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County's New Civil Litigation Department Approved by Court; Andrew Thomas Thwarted

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Just got word that the cease-and-desist motion filed by Maricopa County Andrew Thomas to stop the county from taking over civil litigation matters has failed. Superior Court Judge Donald Daughton rejected the motion.

As we were the first to report on Monday, the county Board of Supervisors voted to take $528,000 from the county attorney's office and use it to help fund the creation of a new department to deal with civil lawsuits.

The move by the supervisors could be perceived as retaliation for Thomas' investigation with Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Supervisor Don Stapley.

But it's also a practical one: Thomas has made it clear that if he could still hire attorneys for civil matters, he'd use that power to take positions and actions that are contrary to the wishes of the board.

Whether Stapley is guilty of campaign finance violations or not, the conflict of interest between Thomas and the board seems clear in light of these, well -- conflicts.

Full text of the county's news release follows:

County Attorney's bid for TRO falls short...

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Donald Daughton today rejected County Attorney Andrew Thomas's bid to block the Board of Supervisors from controlling county lawsuits. In denying the county attorney's attempt to obtain a temporary restraining order, Judge Daughton affirmed the board's right to set up a civil litigation department.

The decision upholds the position of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors who voted unanimously Monday to set up the new department.

"We were very confident in our position that ethical rules about conflict of interest apply to all lawyers in Arizona, including the County Attorney," commented Phoenix lawyer Tom Irvine, who represents the supervisors in the case. "We are comfortable Judge Daughton's ruling will be upheld. It is just a shame that during an economic downturn, county funds were spent on this because the county attorney chose to fights his own clients."

Citing "no irreparable harm" by the supervisors' action and suggesting the county attorney's position had no likelihood of success on the merits, Daughton denied the county attorney's request.

The judge outlined his position on the outstanding ethical issues of the case. He said that in his opinion, the county attorney has the same ethical obligations as all other lawyers in Arizona and must disclose conflicts of interest to his clients. He also said the board has the right to choose its own attorney in the face of conflict.

"We are very pleased with the Judge's decision," commented Supervisor Max Wilson, chairman of the board. "The Board has always believed that we have acted legally and in the taxpayers' best interest. We are thrilled that Judge Daughton agrees with us."

Wilson said it was unfortunate that Thomas decided to litigate when many issues could have been resolved through mutual cooperation. "My fear now is that thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars will be spent on appeals," he added. "This waste of taxpayer dollars during this horrible economic downturn indicates that the County Attorney's pride is more important to him than the constituents he supposedly serves."

The board created the new office after having withdrawn county litigation from the county attorney's office in late December. At the time, board members raised concerns over Thomas's potential conflicts of interest in handling litigation involving the board and the escalating costs of outside counsel. Since 2004, costs of civil representation under Thomas have increased from $12.5 million to $22.1 million. And of that increase, 75 percent was due to the costs of private attorneys, who generally cost about three times as much as staff attorneys.

"For the past few years, we have seen an almost casual use of outside counsel for these legal matters," according to County Manager David Smith. "When it comes to litigation, the county pays for everything. It's time this got some scrutiny."

The new department will be funded primarily by reallocating some $527,530 from county attorney's budget used to pay for outside counsel, so it will not result in layoffs within the civil division of Thomas's office, county budget officials say.

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