawmakers have proposed such so-called “safety-valve” measures within federal sentencing guidelines.
The federal government has used “safety valve” discretion guidelines since 1994, giving judges the opportunity in certain circumstances for “making certain findings to sentence outside of mandatory prison sentences,” Altman said. He added, “About eighteen states have something along this line, or like this, on the books, including Texas and Oklahoma, which are not ‘soft-on-crime’ states.”
Currently serving his third term, Rivero ran on a fiscally conservative platform, arguing that it is not fiscally responsible for nonviolent offenders to be kept in prison.
According to FWD.us, a bipartisan group working for criminal justice and immigration reform, Arizona has the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the United States.
HB 2245 joins multiple criminal justice reform measures introduced by House Republicans this session.
One of those bills, HB 2270 introduced by Rep. Walter Blackman (R-06), would allow allows prisoners to earn release credits through good behavior and willingly participating in rehabilitation programs. Prisoners who are mandated to serve their full terms don’t qualify.
The bill has been assigned to two committees, which means House leadership has put an extra hurdle in the bill’s path to becoming law.
Another bill, HB 2362 introduced by Rep. Ben Toma (R-22), allows for convicted felons to have their convictions expunged after a certain amount of time has passed.
“What that means is, it doesn’t go away, law enforcement can still see it; if you ever did something else, the prosecution can use it against you,” said Altman, who served as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Arizona and deputy Maricopa County Attorney. “But, for every other reason, you can say ‘No, I no longer have a felony.’”
Toma’s bill hasn’t been assigned to a committee.
Criminal justice reform, though a bipartisan consensus, can sometimes face tough opposition from prosecuting attorneys and law enforcement.
Rivero said he hopes to make his bill a priority in the session, with the support of Blackman, who is the vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee that is tasked with criminal justice measures. Blackman and Rivero co-chair the House State and International Affairs Committee.
At a meeting with a group of African Americans last month, Rep. David Stringer didn’t exactly apologize for his remarks that immigration is “an existential threat” to the United States.
An apology is not what Renee Huff wanted to hear from the Prescott Republican.
“I didn’t come here just because I was offended. I came here because I want to know what comes next,” Huff told Stringer on June 27. “And the judicial system and the criminal justice system is very important, and yes, it is overloaded with people of color.”
As the chairman of an ad hoc committee formed to study that very topic, Stringer was poised to have a leading role in that endeavor. That committee was disbanded following news of Stringer’s remarks on immigration, as House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, feared Stringer’s comments would overshadow the committee’s work.
Stringer and the committee are still moving forward, although in a less public setting.
Reps. Tony Rivero, Ben Toma, Kirsten Engel and Tony Navarrete met with Stringer and representatives from various organizations advocating for criminal justice reform on June 26, to plan how to keep studying the issues they would have tackled as an ad hoc committee.
Sam Richard, a lobbyist for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, arrived at the June 26 meeting expecting an apology and for Stringer to step away from the conversation. Instead, Stringer expressed regret that his comments affected the committee’s agenda, and announced he’ll continue to be a part of discussions going forward.
That arrangement is disappointing to the American Friends Service Committee, which works closely with other groups advocating for criminal justice reform, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice on the left, and Americans For Prosperity and Right on Crime, more right-leaning organizations.
“His comments were deeply and gravely offensive to many of the people that we are in that room on behalf of,” Richard said. “So his continued presence is a distraction, both from a political perspective but also from a policy perspective, because it’s hard to divorce the two during an election year.”
“Mr. Stringer’s public involvement in the conversations at any level is a distraction to meaningful progress on these issues,” he added.
Stringer declined to comment, citing a desire to avoid hurting the committee’s effort, and referred questions to Rivero.
Rivero, a Peoria Republican, acknowledged that he’d been asked to be “somewhat of a spokesperson,” the public face of the group’s work, rather than Stringer.
The arrangement was struck as lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, try to find a way to keep the conversation moving forward.
Engel, a Tucson Democrat, said, “We all continue to think, especially Tony (Navarrete) and I and others, the work on criminal justice has to continue. And that’s really the most important thing to do. What we have done is committed to continue to meet.”
As for Stringer’s involvement, Engel said, “I think it’s up to him if he’ll continue attending the meetings… It’s fine so far as he’s not the face of this group.”
Rivero said he wasn’t aware that any organizations were concerned by Stringer’s continued presence in conversations about criminal justice reform, but said he’s happy to sit down and talk about any concerns.
“But as far as David Stringer goes, I don’t agree with his opinion or his comments, but the reality is he’s still a legislator. And if he’s re-elected, he’s one vote that’s needed on this specific issue,” Rivero said.
Kurt Altman, a lobbyist for Right on Crime in Arizona, said Stringer has a passion for criminal justice reform, and some insight. Stringer has boasted of pro bono work he did as a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C., and was the one who advocated for the creation of a committee to study the issue this summer.
And Stringer isn’t naive about the spotlight he’s placed on himself, and indirectly, the committee’s mission, Altman said. That’s why he’s stepping back a bit to allow someone else to address questions about the committee’s work.
“He’s a smart guy when it comes to these issues,” Altman said. “People might not agree with his views on all issues regarding criminal justice, but he has some insight, and I think his input is good.”
As an advocate for criminal justice reform, Altman said organizations have to make the best of their situation – in this case, like any other issue at the Capitol, that means working with whoever is in office and has the power to pass laws.
“We don’t get to make the choices on who’s driving policy. It’s a good policy. So whoever’s at the table, I would sit at the table with him,” Altman said.
Despite their disappointment with Stringer, the American Friends Service Committee will also take that approach, Richard said.
“If there is a conversation happening about criminal justice reform at the Capitol, we feel like it is our duty to be a part of that conversation,” he said.
Last week, the Capitol was abuzz with everything from talk of criminal justice reform to how to fund Arizona’s public education system – and that’s just the beginning.
Improving Arizona criminal justice system has required stakeholders from all sides to come together in an effort to find common ground, but that process is far from over. Advocates point to county prosecutors as the greatest obstacle still standing in the way.
And even as legislators play an important role in that saga, public school teachers and their supporters continue to demand action for the state’s schools. Proposition 301 was extended for two decades, and the state Supreme Court cleared the way for voters to decide the fate of ESA expansion. Still, public school advocates aren’t celebrating just yet – they worry the Legislature will tinker with those measures.
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