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Andrew Thomas’ Battle Against Spanish-Language DUI Probation Has Cost Us a Half-Million Dollars. But Who's Counting?

Four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars ago, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas filed suit to stop the county's Spanish-language program for DUI offenders.

You've probably heard little, if anything, about the case since Thomas' initial media blitz, when he argued that providing probation services in Spanish somehow violated the Constitution.

But while the county attorney hasn't held a press conference to publicize his string of failures, rest assured: Those failures have indeed occurred.

The problem? Thomas was trying to stop a great program that doesn't even come close to presenting a constitutional issue. Naturally, the program's supporters have beat him time and again. After a series of rulings by judges from here to California, Thomas' logic is in tatters — and his lawyers look like idiots.

Indeed, barring a last-minute intervention from the highest court in the land, the Spanish DUI program will almost certainly survive. So much for Thomas' bombast in 2005. (Yes, he did say that the program was "discrimination in its starkest form." And, yes, he did cite Brown v. Board of Education — as if offering services in a language other than English is somehow akin to dooming black children to crumbling schools.)

Really, in many ways, Thomas' handling of this case is indicative of his tenure as county attorney. He'll grandstand, file a frivolous suit, and hire expensive outside lawyers to handle the litigation. Then he'll stand by while those attorneys run up their billable hours. Hey, it's not like he's getting stuck with the bill — he's got us taxpayers for that.

Then, he loses. And loses again. This case has every one of the elements:

Frivolous suit against a worthy program? Check.

Pricey lawyers based in Washington, D.C.? Check.

Loss after loss after loss? Triple check!

First, Thomas' lawyers lost in district court in February 2007. They appealed that, only to have a three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rule against them this past July. They recently appealed a second time, asking the entire bank of appellate judges to reconsider the case.

It would have taken just one judge skeptical of the panel's decision to reopen the case. But Thomas couldn't even get that. On October 15, the bank of judges denied his appeal, too.

Now, Thomas has only one option left — a Hail Mary to the U.S. Supreme Court. But I'm surely not alone in hoping he quits now. Public records I obtained from the county show that the case has already cost taxpayers $498,690.

Ouch.

What makes it even worse: This was no hard-fought legal battle, with a trial and all the attendant expenses. Thomas' suit didn't even make it to a pre-trial hearing. The judge assigned to the case, U.S. District Court Judge Earl Carroll, bounced the suit out of court before anyone took a single deposition. Yes, Thomas chose to appeal Carroll's ruling, twice, but the lawyers managed to ring up a half-million dollars in billings on a case that saw just a single day in court.

Most of that comes from the lawyers on Thomas' side.

The county contracted with local firm Mariscal, Weeks, McIntyre & Friedlander to defend the court program. Taxpayers are on the hook for its work, too, so it's good that Mariscal, Weeks' bill was just $137,063, public records show.

But Thomas couldn't just sue the court system using the hard-working attorneys who've devoted their lives to the County Attorney's Office — or even an attorney at a respected local firm who'd be thrilled with the chance to tackle an interesting constitutional issue.

No, Thomas had to have the best. And so he contracted with the firm Jones, Day — a Washington, D.C.-based behemoth that your grandfather might have described as "white shoe." And by that, he would have meant "really ridiculously expensive."

Jones, Day rang up $361,626 in billings without ever making a coherent argument against the program in question.

And that doesn't even count the billings from the firm's local co-counsel. Dennis Wilenchik, the failed special prosecutor who made such a mess of the New Times investigation two years ago, was brought in by Thomas to work this case, too. It's unclear whether his involvement cost taxpayers on top of the Jones, Day bills. I looked through five years of Wilenchik's billings to the county and couldn't find any itemized for this case.

But I doubt he worked for free. Wilenchik has billed the county for $3.9 million since Thomas took office, records show — more than half of it after Thomas "fired" him as a special prosecutor.

Indeed, prior to the Board of Supervisors' wresting control of civil work from Thomas' office earlier this year, the costs for outside lawyers just kept going up.

In 2007 and 2008, Thomas managed to spend $16 million and $13 million on outside counsel, according to county records. That's a 124 percent increase over what Rick Romley spent on outside lawyers during his final two years in office.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske