On the morning of January 6, veteran prosecutor Cindi Nannetti received two visitors in her fifth-floor offices at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
There, the longtime chief of the agency's nationally respected sex-crimes unit learned from Phil MacDonnell and Sally Wells, top aides to new County Attorney Andrew Peyton Thomas, that she was being demoted.
Nannetti (who declined to discuss the matter with New Times) is Arizona's reigning "Prosecutor of the Year," selected last summer by the state's 15 county attorneys (including her former boss, Rick Romley). She was given one day to prepare for her new gig, which wound up being in juvenile court. A single mother of three, she got a pay cut, too.
The news about Nannetti was the most stunning, but not the only change announced in an e-mail MacDonnell sent to the entire staff shortly after he returned to his new office on the eighth floor of the county building.
Another surprising move was the removal of Paul McMurdie as division chief of the office's appeals unit. McMurdie is one of Arizona's experts on death-penalty law, and has earned the respect of even those who disagree with his prosecutorial bent.
Personnel shifts inevitably accompany changes of elected administrations, but Thomas' decision to demote the senior staffers has dismayed many.
"Andy certainly didn't share his thinking on this with me, but every county attorney does how he or she sees fit," Rick Romley says. "Cindi and Paul have national reputations equal to anyone at the office. Every county attorney in Arizona voted for Cindi last year as top prosecutor because of her work on the church stuff and the [Dr. Brian] Finkel case and so on. The way to gauge these decisions will be how things play out -- how law enforcement, victims' advocates, social services folks and others react."
Romley is politic, even out of office. But if early reaction to Nannetti's demotion is any indicator, Thomas' move is highly unpopular.
"Yes, this is a huge surprise," says Kimberly Yedowitz, a registered nurse for Scottsdale Healthcare who serves as chairperson of the Arizona Sexual Assault Network. "I find it amazing and interesting. This move will affect many levels of community endeavor, as Cindi has always been a step ahead nationally in development of protocol and teamwork processes. This just wasn't a job for her, it was a passion. It could be years before they fill the voids that will be left."
Neither Yedowitz nor anyone else contacted for this story had anything negative to say about Rachel Mitchell, Nannetti's replacement. Mitchell worked closely with Nannetti in prosecuting numerous priests and other high-profile cases, and previously supervised the sex-crimes unit's East Valley bureau.
Joanne Cacciatore, founder of the MISS Foundation -- a nonprofit organization that provides emergency support to families whose babies or young children die -- also expressed shock at Nannetti's demotion.
"Shame on them," says Cacciatore. "Cindi has been the heart and soul of this community in terms of bringing all kinds of people together -- victims, parents, law enforcement, the medical community, just everyone. I just don't understand this at all."
Adds Phoenix police spokesman Sergeant Randy Force, "If someone I loved was the victim of a sex crime, I really would want Cindi Nannetti to be working the case. She has prosecuted aggressively and fairly, and as a supervisor, she knew exactly what was needed from law enforcement to make a case work, and at the same time be sympathetic to the special needs of the victims."
The only leftover special assistant from former county attorney Rick Romley's administration is Barnett Lotstein. With his retirement pay and current salary, Lotstein will be collecting almost $200,000 per year as one of Thomas' spinmeisters.
Other new special assistants are office veterans Larry Turoff and Brad Astrowsky, and Fountain Hills attorney Mark Goldman, an early supporter of Thomas who is working pro bono, according to MacDonnell's e-mail.
Thomas also appointed Tom McDermott, Brad Smith, Tim LaSota and Rachel Alexander as special assistant/deputy county attorneys. The quartet has little experience in the practice of law, with Alexander having held a bar license for the longest time -- four and a half years.
MacDonnell, the new Number Two guy, will be making $150,000 a year, which is certainly less than he made as an all-purpose lobbyist at the Arizona Legislature, as a partner at Jennings, Strouss and Salmon, the venerable Phoenix law firm.
Known as an amiable, animated fellow -- a counter to his more taciturn new boss, Thomas -- MacDonnell served as chief lobbyist for such entities as the Arizona Newspaper Association, the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, school districts, and the state's beer and liquor industry.
Office spokesman Bill FitzGerald tells New Times that both MacDonnell and Thomas decline comment.
Al Macias, a spokesman for the county, says the Board of Supervisors approved the new positions and salaries in executive session last week. But Macias says the dollar amounts won't be announced until the board meets publicly next week. Both Nannetti and McMurdie are reportedly taking pay cuts, $6,000 and $12,000, respectively, from salaries over $100,000.
Before his election to office last November, Thomas, a Harvard-educated attorney, was probably best known for inflammatory screeds on such topics as child care, abortion, and other societal issues. He's certainly a kindred philosophical spirit with new special assistant Rachel Alexander, whose Web site intellectualconservative.com is replete with her musings on the evils of the "Left."
Alexander's presence also is a clear signal that the County Attorney's Office no longer will do battle with controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio over what Romley staffers often viewed as legally impermissible excesses.
In March 2002, Alexander and co-author Michael Lockwood published an essay titled "What's Really Happening in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Jail." The piece concluded that Arpaio is a shining example of law enforcement at its very best.
"Accusations that Arpaio is a publicity hound are misplaced," the pair wrote in part. "Arpaio generates publicity because he implements innovative programs that save taxpayers money and deter criminal behavior. If he was a passive sheriff who simply coddled inmates and gave them their cable television and pornography, so there weren't any complaints, he wouldn't make news . . .
"The media's accusations that he seeks out publicity are ironic, considering it is the media who is always calling Arpaio, not the other way around."
Last week was a memorable one for Alexander.
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Besides winning her new job, the Web site jerseyGOP.com named the young attorney as its "Republican BABE of the Week!" Previous winners have included Alexander's kindred political spirits Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, actresses Bo Derek and Shannen Doherty, and model Kim Alexis.
An accompanying blurb says "Rachel's strength lies in her unique style of investigative writing -- she has a knack for discovering new angles on issues and uncovering deception by the Left as a result of doing her own background work."
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