In Arizona, a County Attorney Candidate’s Past Seems To Contradict Her Pro-Reform Stance
Julie Gunnigle, who is running in Maricopa County, says she supports alternatives to incarceration. But a decade ago in Illinois, she prosecuted a woman for recording phone calls and helped put her in jail for 18 months.
Julie Gunnigle is one of three Democrats vying to become the top prosecutor in Arizona’s Maricopa County, the fourth most-populous county in the U.S. An Arizona native, Gunnigle has billed herself as a strong supporter of criminal justice reform who would break from the county’s historically harsh approach to charging and sentencing if elected.
But as she heads into the final stretch of the race—the primary is Tuesday—Gunnigle finds herself having to contend with a controversy from her past. A decade-old case from her time as a prosecutor in Cook County, Illinois, has caused a stir on the campaign trail and raised doubts about her commitment to some of the stances she’s taken during the race.
While in Cook County, Gunnigle helped prosecute Annabel Melongo, who is Black, first for alleged computer tampering, then for recording and publishing a conversation with a court reporter. Eight years, two trials, and one appeal later, Melongo beat all the charges against her. But she spent a year and a half jailed on a $300,000 bond in the process, and at one point had to undergo a hysterectomy while handcuffed to an operating table. In 2013, Melongo filed a lawsuit against Gunnigle and a slew of other public officials over what she alleged was a malicious prosecution and wrongful arrest.
Gunnigle said the suit was dismissed with prejudice and that she paid nothing. But the suit was dismissed only because a settlement was reached, and Cook County taxpayers shelled out nearly $1 million to pay for it in October of last year. And although Gunnigle has painted Melongo as a “deep-state conspiracy” theorist who sued her over some baseless plot, Melongo alleged that Gunnigle and others lacked probable cause to arrest her and retaliated against her for exercising her First Amendment right to free speech to record and document her prosecution online.
Now, Gunnigle’s opponents, as well as activist groups, are questioning whether someone who once jailed a woman for 18 months for recording phone conversations on an eavesdropping statute that was later declared unconstitutional will truly lead the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office with a less punitive approach.
“We just found some troubling things that didn’t seem good with Gunnigle and Black lives not mattering,” said Lola Lévesque, a spokesperson for Mass Liberation Arizona, a group that seeks to end mass incarceration in a state, when explaining the group’s decision to endorse Will Knight, one of Gunnigle’s opponents in the race. “The prosecution of a Black woman out of Cook County, the [punitive] bail—she was in jail … for recording phone conversations. We couldn’t feel confident in [Gunnigle] because she wasn’t forthright when we asked her about it.”
“It wasn’t my decision,” Gunnigle told The Appeal when asked if she stood by her decision to prosecute Melongo. “I was second chair in this case. … I am the leading candidate in this race that is going to bring much needed, delayed, and important criminal justice reforms to one of the most incarcerated counties in the country and I will start implementing those reforms on day one.”
The prosecution of Annabel Melongo
In 2006, Melongo, a then-34-year-old immigrant from Cameroon, worked as a computer programmer and network administrator for the Save-A-Life Foundation (SALF), a now-defunct Illinois nonprofit that sought to make first aid training more widely available by teaching it in public schools. In April of that year, Melongo had a disagreement with the nonprofit’s founder, Carol Spizzirri, and was fired.
The following day, files disappeared from SALF’s servers. Later, when Melongo learned Spizzirri had blamed her for erasing the files, she sent an email to SALF employees calling Spizzirri a “pathological liar” who “lie[d] too much just to get what [she] want[ed]” and signed off by saying, “I will expose you.”
Spizzirri went to the police and asked for help from an acquaintance at the state attorney’s office. By October, a warrant was issued for Melongo’s arrest. She was later indicted on computer tampering charges. Gunnigle was one of two lead prosecutors on the case while she was at the Cook County state’s attorney’s office from the fall of 2009 through July 2011.
Around the same time, SALF began to unravel after a local ABC affiliate’s investigation found multiple inconsistencies in the story Spizzirri had told time and again about the organization’s origins. SALF’s handling of its finances also came under intense scrutiny. The organization eventually folded in 2009 and Spizzirri relocated to a trailer park in Southern California.
