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Maricopa County’s Top Prosecutor Releases Misleading Attack Ad

Allister Adel paints herself as a reformer, but her record shows otherwise.

A screenshot from an Allister Adel campaign video.(Allister Adel/YouTube)

“Who is Julie Gunnigle?” a disembodied voice asks at the start of a campaign video from her opponent in the Maricopa county attorney’s race. A screenshot of Gunnigle appears, altered so her face and the city skyline behind her are tinted an ominous red.

“A radical, Chicago-style politician. Gunnigle protects violent criminals, not victims,” the voice answers, as a photo of a woman touching her bruised face appears on the screen alongside Gunnigle’s digitally distorted countenance. “Defund the police, close prisons, put criminals back on the streets,” the voice continues, as shadowy figures of men with their faces obscured loom on the screen.

The video is part of an ad campaign launched last week by Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel in which she attempts to paint herself as a reformer—despite her many actions to the contrary—and Democrat Julie Gunnigle as a “radical.” 

It’s an interesting move for the Republican candidate, who was appointed to the county attorney role last year after her predecessor left for a seat on the state Supreme Court. For decades, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has been led by Republican prosecutors who embraced harsh charging and sentencing policies. Though Adel has stated that she is “different from [her] predecessor,” her own charging and sentencing decisions often belie that claim. 

Adel’s office is trying to send Brian Stepter, a 61-year-old man with chronic respiratory problems, to prison for eight years for failing to return a rental car on time. Adel has also pursued DUI charges—four years after the crime occurred—against a veteran who had since turned her life around completely. And in her past as a prosecutor in the vehicular crimes unit, Adel sent a young man to prison for 51 years for causing a car accident that injured four people. In June, she told The Appeal she stands by that sentence.

“For her to call herself a reformer is just ridiculous,” said Jamaar Williams, a public defender and an organizer for Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix. “This is the most surface-level co-optation of the term. … [Adel is] making tweaks that are not even reform.”

Adel’s pivot to cast herself as a reformer leading up to the general election makes sense: Maricopa County’s political landscape is changing, and polls show there is broad bipartisan support among Arizona voters for criminal justice reform, indicating voters are concerned that the state has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country. Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and nearly 4.5 million residents, has long been a Republican stronghold, but it has shifted since President Trump’s emergence and is now poised to play an outsize role in deciding the presidential race. Voters there elected Democrats for county recorder and for sheriff in 2016, the first Democrats to win countywide races since 1988, and they helped swing a U.S. Senate seat to Democrats two years later. 

“The stakes are incredibly high,” Analise Ortiz, campaign strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona’s Smart Justice campaign, told The Appeal last month. “The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is the third-largest prosecuting agency in the nation. It cannot be understated the sheer impact this office has on mass incarceration in Arizona. And because criminal justice advocates have had such trouble passing reform at the state legislature, the county attorney’s office is where the most change can happen.”

The YouTube description of the attack ad produced by Adel’s campaign directs viewers to Reformer vs Radical, a sparse website paid for by Adel that contains a few misleading paragraphs about both Adel and Gunnigle.

The website’s messaging seems mixed—it claims that Gunnigle is faking her progressive stances, but also alleges that she is “too radical.” And though it tries to paint Gunnigle as a radical, it also tries to paint her as a “Chicago-style politician” who is corrupt and prosecutes innocent people.

Adel’s website said Gunnigle “mischarged cases” but did not elaborate. The site said Gunnigle “fled” Chicago and tried to remake herself in Arizona. But Gunnigle was born and raised in Arizona, and told The Appeal she returned after living in Chicago to raise her family there.

Adel’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Gunnigle did, however, face criticism during the Democratic primary for her role in the heavy-handed prosecution of a woman in Cook County (which includes Chicago)who spent 18 months in jail on computer tampering charges. The woman, Annabel Melongo, was held on a $300,000 bond after being arrested for recording phone conversations and posting them online. The eavesdropping statute that was used to arrest Melongo was later declared constitutional, and she sued and won a nearly $1 million settlement, which was paid for by taxpayers.

Adel’s website also says Gunnigle “supports defunding all law enforcement” and “eliminating resources to reduce crime in our neighborhoods,” mischaracterizing both Gunnigle’s stance on the issue and what defunding the police would actually do.

Gunnigle has expressed support for local activists’ demands to cut $25 million from the Phoenix Police Department’s budget and reallocate that money toward social services. They are not seeking to do away with the units of police departments that investigate crimes like rape and homicide, but to reduce the reliance on police officers to deal with social problems like homelessness, and as first responders when people are experiencing mental health crises. Activists are pushing to instead shift money from police budgets into programs that can address the root causes of violence.

“Allister Adel has realized that she cannot run on her current record of failure as a political appointee, so she has resorted to partisan bickering and name-calling,” Gunnigle told The Appeal. “Adel doesn’t understand basic criminal procedure like Brady lists, has admitted to using Google instead of government files to make charging decisions, is the subject of an ongoing bar complaint, and has a history of bigoted comments. Arizona residents deserve a Maricopa county attorney that actually understands the law.”

Adel’s Reformer vs Radical website also says she is a “compassionate but firm prosecutor” who ensures “the most dangerous offenders are held accountable but those who want to ‘do better and be better’ are given the opportunity and provided the resources necessary to do so.” Yet her office has zealously prosecuted Stepter, the 61-year-old with chronic respiratory problems and substance use issues, for not returning a rental car on time and has only offered plea deals that involve prison, though he has expressed a desire to do better and pay the fees owed to the rental car company. Through a campaign spokesperson, Adel also told The Appeal that she would continue to use punitive practices like charge stacking and Hannah priors when prosecuting cases.

Charging data published by Adel herself also calls her claims into question. The data shows that her office files charges for drug offenses more than any other crime. Under Adel’s leadership, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has filed charges for drug offenses in over 14,000 cases last year, the most recent year for which data is available.

“If you’re still charging drug possession and still sending people to prison for drug possession, and if during a pandemic you can’t help yourself but continue to file those, then maybe you aren’t a reformer,” said Katie Gipson-McLean, a public defender. “Her policy changes make me skeptical about whether they’re genuinely based on trying to be reform-minded or whether they’re a campaign ploy. The changes that she’s made already aren’t that revolutionary and are kind of the bare minimum for what people would expect.”

In the months leading up to the general election, Adel has announced a number of changes at the county attorney’s office, though her opponent and critics have dismissed the changes as a hollow attempt to ingratiate herself to voters that do little in the way of actual reform.

“The critics are upset that she is a principled and effective leader who is actually getting things done,” Adel’s campaign spokesperson previously told The Appeal via email.

In August, Adel implemented a new policy allowing anyone who was arrested for simple marijuana possession to avoid prosecution if they obtain a medical marijuana card. Critics have pointed out that the policy only helps those who can afford a card. Over the summer, Adel also published a dashboard with prosecution data on the county attorney’s website and stated that she did so to “support my vision for a more transparent process.” But, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, who had sued the county attorney’s office to release the data, Adel fought to withhold the information and released it only after the ACLU won the lawsuit. 

Likewise, Adel has said she would hold police officers accountable when there is evidence that they have committed a crime, but in January she did not bring charges against the police officer who killed Antonio Arce, a 14-year-old who was shot in the back last year while holding a toy gun. More recently, she declined to file charges against the Arizona state trooper who shot and killed Dion Johnson over Memorial Day weekend. She also stated that she used Google to research past misconduct committed by the officer, George Cervantes, instead of reviewing his disciplinary records, and did not take Cervantes’s past misconduct into account when making her decision, despite the fact that Cervantes previously used a stun gun on his puppy and threatened to kill his ex-wife’s fiancé. 

Adel also said she will not reopen the case of Muhammad Muhaymin, who was killed by police in 2017, unless Phoenix police resubmit it. Four Phoenix officers held Muhaymin down and knelt on him after he tried to enter a restroom at a community center with his service dog. No officers were disciplined or criminally charged. The case drew national attention after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police.

On her website, Adel also calls herself a reformer for supporting the mandated use of body-worn cameras for police officers in Arizona. But Muhaymin was killed on camera, while being mocked by Phoenix police officers. 

“People here have been abused or killed on camera,” Williams, the public defender and BLM organizer, told The Appeal. “You can’t create accountability by saying you support body cams. … It’s about not having the moral or ethical will to hold officers accountable.”