If you needed the services of a criminal attorney, would you hire a lawyer with no experience in criminal law, who had been suspended from the State Bar of Arizona for 120 days, had not practiced law in five years, and who was still on probation for her past misdeeds?
Add to this a DUI charge pleaded down to reckless driving, a bankruptcy, and a history of mental and physical issues that may or may not have caused the misconduct that led to the lawyer's suspension.
With that sort of record, I think most folks would pass, as there are a lot of lawyers in the sea with more of the right kind of experience and lacking black marks on their careers.
Not Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, who has hired his longtime political crony Carmen Chenal as an assistant attorney general in charge of foreign extraditions at a salary of $108,000 a year.
Chenal's expertise is in construction and real estate law, and she briefly was a partner with Horne in his firm before Horne became Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2003.
In 2006, Horne hired his buddy at the Department of Education as a program specialist in special education, at a $62,947 salary, even though she had no experience in the field.
But lack of experience was the least of Chenal's problems. Just a year earlier, the Bar had suspended her law license for four months and ordered her to pay $2,500 in restitution to one of her victims, as well as foot the $1,018 bill for the Bar's investigation. She also was placed on probation for two years.
The allegations against Chenal were substantial. In one case, Chenal took part of a client's settlement money and applied it to his bill in another case without his permission.
In that second matter, Chenal's suit on behalf of her client was thrown out of court, with attorney fees in the amount of $17,037 awarded to the defendant. Chenal's client wanted her to appeal the decision, but she failed to do so. The client was so ticked off that he fired her.
In another matter, Chenal took on a domestic-relations case in Illinois. One little problem: She was not licensed to practice in Illinois. The Arizona Supreme Court hearing officer's report on Chenal's suspension noted her "unauthorized practice of law" as her "most serious violation."
But there's much more.
From 2001 to 2003, she bounced three checks for filing fees to the Clerk of the Maricopa County Superior Court.
In a medical-malpractice case, she sent a letter from one of her expert witnesses to opposing counsel, after she allegedly had "whited out" corrections the expert had made in the margins. Like bouncing checks to the clerk of court, altering such documents is a no-no.
A summary of her disciplinary history on the state Bar's website notes Chenal's bumbling in another case.
"Ms. Chenal listed a party but did not provide any allegations against the person in the civil complaint; presented claims barred by the statute of limitations; and after listing many witnesses on the disclosure statement, only one testified, and the testimony was inconsistent with that listed on the disclosure statement."
Despite the details of her suspension, Horne defended employing Chenal at the Department of Education to New Times in a 2006 article ("Changing the Chenal," April 27), describing her as a "first-rate lawyer" undone by various family issues.
"I think we're lucky to get her," he said at the time.
Interestingly, Chenal also declared bankruptcy in 2004, forcing her to sell her car to pay her debts. That might have been for the best, since she'd been charged with a DUI in 2001, which according to the record on file with the Dreamy Draw Justice Court, she pleaded down to a reckless-driving charge.
In 2002, Chenal was charged with driving on a suspended license in Carefree Municipal Court. The case was dismissed.
Of course, Horne has had his own problems, albeit in the more distant past. In 1970, his investment firm T.C. Horne & Co. went belly-up, resulting in a lifetime trading ban with the Securities and Exchange Commission. A fact he failed to disclose in his law firm's annual reports to the Arizona Corporation Commission.
So maybe Horne has a soft heart for fellow lawyers who've messed up heretofore, like Chenal. And it probably didn't hurt that Chenal has been a stalwart campaign operative for Republican Horne in more than one race.
In any case, Chenal waited five years to apply to the Bar for reinstatement.
Because she'd waited so long, she had to go through a formal reinstatement process, with evidence, witnesses, and a hearing, at which her counsel argued that Chenal should be readmitted without having to participate in the Bar's Member Assistance Program, part of the probation process in which a delinquent lawyer receives counseling and is monitored closely.
Essentially, Chenal wanted to be readmitted without doing the two years' probation she had agreed to in 2005. But the hearing revealed the extent of Chenal's past mental problems.
Chenal, her lawyer, and her doctors argued that her life spiraled out of control from 1999 to 2003. In 1999, she divorced her spouse of many years, Tom Chenal, who, oddly, is employed by Horne as the chief counsel of the AG's public advocacy division.
While Chenal was raising her three kids, her mother was dying. Chenal had to care for her, forcing Chenal to move her law practice into her home.
Chenal's brothers caused her additional heartache. One, an alcoholic, moved in with her, as well. The other, a schizophrenic, stopped by for periodic visits. The result, she said, was "chaos."
She sought out psychiatrist Emerson Bueno, who testified during Chenal's hearing that his patient was suffering from "major depressive episodes" in 1999 to 2003, as well as "anxiety episodes." She met the criteria for "major depressive recurrence," and Bueno diagnosed her as having "an underlying attention deficit hyperactive disorder."
Nevertheless, Bueno told hearing officer Judge Louis Araneta that Chenal was stable and fit for work.
Chenal's 2005 surgery for an ophthalmic brain aneurysm also was the subject of much discussion, with Chenal and her lawyer contending that her poor judgment and legal screw-ups resulted from the aneurysm developing in her body in the years before the surgery.
Her medical witnesses testified that the developing aneurysm could have affected Chenal's decision-making ability.
Neuropsychologist H. Daniel Blackwood said the only residual problem Chenal still suffers from the surgery is some reduction in motor speed in her left hand. He also noted in his testimony that Chenal may have difficulty with "assertive communication."
You know, like the kind required by an attorney with a challenging position in the public sector.
