Call it an unexcused absence.
Maricopa County Andrew Thomas skipped a county Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday despite having been pointedly -- and publicly -- asked to show up and give advice on Sheriff Joe Arpaio's plan to segregate illegal immigrant jail inmates.
The diss of the supervisors by Thomas served only to ramp up the public feud between the five-member panel and the county's chief prosecutor. Still, it's hard to see how Thomas could have benefited from appearing, since the impromptu meeting -- called on Friday by the chairman of the board, Max Wilson -- looked like it was designed mainly to give Thomas some grief.
The board and Thomas were having relationship problems even before Thomas' office indicted Supervisor Don Stapley on charges that he failed to disclose some land deals in his campaign finance reports. Since the indictment, the county supervisors, county attorney and sheriff have waged something akin to open warfare.
Still, there appeared to be a legitimate county legal issue regarding Thomas' statement to the media last week about Arpaio's program. As Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox summed it up during the meeting, Thomas' public criticism of the inmate program "could cost the county a lot of money" in litigation.
Thomas sent one of his top aides, Barnett Lotstein, (pictured), to meet with the five-member panel at a conference center on the 10th floor of the county office building at 301 W. Jefferson.
Lotstein read a statement from Thomas at the beginning of the meeting that suggested the county attorney's public criticism knocking Arpaio's segregation plan was just a "statement of general principle."
That line stuck in the craw of Stapley, who noted Thomas was very specific in his reference to Arpaio's program and that he was "offended" Thomas was now trying to say otherwise. Stapley also told Lotstein he was "disappointed" the county attorney has not returned his calls over the last three years.
In some ways, this was the most fascinating aspect of the meeting: Stapley got to rip on the very prosecutor who wants to see him prosecuted for multiple felonies. No wonder Stapley was disappointed he couldn't yell at Thomas to his face.
Lotstein told the panel the "proper place" to give legal advice to the board was in executive session, a type of meeting not open to the public. Yet when the Supervisors noted that it was permissable to go into executive session the same day, Lotstein declined the offer.
Thomas, who works on the 8th floor of the building where the meeting was held, was not in today, Lotstein explained, sitting across a short table from the grim-looking panel members.
"He was given late notice" of the meeting and had another obligation, Lotstein said.
Chairman Wilson openly scoffed at that one, waving a hand at the media members who packed the room's viewing area and telling Lotstein, "We had a lot of people show up."
Lotstein then said it was unusual for the county attorney to give direct legal advice to the board of supervisors, adding that Thomas' predecessor, Rick Romley, only did so "half a dozen times."
Wilson all but called him a liar. And Romley, who was hired by the board to give legal advice in the dispute with Thomas, later told New Times that Lotstein's statement was "hogwash."
"I attended executive sessions and met with board members regularly," Romley said.
Romley, who was county attorney for 16 years before Thomas, said the public statement about the constitutionality of Arpaio's inmate segregation program made Thomas "witness No. 1" for a potential lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties' Union.
While the ACLU has not said it will sue the county over the segregation, the group hand-delivered a letterto the Board of Supervisors today that indicated they're not thrilled with it.
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Legal eagles like Romley might be correct about the potential for a lawsuit, but the fact that Andrew Thomas criticized Arpaio -- his political ally -- so openly must be taken into account when analyzing the situation. Far from being a misstep of some sort, it seems more likely Thomas knew exactly what he was doing in blasting the segregation program.
Thomas is reportedly planning a run for state Attorney General in 2010. He can't appear to statewide voters to be marching lockstep with Arpaio, who doesn't carry the same political weight in more liberal counties like Pima.
Also, Thomas has a case pending with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on a similar issue -- the segregating of Spanish speakers in separate DUI courts. (Click here to read an article on the DUI issue by one of Thomas' employees, Rachel Alexander). Staying quiet on the Arpaio segregation would be fodder for his opponents in the DUI case. On the other hand, discussing the issue in public with the hostile supervisors might not have been the boost to the DUI case Thomas had been looking for.
Thomas will get another chance to discuss the matter with the supervisors, though in private. Wilson said he planned to schedule another meeting with Thomas -- this time in executive session.