Bill Montgomery's second-in-command has changed three times so far this year. The latest chief deputy as of last Wednesday: Special Victims Division Chief Rachel Mitchell, most well-known for her role in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings last year.
But the timing of Mitchell's appointment has the county's Board of Supervisors scratching their heads, according to Supervisor Steve Gallardo, since Governor Doug Ducey will soon decide whether to appoint Montgomery to the state's highest court.
"Why not wait till the governor makes a decision to make such a huge structural change at your office?" Gallardo told Phoenix New Times. "We're talking about the No. 2 position in the county attorney's office. What led us to this point? Why now? To do this on the eve of such a big decision from the governor raises a lot of questions."
A series of behind-the-scenes events at the county attorney's office in recent months led to Mitchell's appointment last week. Montgomery's former chief deputy, Mark Faull, has been out on medical leave, leading the deputy chief of MCAO's criminal group, Michael McVey, to fill in as acting chief deputy. But on July 29, all five Board of Supervisors received an anonymous letter accusing McVey of being in an inappropriate relationship with another MCAO employee. (The relationship was not actually inappropriate by MCAO policy, since McVey had disclosed it back in January, per that policy.) Two days later, on July 31, Rachel Mitchell took over as chief deputy.
On August 19, the Board of Supervisors plans to hold an executive session to discuss Mitchell's salary and other questions regarding the recent shakeup in Montgomery's office (the Board of Supervisors must approve salary proposals for the second-in-command position for certain elected officials).
For nearly a decade, Mark Faull has been Bill Montgomery's chief deputy, collecting a nearly $200,000 yearly salary, according to The Arizona Republic's salary database.
McVey and Investigations Division Lieutenant Sharon Gage on January 11, 2019, disclosed their personal relationship to MCAO's human resources department, according to a letter from human resources manager Paul Pembroke shared with New Times.
On January 22, McVey began serving as acting chief deputy, according to MCAO spokesperson Amanda Steele. "At that time, the reporting structure of Lt. Gage and the bureau she supervises was altered so that she remained outside the reporting structure under Mr. McVey and that was conveyed to the investigations section as well as the acting deputy chief," Steele said in an email to New Times.
McVey began filling in as acting chief deputy because Faull has been out intermittently on family medical leave, according to Steele.
"It wasn't like Faull's been out from then [January] till now, there was a time that he was gone, but due to the fact that he was gone, Mr. McVey stepped up to fill in," Steele said in a phone interview with New Times when asked why McVey began serving as acting deputy chief.
Steele said she could not provide any more information about why Faull has been on leave due to privacy concerns, and did not provide an exact date when asked how long Faull has been gone. New Times has put in a public records request for Faull's timesheets but has not yet received them.
On July 26, Bill Montgomery made the shortlist of finalists for a seat on the state Supreme Court. Within 60 days of receiving the list of finalists, Governor Doug Ducey must pick one to appoint to the state's highest court.
Then, on July 29, the anonymous letter was sent to all five members of the Board of Supervisors. The letter, which had no return address, accused McVey and Gage of being "involved in an inappropriate/unprofessional relationship" and criticized Montgomery for allowing a relationship that "would not be tolerated by other employees," calling it a "disregard for leadership [that] has hurt organizational morale."
"With the potential of Bill Montgomery seeking higher office, the possibility of Mike McVey assuming the role of Interim County Attorney under the circumstances of this improper relationship should be heavily scrutinized," stated the letter, which New Times obtained through a public records request.
The Board of Supervisors took the letter seriously and reached out to MCAO to "inquire as to the validity of the accusations," said Fields Moseley, a spokesperson for the Board, in an email to New Times. The Board "were assured this personnel matter was being handled according to County Attorney's Office policy," Moseley said.
Neither Gage, McVey, or Montgomery responded to an email seeking comment. But McVey retained an attorney after being contacted by New Times. His attorney, Paul McGoldrick, sent a letter to the publisher of Phoenix New Times and the editor, Stuart Warner. The letter stated that McVey "never supervised either Lt. Gage or anyone in the Investigations Division of MCAO" during the time he served as acting chief deputy.
McVey's attorney reiterated that there was nothing inappropriate or improper about McVey and Gage's relationship, since they disclosed their relationship per MCAO policy, and that there has never been any conflict of interest between the two, since Gage never reported to McVey. He then threatened to take legal action should New Times publish the information contained in the anonymous letter.
"McVey is not being investigated as there is no reason for an investigation," Steele told New Times, noting that McVey and Gage had complied with MCAO policy and that the allegations in the anonymous letter were inaccurate.
Two days after the Board of Supervisors received the anonymous letter, Mitchell "took over the duties of Chief Deputy," said Steele. Asked whether Mitchell's appointment had anything to do with the anonymous letter, Steele said "one has nothing to do with the other."
Mitchell was thrust into the national spotlight in September 2018, when she was picked to question Christine Blasey Ford and other witnesses who were testifying against Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee over allegations that he'd sexually assaulted Ford. Mitchell, a veteran of MCAO's sex-crimes division, later told the committee in a memo that "no reasonable prosecutor" would bring a case against Kavanaugh based on the evidence she heard. But her appointment as Ford's interrogator brought criticism. A Politico article described her performance as a "blunder," and quoted an anonymous Trump administration official saying it was a "disaster." Kavanaugh was confirmed by the Senate 50-48.
Steele said the Investigations Division will "return reporting to the Chief Deputy effective August 19." Fields Moseley from the Board of Supervisors said "The Board is presented with a salary proposal for chief deputies and they must approve the salary. The county attorney forwarded a request to discuss this subject in our next executive session which is planned for August 19."
"Division Chief Mitchell is now Chief Deputy pending Board of Supervisors approval," Steele said.
At the upcoming executive session, the Board of Supervisors will have a chance to question Montgomery about the timing of all these recent changes, said Gallardo. They will also examine whether Mitchell is qualified for the role of chief deputy.
Executive sessions take place behind closed doors, so members of the media and the public won't be able to attend. But after the executive session, the board members will likely bring up the topic again at the next Board of Supervisors meeting, which is open to the public and could take place either later in August or during the first two weeks of September.
At that meeting, the board would vote on whether or not to approve Mitchell's salary.
Gallardo told New Times the board is likely to ask Montgomery what led to this point and why he decided to make so many significant changes now, given Ducey's looming Supreme Court decision.
"I probably would have preferred letting the actual Supreme Court appointment work its way through before making these types of decisions," said Gallardo. "Because if Montgomery gets the appointment, we're going to have a whole different county attorney and we'll have a whole different person in terms of what they look for in a No. 2 and that sort of thing."
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"The governor has 60 days [from July 26] to make this decision, so it probably would not have hurt to put the brakes on the personnel changes in the office," said Gallardo.
If Montgomery does get the Supreme Court appointment, he would need to tender his resignation. At that point, the Board of Supervisors would get together and work on finding Montgomery's replacement. The board would review applicants for Montgomery's position and select one to appoint as interim county attorney until an election can be held to find an official replacement.
Montgomery's candidacy has been hotly contested by civil rights groups who say the county attorney's record of refusing to provide legal assistance to same-sex couples, blocking criminal justice reform, and hiring a controversial former FBI agent to conduct "Muslim threat" training, all show he is too biased to be a good fit for the job. Montgomery also has the least-relevant experience of any of the seven finalists for the Supreme Court seat.
Should Montgomery get the Supreme Court appointment, as Montgomery's second-in-command, Mitchell may need to take on even more responsibilities not long after jumping from head of the sex crimes division to chief deputy of the entire county attorney's office for the most populated county in the state.