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KGUN9 Investigation: Judge says county should drop LaWall as legal counsel in RICO spending

Posted at 1:12 AM, Oct 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-31 15:15:53-04

An Arizona judge speaks out about why the Pima County Attorney's Office should step aside and let outside legal counsel and auditor review  its RICO spending -- money used to help fight crime.

"We're talking millions and millions of dollars," said protem Judge Rick Romley. He's the former Maricopa County Attorney who prosecuted the largest corruption scandal in Arizona -- the AZSCAM case in the 1990's. He says there's been no real oversight of RICO expenditures across the state -- a reason the legislature changed the law, which has led to an unprecedented shift in power. All Boards of Supervisors now have oversight of RICO spending by County Attorney's Offices. 

But some Pima County supervisors are concerned about their new responsibility amid the RICO scandal that rocked the Pima County Sheriff's Department after an FBI investigation revealed a money laundering conspiracy that lasted 18 years. 

During a recend board meeting, supervisor Steve Christy said, "The whole issue is terribly concerning and frankly it scares the hell out of me."  

Rick Romley says -- it should. 

"You really need to get it right at the very beginning. Make sure you have a clear understanding what your responsibilities are. What are the protocols. What are the procedures that should be followed. If they don't do it right and something goes wrong. They're going to be blamed," he said.

Chair Sharon Bronson has voiced her concern during board meetings that they are not experts in the guidelines governing the use of RICO money. Barbara LaWall is the board's legal counsel and has been issuing advice on the new protocols, but Romley says that's a conflict of interest. "If you're just relying upon the county attorney, which has a stake in it, who wants the oversight, for example, to be as limited as possible. That's not necessarily what the law is intended to do. So they need to hire their own attorney."

Romley knows this conflict issue well. He was involved in an Arizona case in 2010 that ruled boards have the authority to hire outside counsel on a case-by-case basis.

•¶ 28 Regarding the Board's authority to retain counsel separate from the County Attorney to provide day-to-day advice to the Board, the County, and County employees and entities, our supreme court in Woodall made it clear that the Board generally does not have such authority. 120 Ariz. at 381-82, 586 P.2d at 630-31. We conclude, however, that the Board may, on its own initiative, employ outside counsel to represent and advise the Board regarding whether the County Attorney has one or more conflicts of interest with the Board that render him unavailable and also regarding the appropriate actions that may be taken by the Board under such circumstances, including the filing of actions for declaratory judgment to determine if the County Attorney is unavailable because of conflicts of interest.

•¶ 29 Regarding the Board's authority to retain other counsel to represent the County and its officers and entities in civil litigation, we hold that the Board may divest the County Attorney of his duty and authority to represent the County on a case-by-case basis, when the County Attorney is unavailable due to a conflict of interest or when there exists the type of "lack of harmony" in the handling of a particular case contemplated by our supreme court in Grossetta, 54 Ariz. at 540, 97 P.2d at 542.

Maricopa County has already moved to retain outside counsel -- paid out of the General Fund.

Assistant manager, MaryEllen Shepard, wrote in an email, "The Maricopa County Board and the County Attorney's Office -- assisted by outside counsel -- have been working to develop a process to comply with the new law." 
Romley says Barbara LaWall and the board should follow its lead. "Barbara needs to step away and be cooperative and help assist them retaining their own attorney and let that attorney guide the board on this particular thing," said Romley.

During a recent board meeting, the board voted for a 5 year independent review of the County Attorney's RICO expenditures after our investigation revealed questionable spending.

Bronson has inquired about retaining an outside auditor, including the Arizona Auditor General, but she says she's faced some pushback from the County Attorney's Office. 

County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry suggested the board wait because the Attorney General is investigating the Pima County Sheriff's Department. Huckleberry had said, "I think we have time on the independent authority because we don't want to do anything until the Attorney General concludes his investigation because it's a criminal investigation and we would not want to interfere with that in any way."

Romley said, "I don't understand why. The Auditor General works with the Attorney General all the time. The Auditor general worked with me all the time when we're doing a criminal review as well. When I did an investigation, after I retired as the County Attorney in Maricopa, of the county manager in Pinal County. I brought the Auditor General in to work with me and we made both recommendations on things that needed to be improved upon. Plus, I brought criminal charges against the county manager for stealing funds. I mean I don't know why he'd be saying that. That makes no sense to me."

Romley cited the FBI investigation that's underway in Pinal County as an example. The new County Attorney, Kent Volkmer, tells us he's already requested the Auditor General do a review of past RICO records.

He wrote: "Before I took office, I promised the people of Pinal County that I would be responsible and transparent with their tax dollars, including the use of RICO funds. I owe it to the people whom I serve, and to the employees of this county, to give this office a "clean slate." The purpose of the audit is to put to rest any questions regarding the past use of RICO funds, and to clearly define and set best practices for this office moving forward. The decision to initiate an audit came at my direct request of the Arizona Auditor General, after consultation with former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley.  Since the commencement of the audit, our office has fully complied with all requests of the Arizona Auditor General and look forward to results of their investigation."

Romley says about six months ago, he spoke with Auditor General Debra Davenport about the need for outside audits "and she thinks it's very important. She thinks there are significant issues not just in Pima County, but just out there in general with the use of RICO dollars." He says an AG review could take six months to a year and a half depending upon the cooperation of the agency.

Romley says if he was giving advice to Barbara LaWall, the new sheriff, Mark Napier, and Pima County Board of Supervisors, he would tell them -- open the books. "I just don't understand why everybody is fighting this so much.  I mean transparency is the only way to sit there and  rebuild confidence. Open it up. Get the attorneys to provide the legal counsel that the board is going to be needing. Open your books totally and let them review it."