Blazing File Folders

Was the state Department of Insurance out of line when it staged an armed raid on office workers in Chandler?

McDonald acknowledges that it's unusual for him to represent an insurance company. But his firm does insurance work, and when Farmers needed advice on how to proceed with possible criminal accusations against Summerville, the company came to him because he is a criminal lawyer, he says.

This isn't the first time a major insurance company has leveled charges at Summerville. DOI's Terry Cooper says Travelers Insurance made a similar complaint last year. But, he concedes, the department didn't do anything about it.

Summerville and her attorneys say the two ex-employees, Brian Jones and Brian Fink, are simply disgruntled and looking for a way to get even for being fired.

Jones could not be reached for comment for this article. Fink declined to comment.

Summerville and her lawyers say that the search warrant was a way for Farmers Insurance to look for records she's already sworn she doesn't have.

McDonald and another attorney for Farmers won't comment about Summerville's charge that the search warrant was an attempt to sidestep the civil process.

But McDonald will say that neither he nor Farmers ever gave Norwood any information that would lead him to believe Summerville or anyone in her office was dangerous.

"Absolutely not," he says. McDonald says he found "nothing that suggested to me that she was anything but just another person."

McDonald has had clients who were served search warrants with weapons drawn despite the nonviolent nature of the offense.

"I had the same type of reaction . . . which is, this is completely unnecessary. They were strictly criminal fraud cases, and they [the police] went in the same way," he says. "They scared the living pizzazz out of some people."

The AG's Office says DOI has to use DPS to serve a warrant, because, by law, the fraud unit's investigators can't do it themselves.

However, Representative Wes Marsh, a Republican legislator from Scottsdale, introduced a bill last session that would have changed that. Marsh's bill would have allowed the fraud unit's investigators to become certified peace officers and carry weapons.

The bill failed, but Summerville's attorney, Larry Debus, fired off a letter to Marsh about the incident at the agency.

"This is a perfect example of why we should not authorize anyone but real police officers to carry guns," he wrote. "I understand that a lot of these agencies want to get certification. These are cowboys that want to play policeman and it is not that type of profession."

In his letter, Debus points out that overzealous officers can cost government agencies big bucks in civil judgments. And they can also cost the state criminal convictions as well.

Debus cites a case he won last year, Arizona v. Jon Charles Campbell. Campbell was charged with resisting arrest after plainclothes investigators from the AG's Office broke up a meeting in a private home on the suspicion that he was promoting a pyramid scheme. Campbell was never charged with any other crime. And before the case could get to the jury, the judge dropped the charges, based on the tactics of the arresting officer, including not properly identifying himself as a cop.

"I was so shocked by a number of things in this case," Judge Michael Wilkinson said in court. "I am shocked that the Attorney General's Office believes that this was proper police work. . . . I intend to write a letter to Attorney General Woods to make sure that this position is not part of the standard issue for special agents, because this is clearly improper based on the information you had beforehand and based on the Constitution of the United States."

The AG's Office appears to be backing off Summerville now, at least in part. It's released some files back to her--after several demands from her attorneys--and said, in a letter to Debus, "because of how your client maintained her files, some items beyond the scope of the warrant may have been seized."

A hearing is set for the end of July on Summerville's motion to have the search warrant thrown out and all of her property returned.

And Summerville is still waiting to find out if she's going to get her business back, or if she's going to be charged as a criminal.

Maria Summerville sits, a small woman behind the large, polished desk, and tries to explain how her life has fallen apart.

The search warrant against her suggests an unethical collection agent who steals money intended for her clients. And she already has several civil judgments against her for keeping money that she should have passed on to other companies.

But in person, she presents a different picture. A single mom, she started her business so that she could be there for her kids and provide for them, too. The stress of the past several months shows, despite the makeup and the nice clothes. There are dark circles under her eyes, and she hunches down, almost as if she's shrinking into herself.

No one can dispute that she's made some seriously bad decisions--the multiple judgments against her are testament enough to that--but she insists she's done nothing criminal.

Summerville says she got in over her head when she moved into her current offices. She went from a two-person operation to a 24-employee office in anticipation of a big contract with a major insurance company. When it fell through, Summerville says, she was without the money to sustain her new operations. She says she's paid off the judgments against her.

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