Special Master Ruth McGregor Sets Hearing to "Prosecute" MCSO in Contempt Case

We'll say this for Ruth McGregor, the newly appointed "special master" for the ongoing county legal disputes: She does not mess around.

Just a few days ago, McGregor summarily rejected Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas' request that she order the hiring of "celebrity prosecutors" to handle the cases against Supervisors Don Stapley and Mary Rose Wilcox. Today, she's beginning the clean-up of another long-simmering dispute: the judiciary's attempts to sanction a top Maricopa County Sheriff's officer for failing to get inmates to court on time.

In newly issued minutes entries, McGregor appointed Yavapai County's Presiding Superior Court Judge Robert Brutinel to hear the case against David Trombi, the chief deputy in charge of getting inmates to court. She set a hearing for February 5 -- just one short week from today.

The county's presiding judge then appointed Jeff Messing, a Phoenix-based attorney, to serve as "prosecutor" in the case against Trombi.

Messing's name, if not Brutinel's, should be familiar to New Times readers. Messing, an attorney at Poli & Ball, was randomly assigned to pursue the SCA campaign-finance case, back when it was merely a gleam in David Hendershott's eye. Messing doggedly held the slippery sheriff's captain at the center of the scandal to the fire -- eventually forcing Captain Joel Fox to cough up the names of the donors to the secret fund that financed TV ads smearing the sheriff's opponent.  

In the SCA case, Messing proved that he could deal with Fox's half-truths and evasions. It'll be interesting to see how he deals with Trombi.

As some readers may recall, this case began back in 2007, when Anna Baca, then the court's presiding criminal court judge, attempted to deal with the sheriff's perpetual failure to get inmates to court on time. When the Sheriff's Office kept messing up, Baca's replacement, Judge Donahoe, last summer ordered Deputy Chief Trombi to appear before him and explain why he wasn't in contempt of that order.

After a bunch of back and forth, Donahoe ruled in September 2009 that Trombi was, in fact, in contempt. Because the MCSO had forced jurors, lawyers, and judges to wait, Judge Donahoe ordered that Trombi pay a series of fines to those people. The judge also ordered Trombi to sign an agreement saying that "absent extraordinary cirumstances," the Sheriff's Office would get inmates to court on time -- or else pay a fine of $2,000.

The sheriff appealed that fine to the appellate court, and won a minor victory when the court said that Judge Donahoe had made a small procedural error. Yes, Judge Donahoe was within his rights to hold Trombi accountable, the appellate panel concluded, and he had a right to order that $2,000 fine.

But, the appellate court judges said, Donahoe couldn't require Trombi to pay fines to the people inconvenienced by his delays -- jurors, lawyers, and judges -- without going through a certain procedure to prove Trombi's conduct was willful. The appellate panel left the door open for Donahoe to do just that. 

But something got in the way of Judge Donahoe continuing work on the Trombi matter -- the Sheriff's Office and county attorney charged him in a criminal complaint. One example of Judge Donahoe's supposed criminality was his handling of the Trombi case. (Seriously.)

So Donahoe's out -- but thanks to Special Master McGregor, Judge Brutinel is in, and Jeff Messing is on the case.

The good news is: Criminal case or no criminal case, McGregor is clearly not letting the MCSO off the hook for its lack of punctuality.

The even better news: Did we tell you Jeff Messing is on the case?

Stay tuned. We hope to have even more good news after the hearing February 5...

CORRECTION: We incorrectly reported in an earlier version of this story that McGregor appointed Messing to prosecute the Trombi matter. That was incorrect. As the story now reflects, McGregor set the hearing date and chose a judge -- the county's presiding judge then picked Messing to prosecute. We regret the initial error.