Longform

Is Nothing Sacred?: Apparently Not in Joe Arpaio and Andrew Thomas’ Wacked Legal World

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe could not be more different from Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Donahoe is as sober as, well, a judge and has exactly zero media savvy. The bellicose Arpaio lives for media "events."

Donahoe, who is the county's criminal presiding judge, is nearing retirement.

When the 77-year-old Arpaio finally has to call it a career, he may have to be dragged out of his office in downtown Phoenix.

Judge Donahoe's record over two decades on the bench reflects a conservative, law-and-order bent (forget the grossly inaccurate recent attempts by Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas to typecast him as "soft" on defendants).

To Arpaio and his kindred spirit, Thomas, the rule of law is whatever they say it is.

Their theme in recent months has been that the executive and judicial branches of Maricopa County are populated with corrupt individuals primed, essentially, to bring down the American way of life.

The ubiquitous pair have alleged in civil lawsuits and a criminal complaint that Judge Donahoe is at the epicenter of a sinister conspiracy with judicial colleagues, the county Board of Supervisors, and a local law firm that does business with Maricopa County.

Andy Thomas has dubbed it a "triad," sounding like Joe McCarthy, the demagogic senator from Wisconsin who ruined many lives in the late 1940s and early 1950s with his bleatings about communists.

Thomas and Arpaio increasingly have become addicted to launching investigations against any and all political enemies, real and invented. It's not just about ACLU attorneys, illegal immigrants, electoral opponents, and newspaper publishers anymore.

On December 9, Thomas and Arpaio accused Donahoe of several felonious acts, alleging that he had committed bribery, obstructed justice, and hindered a potential prosecution of alleged malfeasance in the construction of the Superior Court tower.

The criminal "case" against Donahoe seems to many insiders — including, privately, several prosecutors in Thomas' own office — a pathetically thin, a politically motivated hit job.

But it's especially important to remember, as journalist Edward R. Murrow once said of Senator McCarthy, that "accusation is not proof and that conviction depends on evidence and due process of law."

Coincidentally or not, the criminal filing against Donahoe came less than two weeks after the judge ordered Adam Stoddard, a sheriff's detention officer, to jail after a highly charged contempt-of-court case.

Stoddard had rifled through defense attorney Joanne Cuccia's private legal file inside the courtroom of Judge Lisa Flores as the attorney addressed the judge during an October 19 sentencing hearing.

The detention officer removed three pages, the contents of a letter from defendant Antonio Lozano to his attorney, Cuccia, who works for the Office of the Legal Defender.

The officer's maneuver was outrageous on several levels and, perhaps, unprecedented in Maricopa County.

In fact, New Times could find no other case nationwide in which a detention officer or other courtroom security official had been caught poking around in a defense attorney's file without notifying a judge about his or her emergent concerns.

Lozano's letter should have been protected from scrutiny under attorney-client privilege, which the American Bar Association says "is fundamental to preserve the constitutionally based right to effective assistance of legal counsel."

But Stoddard would later claim he was justified in violating this sacred trust. He said that four words he read in the few inches of the letter in "plain view" outside the bottom of the file had alerted him to a potential security risk.

Those four non-sequential words were "going to" "steal" and "money."

Stoddard then had proceeded to quietly hand the pages to a sheriff's deputy for copying. He later stuck them back into the file during a near-chaotic courtroom scene that ensued after Lozano realized what was happening.

It occurred as courtroom cameras captured everything.

The remarkable recording propelled the story onto the national stage. (The video of the incident has been played more than 114,000 times on YouTube).

Stoddard's brazenness evoked outrage in many viewers, though steadfast supporters of Joe Arpaio — and there is a legion — applauded the detention officer's chutzpah.

Judge Donahoe would find Stoddard in contempt of court for invading the defense attorney's files.

It is uncertain whether Donahoe's proposed punishment of the detention officer angered Arpaio and Thomas enough to expedite their criminal case against the judge.

But it is safe to say that it escalated the war against county judges overall.

On November 17, the judge ordered Adam Stoddard to apologize in a press conference on the plaza of the Superior Court complex in downtown Phoenix.

The judge told Stoddard to offer attorney Cuccia "a sincere verbal and written apology for "invading her defense file and for the damage that his conduct may have caused to her professional reputation."

If Cuccia expressed dissatisfaction with the apology, Stoddard would have to report to jail — as an inmate.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin