Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery lowered expectations for charges in the Green Acre dog-death case this week, sparking a brief tiff with Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
A Republican elected in 2010 and 2012 with Arpaio's support, Montgomery apparently sounded too uppity for the sheriff in a news conference on Wednesday and in online comments.
After a three-month investigation into the case of more than 20 dogs and two rabbits dying at the facility, Arpaio announced on Tuesday he'd turned over his detectives' findings to Montgomery. It's the county attorney who must decide -- with the help of experts in his office -- whether to proceed with a criminal case against four suspects, including the son of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake.
According to Channel 10 (KSAZ-TV) News, Arpaio met with Montgomery to grill him over a snarky comment, causing Montgomery to back-pedal.
But in the underlying matter, the severity of potential charges against the suspects, as well as the tiff, Arpaio comes off as overly sensitive, highly political and probably wrong.
On the other hand, on Wednesday Montgomery did open himself up to criticism by taking pains to downplay the potential for dozens of felony charges to be issued in the case. And in doing so, he took a few subtle and not-so-subtle shots at the Sheriff's Office and at failed politician Andrew Thomas.
Montgomery started his talk to the press on Wednesday by confirming what Arpaio had announced in a news conference the day before -- that prosecutors had received the lengthy report on the case. It consists of five binders of roughly 500 pages each, plus a dozen or so computer disks, Montgomery explained.
This is a tough case for both prosecutor and sheriff because of the large number of emotional victims, and the involvement of a Senator's son.
The 20-plus dogs found dead of asphyxiation in a room at the facility were beloved pets. The business owners, MaLeisa and Jesse Todd Hughes, were out of town, but -- as Arpaio discussed this week -- may have been complicit due if there was a recurring practice of placing boarder dogs in a space that was unreasonably small for them.
One of MaLeisa Hughes' daughters, Logan, and her husband, Austin Flake, son of Senator Flake, allegedly were acting as caretakers when the dogs' bodies were found on June 19 at the one-acre property, located at 15723 East Appleby Road in Gilbert.
Arpaio, a six-term sheriff who for years has held himself up as chief enforcer of animal abuse in the county, has been under intense pressure for weeks from the pet owners and animal lovers in general to do something about the tragedy. The Green Acre case is one of the biggest animal-abuse investigations his office has ever faced, and the Sheriff's Office raised the ire of some in the public by branding the incident initially as an "accident."
The sheriff's interest in animal-abuse cases started in 1999, with an apparently bogus case of cat mutilations in the Ahwatukee, according to a book published last month by Arpaio's former deputy chief of enforcement, Brian Sands. "Arpaio once told me that the aggressive animal abuse image he developed was a political goldmine as it brought in a number of Democrats into his base," Sands writes in the book.
The Green Acre case became a top priority for Arpaio's office this summer as the dog owners and their supporters came together online and in person. Arpaio's news conference followed a small demonstration at the Sheriff's Office headquarters on Saturday by "Gilbert 23" supporters.
Montgomery said he's not taking politics into account, and won't be swayed by theoretical influence from a U.S. Senator from his own party, nor political pressure faced by Sheriff Arpaio. He said he hasn't talked to Senator Flake nor anyone from Flake's office about the case. Arpaio admitted on Tuesday he conversed with Flake briefly on August 26, the night of the primary election, but said they didn't bring up the case.
Montgomery's downplaying of the raft of charges suggested by Arpaio's office began with a lesson for the public on burdens of proof, reasonable doubt, and a reminder that his office's standard for criminal cases is whether a conviction is likely. Immediately, his tone was that of someone who was going to let the suspects off the hook. He talked about the "impact to someone's life in the future" of simply being charged with a felony.
"We're not going to just charge cases to see what happens," he said.
That prompted one reporter to ask if he doubted any criminal charges would happen.
It was too early to say that, Montgomery responded. The office would bring charges if they were warranted, and Flake's family ties weren't being considered, he insisted.
"It's easy to insinuate that politics are part of the decision-making," he said, adding that he would not be "bound" by the way Andrew Thomas ran the office.
Not that he mentioned Thomas by name. Montgomery said he doesn't want to say Thomas' name because "we already gave him $750,000," referring to the Clean Elections money Thomas received for his failed gubernatorial bid last month.
"This isn't to cheapen or minimize the loss of the pet to the families," Montgomery said. "But we're not talking about the deaths of 23 children."
He referred to the public pressure he's received, or seen, about the case in the form of tweets and emails.
"This is not a version of America's Got Talent," he said. "You can't call in and vote for a change. It won't work that way."
While Arpaio wants 21 felony counts, plus various misdemeanors, for each of the four suspects, Montgomery seemed to concede there were problems with that recommendation. While 23 different dogs were involved, (plus two rabbits), "we have to see what the evidence allows us to distinguish with respect to conduct," Montgomery said.
Under Arizona law, he said, if a crime involved a single plan or "course of conduct," the sentences usually have to run concurrently.
"Even if we were to have a set of charges for each individual that died, there's a theoretical possibility that the punishment that would be imposed would be the punishment that would be accorded to just one of the dogs," he said.
One possible result from a conviction on two or more felony charges, he acknowledged, is that a defendant may be prohibited from owning animals.
Montgomery openly doubted a charge called "cruel animal neglect" existed, seeming to rebuke the Sheriff's Office by noting that policing and prosecuting aren't the same thing.
Montgomery's right, of course: Animals are not the same as children. In 2009, when Navajo County officials found 55 dogs living in near-feral condition on a rural property, they didn't treat them like children -- they shot them dead.
But unsurprisingly, some Green Acre pet owners were outraged over Montgomery's comments and criticized him as insensitive. Montgomery published a lengthy response to their outcry on his personal Facebook site, while also answering online questions from the public, according to the Channel 10 report and the "Tragedy at Green Acre" Facebook site. Montgomery apparently took the post and responses down since then.
In response to one comment about Arpaio wanting "strong felony charges," Montgomery wrote back that Arpaio "also thought Tom Horne was going to win. The way our system works, he investigates, we review the investigation for charges."
The dig caused Arpaio to actually meet with Montgomery, reportedly. Channel 10 received a quick response to Montgomery's comment from Arpaio, who said, "Well, I asked him, does that mean I am a loser? That I am a loser on investigations too? He said no. It was just a joke. That's okay. I take him at his word."
It sounds like junior high school. But it was Arpaio, not Montgomery, who was once Andrew Thomas' ally in the very over-charging scandals to which Montgomery alluded.
Montgomery has no good option in the Green Acre case, either: If he does Arpaio's bidding and throws the book at the suspects, he risks a failed case and appearing (more of) an Arpaio stooge. If he moves forward with minimal or no charges, he'll be accused of being in Flake's pocket, and pilloried by the pet owners.
At least he's standing up to Arpaio, however little it may be.
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