Maria Brandon's federal wrongful-firing complaint is a messy leftover of years of infighting among Maricopa County officials.
But unlike lawsuits that have resulted in millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded settlement payouts to former county leaders and judges, this one's gone to trial.
The veteran lawyer accuses her former bosses at the County Attorney's Office of retaliating against and firing her in 2011, essentially because she was too good at her job defending Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
On Tuesday, as the trial at the federal courthouse in Phoenix kicked off, Brandon took the stand and described how county leaders conspired to retaliate against her after she talked to an Arizona Republic reporter.
County Attorney Bill Montgomery and several top officials in his office, such as Tom Liddy, are scheduled to testify at some point. So is Sandi Wilson, deputy county manager, and Rocky Armfield, former county risk manager who's now the director of risk management for the Maricopa Integrated Health System. The latter three were in the courtroom observing the first day of proceedings on Tuesday.
Brandon filed her federal complaint in April 2012. She's been a lawyer for a long time -- a very long time. The Donny and Marie Show was still on the air in 1979, when she started as a lawyer for the county. She's worked for the County Attorney's Office since 1986. These days, she's working as a part-time county court commissioner.
A few years ago, in the chaos of the "unholy collaboration" of disgraced ex-County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Brandon got stuck defending -- among other things -- lawsuits against Arpaio's office. In particular, she represented the Sheriff's Office in a case brought by seven protesters arrested in 2008. She figured the protesters, whose trumped-up criminal cases had all been dropped, could get by on $7,500 or less each to settle their subsequent civil lawsuits.
After two county lawyers and Armfield persuaded the county's self-insured trust board to raise the payout limit to a maximum of $100,000 per protester, a July 9, 2010 article by Craig Harris and Yvonne Wingett detailed the settlement amounts:
* Monica Sandschafer and Kristy Theilen each $99,999.
* Jason Odhner and Joel Nelson each $75,000.
* Guillermina Bethancourt and Ayensa Millan each $50,000.
* Raquel Teran $24,700.
On Tuesday, Brandon recalled getting Harris' phone call seeking comment on memos she'd authored that had leaked out of the MCSO. She told him she couldn't talk about them due to attorney-client privilege.
The public release of the memos, it's clear from the 2010 article, would have been embarrassing to county leaders. In them, Brandon told Arpaio's former chief deputy, Dave Hendershott, that:
"...the county intended to start discussions with an offer of $2,000 per person and had no intention of giving away a lot of money...
"In a July 2 memo, Brandon stated that she and Armfield argued about the protesters, and he said it was OK to protest at the county's headquarters.
"'He says the animal masks and pig snouts are for 'fun.' I said, 'Will they like it the next time if it is skinheads and neo Nazis?' ' Brandon wrote."
The article also served as a platform for Hendershott, the likely source of the leaked memos, to blast the county for the expensive settlements, which he called a "fraud."
In response to questions from her lawyer, Larry Cohen, Brandon recalled on the stand that Armfield called her after the article was published, asking for a copy of the memos. She told him she couldn't turn them over to him unless the Sheriff's Office agreed it was okay.
No one brought up the article until May 2011. After settling back into the office following her return from a vacation and work-related seminar, she noticed that she hadn't been assigned any new cases, she testified.
She asked Liddy what was going on. He told her that Armfield and Wilson didn't trust her work and that the Board of Supervisors had discussed her during an executive session, Brandon said. Wilson reportedly had asked Liddy, "What are we going to do about Maria?"
Liddy told her the problem Wilson had with her regarded her handling of a 1998 lawsuit for the county, Brandon said.
As documents filed in the lawsuit show, though, the county seems to have tied her firing to a June 2011 squabble between Brandon and a paralegal named Jackie Garcia at the County Attorney's Office. A squabble in which Garcia, a detective decided after interviewing witnesses, had been the aggressor.
Legal secretary Nadxiely Valerio stood next to the two women as they began to argue. Garcia, normally a quiet woman, was unusually loud, Valerio reported. It's unclear what the argument was about. Garcia said something like she was "done with this shit" or "something like I'm tired of this shit to Maria and then she said like you're not going to bully me like you bully everyone else in here," according to a report by Karen Ashley, a detective with the county attorney's professional standards unit.
Garcia then grabbed Brandon's elbow, and Brandon pushed back, yelling.
"Jackie... was like mad, and she was like, 'I'll fucking kick your ass' and, um, I was like, oh, my God," Valerio told Ashley.
Garcia received five days' suspension without pay. Jurors presumably will hear every detail of this story in coming testimony.
Brandon claims that Liddy fired her from her $134,000-a-year job two days after the incident, furious that when it had occurred, he'd been out of the office and she complained to his boss, Doug Irish. Brandon's lawsuit states that when Liddy returned to his office "he got a call from Bill Montgomery, and Montgomery said, 'What the hell is going on down there?' Liddy was upset about the way it looked to Montgomery because he was out of the office at the time the incident occurred."
At the heart of this case is the transition that took place in the office after Thomas resigned (he would later lose his law license), Rick Romley served as interim county attorney, and Montgomery was elected. Liddy, says Brandon's lawsuit, "likened the atmosphere to the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, when there were lynchings."
Will this case end with another large payout to a plaintiff? It's different from the others -- they were all anti-Arpaio and Hendershott. Brandon comes off as something of a believer in the wrong side.
So does Montgomery. We asked him at a recent news conference whether he believed the facts as presented in a settlement agreement by County Supervisor Andy Kunasek. In the agreement, under which the county paid $123,000 of Kunasek's legal bills, Kunasek alleges Thomas and Arpaio named him in a bogus federal racketeering lawsuit "for the sole purpose of retaliation for budgeting restraints" on the pair's offices.
"I don't know the truth of that," Montgomery said.
Lastly, we have to point out that Michele Iafrate, a private attorney is representing the county. That's ironic, considering she's done more legal work on Arpaio's antics than Brandon. We know that from experience, because it was her grousing to the sheriff's office about our arguing that sparked an unwarranted criminal complaint for disorderly conduct we had to fight for about a year, until the charge was dropped.
(Our argument, by the way, had been over what we perceived as our right under Arizona law to photograph printed-out copies of emails we had requested from the Sheriff's Office. State Attorney General Tom Horne confirmed in a December legal opinion that Arizonans have the right to take pictures or electronically scan in public records at no charge.)
Brandon's trial should be interesting on several levels. Stay tuned.
Follow Ray Stern on Twitter: @RayStern
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