Maricopa County Craziness

Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Favorite Law Firm, Ogletree Deakins, Cost Taxpayers $2.4 Million -- in Just Two Years

The battle for control of Maricopa County -- pitting Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas against the Board of Supervisors, judges, and county administrators -- has been costly to both taxpayers and the parties involved.

But it's been a major boon to one local law firm.

Ogletree Deakins, a relatively obscure firm specializing in employment law, became Arpaio and Thomas' go-to legal counsel just as the disputes were heating up. And, according to public records obtained by New Times, the firm has billed the county for a staggering $2.49 million since January 2009.

Most of the work had little to do with employment law -- and most of the firm's representation has been unsuccessful, legally speaking.

Ogletree Deakins has fought for the sheriff's right to take over the county's computer system. They tried to argue that the supervisors didn't have the right to sweep money from funds controlled by Thomas and Arpaio. They're currently pressing Arpaio's assertion that he shouldn't have to open his books to county auditors.

And, according to the billing records we looked at, it appears likely that Ogletree lawyers may have even been behind one of Arpaio/Thomas' biggest embarassments: the criminal charges they filed against the county's presiding criminal court judge, Gary Donahoe.

As New Times first reported earlier this month, prosecutors filed criminal charges against Donahoe without bothering to seek a grand jury indictment. They simply filed a direct complaint, and attached a "probable cause" statement that, almost word for word, matched a complaint that the sheriff's office had filed with the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct one week before. That complaint, detailing a conspiracy theorist's view of Judge Donahoe's conduct, was signed by Arpaio's chief deputy, David Hendershott.

It now appears that Hendershott had some help penning the letter.

According to its billing statements, Ogletree charged the county $27,310 for something titled "MCSO State Bar/Judicial." The first two invoices with that notation were submitted on December 1, 2009 -- just one day after Hendershott filed "his" complaint with the judicial conduct commission.

So did an employment law specialist draft the document that became the basis for the criminal charges against the county's presiding criminal court judge? If nothing else, it would explain why the document drew guffaws from seasoned prosecutors. Ogletree's lawyers were likely in way over their heads. (And really, what was prosecutor Lisa Aubuchon thinking, merely regurgitating Ogletree's letter as a criminal complaint?)

According to the billing statements examined by New Times, Ogletree also advised Andrew Thomas on matters involving the State Bar. (That cost the taxpayers $18,929). And, they advised either Arpaio or Thomas -- the billings aren't clear -- about issues relating to the selection of a new county attorney. (That cost us another $12,762.)

Finally, Ogletree billed the county a staggering $1.2 million for something described only as "contract compliance." County Spokeswoman Cari Gerchick told New Times that county administrators have no idea what that means.

We contacted L. Eric Dowell, a shareholder at Ogletree Deakins and the sheriff's lawyer of choice, to ask about the "contract compliance" payments, but we hadn't heard back by press time. We'll post an update if we get an answer.

In the mean time, looking at the wasted $2.4 million and the unexplained $1.2 million and the tens of thousands of dollars for failed legal adventures -- well, we never thought we'd say this, but we actually miss Dennis Wilenchik. Yes, New Times disagreed with Wilenchik on just about everything. But Wilenchik handled some pretty tough cases for Arpaio, not just political crap that should have never made its way to a docket.

And Wilenchik, unlike the sheriff's new $2-million-counsel, actually knew how to win.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske