Did top Maricopa County officials fire Maria Brandon, a longtime county lawyer, because she appeared to side with disgraced former sheriff's official Dave Hendershott in a newspaper article?
Or, as the county says, was Brandon fired solely because she instigated a catfight with a paralegal at the office in which the paralegal threatened to kick Brandon's butt?
A federal jury of five men and three women is deciding those questions today following a week of testimony from officials including County Attorney Bill Montgomery.
The lawsuit is a holdover from the intense infighting among county officials that took place when Sheriff Joe Arpaio was allied with former County Attorney Andrew Thomas, and has resulted in some of the weirdness that marked the era.
As we've reported previously, Brandon launched the lawsuit in 2012, alleging wrongful termination and violation of her First And Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Brandon's worked for the county as a lawyer since 1979. Her career hasn't always been smooth -- for instance, she and Vincent Imbordino, who's still employed with the county attorney's office as a prosecutor, were removed from a death-penalty case in 1981 after it was discovered they were "romantically involved," according to a 1984 news report. Employee evaluations over the years show that her people skills may not always be the best, but she's generally been considered a good lawyer. She's working as a part-time court commissioner -- like a junior judge -- for the county these days.
In 2010, she angered county officials after her quotes and leaked memos to Hendershott showed up in an Arizona Republic article by Craig Harris and Yvonne Wingett. While working to defend Arpaio from lawsuits, Brandon had been critical of a county decision to inflate settlement payments to demonstrators whose rights had been violated by Arpaio's deputies.
In retrospect, the final settlements authorized by the county do seem out of whack. Brandon had recommended the seven protesters receive a total of $52,000. After intervention by county lawyers and Rocky Armfield, former risk manager, the amount was bumped up to nearly half a million dollars.
Testimony at the trial showed that Armfield and deputy county manager Sandi Wilson were concerned about the article, and that their concern led to Brandon's being stripped of the ability to work on risk management cases for the county, which are 85 or 90 percent of the cases the office handles.
Doug Irish, head of the civil-services division for the county attorney's office, testified that the article was cited as reason for taking cases away from Brandon.
Quick bit of background:
he county attorney's office had been rent in two during the Thomas days, following the indictment of former County Supervisor Don Stapley. Rightfully suspicious about Thomas, the Supervisors' lawyer, also working on criminal investigations of Supervisors, the Board voted to create a separate civil-law division and de-fund Thomas' civil division.
Brandon, a former civil-practice lawyer under Thomas, found herself working under direct county management. Then, after a judge ordered the county to return the civil-law work to the county attorney's office, making that office whole again under Bill Montgomery, the new county attorney, Brandon and other lawyers were encouraged to re-apply for their jobs with the county attorney's office.
One big problem that later surfaced for Brandon, though, was that these in-between employees were put on probation, a status that allowed the county to fire them for any reason without a hearing.
Testimony showed that the county attorney's office essentially cut a deal with county officials to have Brandon's risk-management cases taken away. Montgomery, at one point in the trial, testified that he didn't know about the deal before agreeing to hire Brandon back into his office -- but that he would rather know about such things before hiring people.
Brandon was distraught over the taking away of the cases and officials wouldn't give her a good reason for it. Her concern led her to enter the office of paralegal Jackie Garcia one day and question her about who was behind the action. Witnesses heard "loud voices" coming from the office. But when the two emerged from the office, Brandon was seen as "calm" while Garcia exploded on her and grabbed her elbow, "guiding" her toward the office of Brandon's supervisor, Tom Liddy.
Garcia cursed at Brandon in front of other office workers.
"I said, 'I didn't fucking touch you,'" Garcias admitted on the witness stand. "I ... said 'if had wanted to touch you, I would have kicked your butt.'"
Another witness remembers Garcia's line as "I'll fucking kick your ass!"
In one of the more memorable moments of the trial, it was revealed that Karen Ashley, an internal affairs investigator for the county attorney's office, was reportedly stunned at Garcia's candor in an interview after the incident, saying that in "countless" interviews with police officers, they never admitted to or "owned up to" what they did.
Mark Faull, Montgomery's chief deputy, signed off on Brandon's firing. He claimed on the stand that he agreed to fire Brandon solely because of the incident with Garcia. Yet he admitted he'd interviewed Garcia after the incident, but not Brandon.
Garcia was punished more mildly for the altercation, receiving a five-day unpaid suspension.
"I believe (Brandon) started the incident," Faull testified. "Her behavior was inappropriate."
Larry Cohen, Brandon's lawyer, told the jury that the Garcia incident was merely the "pretext" for getting rid of Brandon after county managers told Doug Irish they didn't trust her.
While the county's version of Brandon's firing doesn't pass the smell test, the county's defense had a couple of things going for it: When Brandon was transferred back into the county attorney's office, she -- like other attorneys going through the same thing -- was put on probation. Plus, attorneys were not considered "classified" employees, meaning they didn't have the same legal protections. County officials claimed they were well within their rights to fire Brandon for any reason without a hearing, and that's what they did. Garcia, on the other hand, as a merit-rules-protected, classified employee, could not have been fired so easily, even if that's what officials had decided to do.
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We'll let you know what the jury decides, so stay tuned.
Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.