Gunnigle Misfires in Claim That Adel Scrapped County's Public Corruption Unit

Democrat Julie Gunnigle (left) is challenging Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel for her seat.
Democrat Julie Gunnigle (left) is challenging Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel for her seat. Allister Adel's reelection campaign & Ash Ponders
Julie Gunnigle, a Democrat challenging Republican incumbent Allister Adel in the race for Maricopa County Attorney's Office, has claimed that her opponent eliminated the agency's specialized unit for prosecuting public corruption.

The claim is inaccurate. But her campaign isn't walking back the assertion and still features it on some of their online materials.

In an interview with New Times in early September, Gunnigle said, "I was dismayed to learn that one of the reforms that Adel brought to the office was disbanding the public corruption unit." More recently, her campaign rolled out a new website attacking Adel that features a segment that reiterates this claim.

"Just two months into her appointment as County Attorney, Allister Adel dismantled the Special Crimes Bureau which was charged with investigating public corruption," the site states. And media resource page on her campaign's website also pushes this notion, stating, "After Adel is Appointed, the Special Crimes Bureau, Which Investigated Public Corruption, Was Dismantled. As of December 2019, shortly after Adel took office, the Special Crimes Bureau was removed from the organizational chart."

But Ken Vick, chief deputy at Maricopa County Attorney's Office, told New Times that the prosecutorial unit that Gunnigle's campaign refers to, the Special Crimes Bureau, was renamed the "White Collar and Cyber Crimes Bureau" during a reorganization of the agency that Adel orchestrated after her appointment to the position in late 2019. The newly renamed Special Crimes Bureau still handles public corruption cases and is staffed at a higher level than it was before Adel took over the agency.

Gunnigle has made fighting public corruption a fixture of her campaign. For instance, her online platform includes a general promise to "prosecute political corruption" while a campaign ad touts her commitment to go after state legislators who commit crimes. The notion that County Attorney Adel axed the agency responsible for going after corrupt officials fits into these themes.

The agency did lack a "public corruption unit" prior to Adel taking over, but the Special Crimes Bureau handled any corruption cases in addition to a variety of other kinds of cases. Staffed with six attorneys and some support staff, it handled a variety of cases like complex fraud, police officers who committed a crime in the course of their work, and arson. The bureau would have also handled embezzlement cases involving public officials.

"Let's say you have a staff person at a Justice Court stealing money from the court," Vick said. "They [the bureau] would handle that type of case."

Some of the cases that the Special Crimes Bureau handled include one against an undercover officer who developed a relationship with a subject of an investigation (the defendant in that case took a plea deal), and an air quality control officer who tried to solicit a bribe from a business in exchange for dropping air quality violations, according to Jennifer Liewer, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

When Adel was appointed, she started a broad reorganization of the agency that included the bureau's name change.

The Special Crimes Bureau was rebranded as the "White Collar and Cyber Crimes Bureau." The unit received more fraud cases from the Fraud and Identity Theft Enforcement Bureau, which was eliminated. Some of the more random caseloads, like arson, were shifted out of the unit. It kept cases involving cops who commit crimes, terrorism cases, "conflict of interest" cases involving public officials, and public corruption cases like embezzlement and fraud. The bureau took in an additional attorney in the reorganization, boosting its head-count from six to seven.

"Nothing that the County Attorney did with reorganization would impact the handling of any of these cases," Liewer wrote.

When asked whether the Gunnigle campaign's claims about the Special Crimes Bureau were misleading, Marcus Ismael, a spokesperson for the campaign, went on the defensive, arguing that the campaign couldn't have known that the Special Crimes Bureau wasn't, in fact, eliminated after Adel came into office.

"Well, that information that you’re telling me now, there’s no way that we could have verified it and we have a pretty solid research team," he said. "The reason we’re standing by our site is that there’s simply no way what they’re saying is borne out by what we could find publicly online or any other way."

While Ismael said that the campaign likely won't be pushing the claim in the final weeks of the election, they aren't going to change the claim on their new anti-Adel website that Adel "dismantled the Special Crimes Bureau which was charged with investigating public corruption."

"I don’t think we’re going to push this angle, the site is going to remain unchanged," Ismael added. "Voters are not going to pay attention to attack sites published by people running for office."

Lorna Romero, a spokesperson for Adel's reelection campaign, characteristically slammed Gunnigle's campaign over the claims.

"This is another example of Julie Gunnigle spreading pathetic lies in an effort to hide the fact that she lacks the knowledge, experience and professionalism to be Maricopa County Attorney," she wrote. "Julie's entire campaign has been focused on empty rhetoric, baseless attacks, and make-believe opponents while Allister Adel has implemented significant and meaningful reforms to our criminal justice system. Next time, Julie should do a little research about the actual job she is seeking before deciding to run for office."

Gunnigle isn't alone in making misleading or inaccurate claims in the campaign season. In a website knocking Gunnigle as both a leftist radical and a hard-line excessively punitive prosecutor, Adel's campaign misconstrued Gunnigle's position on defunding the police, a common rallying cry for anti-police brutality activists.
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety