More than 200 days ago, the freelance journalist Sean Holstege, working on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, requested a voluminous set of records from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
He has since received one document.
Now the ACLU of Arizona is suing the Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, claiming the powerful prosecutor has violated state transparency laws without explanation.
The civil rights organization hopes that its lawsuit will force Montgomery to provide public records requested by Holstege on October 16, 2018. (Holstege, a former Arizona Republic staffer, occasionally writes as a Phoenix New Times contributor. The ACLU hired him on contract for this project in September.)
"I don't want to sue anybody. I don't want to sue the county attorney. I don't want to sue sources I've worked with for 12 years. But if it is the only way to get information that is available to the public, that's the route we're going to take," Holstege said. "And increasingly that is the case."
In a comment to New Times after this story was published, Maricopa County Attorney's Office spokesperson Amanda Steele claimed the ACLU is "more interested in generating negative headlines about this office" than "with factual representations or truly working to reach resolutions." She noted that the organization sent its lawsuit to journalists before the prosecutor's office got served.
Steele also emphasized the large scope of Holstege's request as an explanation for the delay in delivering records. ACLU attorney Jared Keenan noted that Holstege filed the same requests with prosecutor's offices in Yavapai and Pinal counties, "which both meaningfully engaged with him and produced the bulk of the records requested."
As part of a deep dive into Montgomery's office, Holstege requested records related to the county attorney's case management system, data on criminal cases, information about charges declined, personnel and discipline issues for prosecutors, policies and procedures, and administrative and budgeting documents.
Two weeks later, after not receiving any response, Holstege followed up with the prosecutor's office. The next day, on November 1, 2018, the office finally acknowledged receipt of Holstege's request, adding that "it is not uncommon" for most requests to take "3-5 months."
After a couple more periodic follow-ups, the county attorney's office on April 3, 2019 provided him with a list of prosecutors, including their name and salary, for one year. Holstege had requested lists for six years. Staff lists are a routine request that can typically be turned over in little time.
On April 10, he emailed the office again, asking for a timeline and whether his records would be released "all at once or in tranches." No response.
On April 26, he sent a letter to the office "demanding that it immediately furnish the remaining records" he requested more than 200 days ago. No response.
Arizona law requires government agencies to turn over public records, and to do so "promptly." The Maricopa County Attorney's Office has failed to do either, said Jared Keenan, the ACLU attorney who filed the lawsuit.
Keenan said Holstege's records request is part of a broader project attempting to examine prosecutors' role in Arizona's disproportionately large prison population.
"The overarching goal and driving reason why we're doing this is prosecutors wield the most power in the criminal justice system and they're like black holes, black boxes," Keenan said. "We're trying to open that black box and get some sunshine in there."
The ACLU's claims that "Montgomery often impedes attempts to gather public information," going so far as attempting to control the release of other agencies' records. Last year Montgomery came under fire for sending a letter to police departments asserting that his office should have the final say over when reports are released to the public, an exercise of authority that critics called an overreach.
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