Steven LaMar, Cave Creek Councilman, Dumped as Lawyer for Maricopa County Amid Criticism in Mary Rose Wilcox Claim
Maricopa County has dumped Cave Creek Councilman Steven LaMar following his failure to convince a federal judge that a $975,000 payment to Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox might need further authorization.
LaMar was appointed to defend the county in late 2010 against the claims and subsequent lawsuits by county employees, former judges and Supervisors Wilcox and Don Stapley.
The lawsuits arose from the unethical actions of former County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio in their politically motivated, incompetent attempted prosecutions of the officials on trumped-up charges. Thomas was disbarred last month along with one of his top lieutenants, Lisa Aubuchon, by the Arizona Supreme Court following a lengthy series of disciplinary hearings.
The new lawyers for Maricopa County in the lawsuits are Jeffrey Leonard, Sharon Shively, Helen Holden and Daniel Mestaz of the law firm of Sacks Tierney P.A.
In December of 2010, we predicted LaMar might take a dive on the case, considering that his career and possibly the Town of Cave Creek, which often has business before the Board of Supervisors, could suffer if he won the case -- a victory that would mean two of the five Supervisors wouldn't get the payout they sought. LaMar told us then he wouldn't try to please the Board of Supervisors and county leaders just to make them happy, something that in theory could help out his future business prospects.
For sure, his work up to this point has been lucrative. The firm to which he belongs, Beer & Toone, PC, earned $638,899 from the county from 2010 to April of 2012, the country reports.
The event that led to the replacement of LaMar took place earlier this month, when LaMar had a face-off with U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake.
LaMar argued during the hearing that a $975,000 settlement payment to Wilcox, which was approved by former County Manager David Smith, should be nixed.
But LaMar mysteriously failed to argue that a state law about claims by Supervisors applied in the case, even though County Attorney Bill Montgomery said it did apply. The law, ARS 11-626, states plainly that claims by Supervisors must be approved by at least one Supervisor, who isn't the claimant, and the county treasurer.
It might be easy to assume that LaMar believes strongly that 11-626 doesn't apply, despite what Montgomery thinks.
Yet when reached last week, LaMar told New Times he wouldn't elaborate on why he didn't raise the issue of that law during a May 11 hearing in the case before Judge Wake.
"All I can say is, I argued the position that I thought were the best arguments for the county," LaMar said.
That is, he argued on numerous points as to why Wilcox shouldn't get the taxpayer-funded payment -- except the one that might have made the biggest difference.
As LaMar describes it, Wake asked him several times if he conceded that the law about Supervisors' claims did not apply. But LaMar said he would only answer that his other arguments on why Wilcox shouldn't get the payment made the issue of the "626" law irrelevant.
"The judge said, 'I'll take that as a concession,'" LaMar said.
Wake ordered that the county should pay Wilcox the money that Smith approved back in April.
Last week, though, County Treasurer Charles "Hos" Hoskins filed a motion to intervene in the case, saying his interests -- and the public's -- were not being adequately represented.
He argues in his motion that if Wake doesn't agree to hear his side of the story -- that the law pertaining to Supervisors' claims applies -- then "he may be required to issue payment of the settlement in violation of his statutory duties."
Just to add some context (or maybe confuse things), we'll note that the law firm used by Hoskins for his motion is Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, which briefly employed Montgomery in the mid-2000s.
Jerry Cobb, spokesman for Montgomery, tells us that the law firm "is just one of a wide variety of firms to which our office has assigned a contract for outside counsel since Mr. Montgomery took office."
If you'll recall, Andrew Thomas was criticized in the disbarment opinion for hiring "friends and supporters."
Hoskins tells New Times he's worried that if he doesn't press the issue on Wilcox's settlement, "I could be held accountable."
We couldn't help but wonder how personal feelings enter into the equation. Hoskins has battled with the Board of Supervisors and former County Manager David Smith in the past, filing two lawsuits against the Board in 2009 over budget and computer issues. In a letter to Supervisor Max Wilson in 2009, Hoskins makes a somewhat emotional appeal to have Smith and deputy county manager Sandi Wilson fired: "They demonstrate little or no respect for the responsibilities I have and deliberately persist in interfering with the operation of my office."
Asked if bias against Smith, Wilcox or Stapley could be driving his push to interfere with the Wilcox payment, "Hos" answers, "I certainly hope not."
In all fairness, it's probably a good thing that Hoskins and Montgomery are there as a counter-balance against other county officials, especially when County Supervisors are soaking taxpayers for money that will go into their personal bank accounts. (Perhaps Montgomery will eventually start checking Sheriff Arpaio's decisions, too.)
To get back to the point, Montgomery, in a news conference on Wednesday, told reporters that LaMar's presentation before Judge Wake "fell far short of expectations."
Regardless of Wake's decision, Montgomery believes the payment must still be approved by a County Supervisor and Hoskins. He said he's "confident" that the law on Supervisors' claims applies, but added that the law hasn't been interpreted by a court.
Wilcox argues that the law only applies to penny-ante stuff, like claims for reimbursement of expenses for county business.
"We don't think it applies" to the $975,000 potential settlement award, says Wilcox's attorney, former Superior Court judge Colin Campbell.
Last week, Wake approved the payment of $28,311 to Campbell's firm for about a month's worth of legal work. That's in addition to the six-digit potential award, which would help Wilcox pay what must be her substantial legal fees in the case.
Wilcox hasn't said publicly what those legal fees are, which probably means she hopes to pocket a decent amount after her lawyer gets paid.
Campbell acted as Wilcox's criminal defense attorney during the turmoil of the failed prosecution against her on alleged felony counts, which related to her incomplete financial disclosure statements.
Let's imagine he negotiated a cool $200,00 for that important work. That would leave about three-quarters of a million. Campbell likely worked the civil case on a contingency basis, meaning he may get a third of that remainder.
That would still leave Wilcox with about $500,000 to help get El Portal, her restaurant, back in shape and re-opened.
If the lawyers from Sacks Tierney are successful in pressing the issue raised by Hoskins and Montgomery, she may end up with far less -- perhaps only enough to cover her attorneys' fees.
Supervisors Andy Kunasek and Max Wilson have stated they don't support the $975,000 payment. Hoskins and Supervisor Fulton Brock said they haven't decided what they will do.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.