Loose Lips

Pop quiz time.

Which of the following statements are true:

a) Employees at a Mexican restaurant in central Phoenix went to work while they were sick, spreading a nasty bacterial infection to diners.

b) Raiding the home of a famous rapper, sheriff's deputies found crystal meth and/or cocaine.

c) A developer in the East Valley participated in "wanton destruction of Arizona's heritage resources."

d) All of the above.

If you regularly watch the news, or skim the Republic, you probably picked D. That's because every one of those statements was made, in press conferences and news releases, by a prominent public official.

The problem is, at least two of the statements are false.

County Attorney Andrew Thomas said at a televised press conference last year that employees at Ajo Al's passed a heinous bacterial infection to the restaurant's customers. But Ajo Al's owners fought back, and when the case finally made it to court, prosecutors admitted that they wouldn't even attempt to prove Thomas' press conference claims.

Yeah, the restaurant had a dirty can opener or two, and it wasn't storing some food properly. But the health department never found a link between employees and the bacteria in question. Thomas had just gotten a bit carried away.

So how about B?

Sheriff Joe Arpaio's staff recently had to back away from claims that sheriff's deputies found crystal meth or cocaine when deputies raided the Cave Creek home of rapper DMX. Turns out they found a bit of pot, but the "white powdery substance" they described wasn't meth. It wasn't coke. It was, in fact, a completely legal substance.

And that brings me to C.

This one is a bit trickier. We don't know, yet, whether Attorney General Terry Goddard's statement about a local developer pillaging the land is true. Goddard's case against the developer, George Johnson, is still pending in court, as is Johnson's libel suit against Goddard.

But we do know this: After Johnson sued Goddard, Goddard didn't claim that the case should be dismissed because he'd spoken the truth. (That's always the best defense in a libel case.) He didn't even argue that he was acting in good faith, that he thought his statement was true. (Legally, that's good enough for a public official like Goddard.)

Instead, Goddard attempted a power grab. In his appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court, Goddard is actually arguing that, as attorney general, he should have "absolute immunity."

Basically, Goddard wants the right to lie like a dog — the right to knowingly, even maliciously, say whatever the hell he wants, without any recourse for anybody who is slandered along the way.

I only wish I were kidding.

Obviously, it's way too much to ask that our politicians triple-check their facts before they open their yappers. But I can't believe that we're even debating whether they should have to act in good faith. It doesn't matter whether the cameras are rolling. That simply ought to be a given.

It's bad enough that a prosecutor who isn't paying attention to detail can nearly drive a family-owned restaurant like Ajo Al's out of business. Give politicians in this state absolute immunity and, the next thing you know, they'll all be claiming that their political opponents did something as heinous as raping their own mothers.

Oh, wait . . . They're already doing that, aren't they?

Knowing everything we know about Sheriff Joe, it's no surprise that his staff decided to smear his political rival, Dan Saban, by releasing a dubious allegation against Saban to a TV reporter.

And while County Attorney Andrew Thomas certainly seems a whole lot more ethical than Arpaio, it's not hard to imagine him taking the low road.

But that's never been Terry Goddard's style. No one could accuse Goddard of being too aggressive, much less malicious. He's just so darn nice, a milquetoasty beta male more interested in inveighing against easy targets like crystal meth and predatory lenders than taking on controversy. (Indeed, the biggest question among his staff may be what he does all day.) He may want to be governor, but he's no Eliot Spitzer.

And that's why I was so shocked to hear that Goddard, of all people, was claiming that he needed the absolute right to run his mouth.

As a prosecutor, Goddard already has limited immunity. Attorneys general can't be sued, for example, for things they say in the courtroom, arguing a case, or stuff they write in legal briefs.

Paul Bender is a professor at the Arizona State University Law School — as well as its dean emeritus and the former principal deputy solicitor general of the United States. Under current law, he says, Goddard can't be sued just because he violates someone's rights. As an elected state official, he'd have to do something egregious, or grossly negligent.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske