Penzone's Office to Pay Inmate $175,000 for Reading His Legal Mail

Thomas Bastian
Thomas Bastian Arizona Department of Corrections

State prosecutors dismissed terrorism charges against an inmate just weeks after the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office agreed to pay him $175,000 for violating his constitutional rights.

Thomas Orville Bastian faced five felonies related to claims that he asked his wife to smuggle plans for an explosive device into Lewis State Prison in Buckeye, where he was serving a life sentence for murder. Bastian's wife, Michelle Marie Bastian, was sentenced to nearly nine years in prison for the alleged scheme.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich's office in 2016 filed additional charges against Thomas Bastian, including terrorism, promoting prison contraband, possessing a prohibited weapon, and two counts of furnishing advice to a criminal syndicate.

But the state's case hit a snag after Bastian raised suspicions that Maricopa County jail officers snooped on his legal mail. The intrusions occurred at the Fourth Avenue Jail, where Bastian awaited trial for his terrorism case.

Bastian's claims were confirmed by a state judge.

In March 2019, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Danielle Viola ruled that MCSO employees "opened, copied, and read" Bastian's legal mail outside his presence — violating his First and Sixth Amendment rights — and then lied to the court about the privacy intrusions.

Just two months later, on May 7, MCSO agreed to pay Bastian $175,000.

The settlement — obtained by Phoenix New Times through a public records request — prevents Bastian from filing a civil rights lawsuit against MCSO, Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, and several jail employees who read his legal mail before covering up their intrusions.

Holly Gieszl, Bastian's attorney, said the large sum should serve as a lesson to Penzone, who won his election on promises to reform former Sheriff Joe Arpaio's disgraced department.

click to enlarge Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone - SEAN HOLSTEGE
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone
Sean Holstege
"A lot of people hoped that Penzone was going to bring about a lot of needed changes, and he has, but the sheriff is not being well-served by people under him," Gieszl said. "He needs to be sure the men and women below him have his back on constitutional issues."

About two weeks after the agency reached its agreement with Bastian, Viola dismissed all terrorism charges against him. Viola had the Attorney General office's blessings. 

"Our office recently became aware of information that we believe makes a reasonable likelihood of conviction for Mr. Bastian on terrorism charges unlikely," AG's Office spokesperson Ryan Anderson said. "More importantly, we felt it was necessary to dismiss the case given our ethical obligations."

Viola, in her scathing ruling describing "outrageous" and "appalling" conduct, wrote that MCSO employees opened at least 17 pieces of Bastian's legal mail outside his presence and failed to deliver six of his letters to his legal team.

Viola also found that the employees shared the contents of Bastion's mail with the AG's office and the FBI.

Viola's ruling focused on the actions of three MCSO corrections officers who were later added to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office's Brady List of dishonest officers over the wrongdoing.

Central to the case was a binder containing copies of Bastian's mail. Corrections officers maintained the binder to comply with a broad subpoena from the AG's Office.

If they had kept it at non-legal mail, there wouldn't have been a problem. Jail detainees should expect to have their personal mail inspected. Legal mail, however, should be protected by attorney-client privilege.

The three MCSO corrections officers attempted to cover up their intrusions by lying to the court. Or as Viola put it, "certain witnesses provided testimony that was not truthful."

Sergeant Tara Spaulding, the jail intelligence supervisor, falsely claimed in a four-day evidentiary hearing last year that Bastian's legal mail was only opened by accident once, and that her unit did not keep a binder of the detainee's letters. Officer Christopher Williamson also falsely denied that they kept the binder.

Officer Brad Landry contradicted his colleagues by revealing to the court the existence of the binder. Landry, however, lied to the court about having not read Bastian's legal mail, Viola ruled. Landry's dishonesty was evident because he relayed the contents of a legal letter "almost verbatim" to an FBI agent

Represented by Maricopa County deputy attorneys, the three officers filed a motion for Viola to reconsider her ruling, claiming they answered questions from attorneys to the best of their knowledge. Their filing made a point to mention that Viola's ruling resulted in their placement on the Brady list, "which will follow them throughout their careers."

Following the court's dismissal of his terrorism charges, Bastian was released from Fourth Avenue Jail on May 17. He is continuing to serve his life sentence at Eyman State Prison in Florence. 
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh