by Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Michael Kiefer - Apr. 10, 2012 10:14 AM | Source: The Republic
Former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and his onetime deputy, Lisa Aubuchon, were stripped of their law licenses today as a disciplinary panel handed down the toughest sanctions possible for ethical violations in a case that attracted national interest.
The panel also suspended Rachel Alexander, another Thomas deputy, from practicing law for six months and one day for her role in filing a federal civil racketeering lawsuit against judges and county officials.
After the verdict, Thomas spoke only briefly.
"Today corruption has won and justice has lost," he said. "I brought corruption cases in good faith involving powerful people, and the political and legal establishment blatantly covered up and retaliated by targeting my law license. Arizona has some of the worst corruption in America, according to a recent national survey. The political witch hunt that's just ended makes things worse by sending a chilling message to prosecutors: Those who take on the powerful will lose their livelihood."
He added: "I will be holding a news conference tomorrow, not today, and have no further statement to make today on the travesty we have just witnessed. I will have further details on the time and location later today or tomorrow morning."
Aubuchon's attorney, Ed Moriarity, said his client is disappointed and "devastated" by the verdict. He emphasized that he believes the findings of perjury and dishonesty were particularly disappointing: "There's just no evidence whatsoever."
Moriarity said Aubuchon "disagrees with all of the findings. The fact of the matter is that if every lawyer in every case was subjected to the scrutiny that was given to this case, no lawyer would be able to practice - and the lawyers should be aware of that."
Moriarity said he and his team of lawyers did the best job they could for Aubuchon.
"One of the most devastating things is when the audience clapped. It's like somebody clapping at a funeral."
The disbarment of Thomas and Aubuchon had been widely discussed as a possibility by members of the legal community. But the length of Alexander's suspension came as a surprise because the independent Bar counsel had recommended a shorter suspension.
Rachel Alexander's attorney, Scott Zwillinger, painted his client as a victim, saying the information she worked with was given to her by her supervisors.
When asked if he would appeal the sanction, he said "We have to review the order, but I suspect that we will."
The three attorneys can, and likely will, appeal the sanctions. None were present.
The discipline was handed down this morning by a three-member panel appointed by the Arizona Supreme Court to hear their cases.
"It's about the victims," said John Gleason, independent Bar counsel who prosecuted the case for the bar. "We gave them the opportunity to tell their story, and they won."
Together, they faced allegations of 33 ethical violations stemming from years of political and legal battles within Maricopa County government.
Though the battles that landed the attorneys before the State Bar of Arizona reach back to at least 2006, the investigation of the three began two years ago, a month before Thomas resigned as county attorney to run unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for state attorney general.
Thomas is implicated in 30 of the charges, Aubuchon in 28, and Alexander in seven. The disciplinary panel will consider each charge separately.
Charges cover a variety of allegations, including conflict of interest for holding press conferences to denounce the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which was his client, and threatening county officials with litigation; falsely claiming a judge had filed Bar complaints against Thomas, in order to have the judge removed from a case; and seeking indictments against county officials to burden or embarrass them. In one case, the charges allege, Thomas and Aubuchon brought criminal charges against a county supervisor even though they knew that the statute of limitations had already expired on the offenses.
The most serious allegations involve filing criminal charges against a sitting Maricopa County Superior Court judge without probable cause in order to stop a court hearing. Several of the allegations of ethical misconduct revolve around a federal civil racketeering lawsuit claiming that judges and county officials conspired against Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The independent Bar counsel appointed by the Arizona Supreme Court claims that the three prosecutors were incompetent in drafting the racketeering complaint, and that they filed it for purely political reasons against people they had already charged criminally or who they thought had filed earlier Bar complaints against them.
Reaction to the verdicts Tuesday was immediate.
"This is what I wanted," county Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox said immediately afterward. She called on Thomas to apologize to the citizens of Maricopa County, but added, "He won't give it. He didn't even show up at the hearing. But Maricopa County can be proud that justice was served."
She said she hoped criminal charges would follow.
"To me it feels like this is a vindication of the institution," Supervisor Andy Kunasek said. "I think it was in many ways domestic terrorism, what these guys were perpetrating. I hope people understand that what these guys were doing was wrong."
Said former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley: "Considering the clear abuses that occurred by Andy Thomas, Lisa Aubuchon and Rachel Alexander, the judge's ruling was absolutely appropriate."
Romley, Thomas' immediate predecessor and temporary successor, said he believes the state Bar and the legal community should move forward in examining and correcting ethical rules to make them more clear-cut.
"The question is, how did it get so messed up? How did our checks and balances get so screwed up that we had to live years through this torment?" he asked.
Sanctions will take place 30 days from today. Appeals to the Arizona Supreme Court would have to be filed within ten days, and the respondents are expected to request stays of sanctions pending appeal, which could take another six months.
The Supreme Court could then choose to hold further hearings and could reverse or uphold any part of the disciplinary judge's ruling, or send it back to the disciplinary court for hearings there.
If the ruling is upheld, Thomas and Aubuchon can apply for reinstatement of their law licenses; they would have to demonstrate "by clear and convincing evidence" that they are rehabilitated, competent, and fit to practice law, and that they have complied with all of the court's orders. Alexander, meanwhile, also can apply for reinstatement of her license, but must re-take the Bar exam and also demonstrate that she is rehabilitated.
The eight weeks of trial brought testimony from a who's who of county government officials, including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his former chief deputy, David Hendershott, who worked together with Thomas and his attorneys on many of the alleged corruption cases.
Arpaio called Thomas a "hard working professional," but declined to comment on the verdicts in detail.
"Today's decision no doubt is a disappointment to Andrew Thomas, his family and his colleagues," Arpaio said. "He was a hard working professional who served the people of this county for many years. "As there are several lawsuits involving some of the same parties and issues involved in today's decision, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further."
Two of the four retired Superior Court judges who were targeted by Arpaio and Thomas broke down on the stand during testimony. Sheriff's deputies testified about their discomfort with the way investigations against county officials were carried out, saying they took documents home to protect themselves and were asked to swear to facts they knew nothing about.
County Manager David Smith said the bar investigation "was expected, certainly, to come to this. It's just a tragedy of someone badly overreaching their power and then having the system correct itself. We're still cleaning up the damage, there's no question."