Horne also testified at Chenal's reinstatement hearing, giving her high marks for her intelligence, her work ethic, and her legal skills. Heck, he even said he goes to Chenal for advice on politics and other matters outside her purview.
The hearing took place in November 2010, when Horne was AG-elect. He vowed to hire the beleaguered Chenal, if she were to be reinstated to the Bar.
Bar counsel Harriet Bernick told Judge Araneta that she had contacted the AG's Office, then helmed by Democrat Terry Goddard, and discovered that there was no hard-and-fast rule about employing lawyers with previous Bar suspensions. But she noted that division supervisors within the office would be "very reticent" to hire someone with such a disciplinary background.
Horne insisted this would not be an obstacle.
"The supervisors that I would hire would have no reluctance to hire Ms. Chenal," he informed the court.
Indeed, even before Chenal was readmitted to the Bar, Horne hired her as strategic planning director, at a salary of $80,150, starting on January 1. In April, she was promoted to her current position in charge of foreign prosecutions and extraditions.
The conditions of her reinstatement say she must serve her two years' probation with the Bar's MAP program, continue to see her psychiatrist for medication monitoring, and meet regularly with a counselor or therapist, as approved by the MAP director.
The reinstatement report agreed that Chenal had "medical and other personal issues" from 1999 to 2003 that contributed to her 2005 suspension. And it observed that the medical experts had testified that there are "no physical or mental conditions" to prevent her reinstatement to the Bar.
It also ordered that if Chenal returns to private practice, she must go through another probationary hoop and sign up with the Bar's Law Office Management Assistance Program.
Chenal announced during the hearing, "I have no intention of returning to private practice. I really like public service a lot."
Particularly if you can score a job in public service that pays $108,000.
I'm not arguing that Chenal should not have another crack at practicing law. I'm just not so sure she should be doing so on the public's dime.
Sure, politicians hire cronies all the time. And I reckon if Chenal were in a room at the AG's Office pushing relatively unimportant paper, it would be one thing. (Horne brought a lot of loyalists who had worked under him at the Department of Education to the AG's Office. Chenal's hardly the only one.)
But considering the importance of Chenal's position, and her lack of experience in criminal law, her unfortunate legal history raises a red flag the size of Russia.
In her new role, Chenal is responsible for helping to pursue fugitives who have committed major felony crimes, including murder, and have hightailed it out of the country, often to Mexico. She prepares the legal paperwork that will either extradite these criminals back to the States or see to it that they are prosecuted in other countries. There is no room for error.
In other words, hers is not a job to be handed off lightly, as a reward, to a longtime political confidante.
Horne's office cited Chenal's proficiency in Spanish (she's a Cuban-born, naturalized American citizen) and sent me several letters of recommendation, written by attorneys and judges, in support of Chenal's 1999 application to be a Superior Court judge.
Not to knock all this, but there are plenty of high school foreign-language teachers who can boast fluency in Spanish and English. As for the letters, they were written before Chenal's "lost years" and her suspension from the Bar.
Responding to my questions via e-mail, Horne pointed to a glowing review from a supervisor of Chenal's at the AG's Office. It was a sort of exit interview from her strategic-planning job before she moved up the ladder to her current position. Horne also explained to me that the "important asset" Chenal possesses is "knowing [her] way around the courtroom."
The AG pooh-poohed her past misdeeds as the result of a rough patch in her life and the aforementioned medical issues. Still, Horne distanced himself from the decision to elevate Chenal.
"I did not make the decision to make her the extradition lawyer," Horne wrote. "That was made by the section chief. I agree with it but had no function in the decision, as it did not require my approval."
The section chief on whom Horne's hanging this decision is Ted Campagnolo, a prosecutor in the AG's Office.
Interestingly, Campagnolo is one of 57 applicants who are vying for appointment to vacancies on the Maricopa County Superior Court. If he succeeds, that'll be one less person around to help Chenal do her job, which, by all accounts, is not easy.
Adrian Fontes, the assistant AG who held Chenal's current position under former AG Goddard in 2004 and 2005, described the work as difficult but rewarding.
He pointed out that AG offices in border states are in a unique position: Federal law enforcement must get special approval to operate in Mexico while state law enforcement can enter and leave the country at will.
In extradition cases, the AG's Office has to work closely with the U.S. Department of Justice and officials in Mexico.
"You not only have to have your legal ducks in a row, you have to have your intelligence ducks in a row, too," Fontes told me.
That is, you must know where the fugitive is, as well as the intricacies of preparing warrants for extradition that will be upheld by Mexican judges. And to do this, you have to have solid relationships with Mexican law enforcement.
"If this person doesn't have any connections in Mexico and hasn't been to Mexico to build a rapport with these law enforcement [agencies'] boots on the ground, [she's] going to have a difficult time being successful," he said. "Unless the Mexican government is really cooperative."
Fontes said he knew nothing of Chenal and had never met her, so he didn't want to comment on her qualifications.
Felecia Rotellini, Horne's 2010 Democratic rival for the AG's Office, was more critical of the Chenal choice and was concerned that the best person had not been chosen for the position.
"When dealing with foreign governments and extradition issues, the attorney general must have someone in charge who is qualified and experienced to make sure procedures go as smoothly as possible," she replied when asked for comment on Chenal's hiring.
She added: "The attorney general is Arizona's lawyer and the steward of taxpayers' money, with an ethical duty to hire the most competent person for every job in that office . . . especially the positions with the highest salaries. Those jobs are reserved for the most qualified."
Ideally, they should be. But when you're Tom Horne's gal pal, the standards go on a four-year cruise.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.