The state’s prosecution of Melongo continued, though. In December 2009, while out on bond, Melongo recorded her conversations with a supervisor in the court reporter’s office regarding what she believed to be a criminal mistake in a transcript. Melongo was convinced a court reporter had falsified the court transcript by stating that she had been arraigned when she had not, so she believed the court reporter had committed a felony by altering the transcript. She published those conversations on a website called illinoiscorruption.net, where she had been documenting the state’s case against her.
Alongside the audio clips, Melongo noted that although recording someone without their consent was illegal in Illinois, she believed her actions were permitted under state law because it made an exception if the recording was done “under reasonable suspicion that another party to the conversation” had committed a crime.
Gunnigle and her co-counsel, Robert Podlasek, soon learned of Melongo’s website. Another investigator on the case directed a forensic examiner to preserve the site while Gunnigle prepared warrants to GoDaddy and Yahoo for information related to the site.
On April 13, 2010, Melongo completed a court-ordered evaluation to determine if she was fit to represent herself at trial. Melongo alleges that police knocked on the door of the room at the courthouse where the evaluation was taking place and spoke with the doctor, Mathew Markos, while she was being evaluated. When the doctor returned, she says, he asked her about a message posted on the illinoiscorruption.net site, in which she wrote that she had a “big surprise in store for the court” and the “surprise will be known on April 14, 2010,” her next court date. Following the evaluation, she was arrested.
Melongo maintains the “surprise” she was referring to in her blog post was that she had hired a lawyer to file a countersuit. In a deposition taken in 2018 during Melongo’s civil case, Dr. Markos said he did not recall speaking with Melongo about the “surprise” post, and that he did not recall whether officers knocked on the door while he evaluated Melongo, and he has no memory of Melongo being arrested afterward.
Two weeks after her arrest, Melongo was indicted on six counts of eavesdropping charges for recording her conversation with the court reporter, as well as for posting the recordings on her website. She was charged under the state’s broad eavesdropping statute, which made it illegal to intentionally record a conversation without the consent of all parties. The arrest report stated that Melongo was arrested for “threatening a public official,” and the warrant to arrest her on eavesdropping charges was not signed until about two hours after the arrest.
Podlasek requested that Melongo be held without bond because he believed that, given her dual citizenship, she might flee the country before the state could finish prosecuting her. Transcripts show the judge ultimately decided to “reduce the bail from a no bail to a $500,000” detainer for the computer tampering charges, since the recording of the conversation with the court reporter was a violation of the conditions of her initial bond. Melongo later got the bond for the computer tampering charges reduced to $300,000, but she still couldn’t afford to pay it, and she was sent to jail.
Asked why the bond was so high, Gunnigle said the case was a decade ago and she does not believe she did the bond hearing, as that’s something the lead prosecutor (Podlasek) would have handled. (Transcripts show Gunnigle was not present at the hearing.) “What I do remember, the judge was scared and frustrated by the handling of the case, having repeatedly admonished Ms. Melongo for sending subpoenas for witness information with returns directly to herself for the alleged victim (and SALF board member’s) bank account information, publishing a suicide note written by SALFs founder, and her erratic conduct in court, in addition to a new charge while on bond,” Gunnigle said in a statement emailed to The Appeal.
While she was behind bars, Melongo was tried on the eavesdropping charges. The trial ended in a hung jury, and the judge declared a mistrial. The computer tampering charges, however, remained, as did the $300,000 bond. Melongo spent 18 months in jail for allegedly tampering with a computer and recording a conversation. While incarcerated, she developed a medical condition that required her to get a complete hysterectomy. It wasn’t until Oct. 20, 2011, that Melongo was finally released from jail and placed on electronic monitoring.
In July 2011, Gunnigle left the Cook County prosecutor’s office and moved back to Arizona. Nearly half a year later, on May 8, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit declared the Illinois eavesdropping statute unconstitutional in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. In June, a judge granted a motion from Melongo to dismiss the eavesdropping case and by July, the eavesdropping charges were officially dismissed. The state appealed, but the Illinois Supreme Court ultimately affirmed the judgment in 2014.
The state’s prosecution against Melongo on the computer tampering charges continued during that time, and in July 2013, Melongo filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Gunnigle and other public officials.
By the time the computer tampering case finally went to trial in July 2014, only one felony charge remained. After the prosecution presented its case, Melongo motioned for a directed verdict in her favor, which the judge granted. (In criminal cases, defendants may move for directed verdicts in their favor after the prosecution has closed its case. Judges typically order directed verdicts after finding that the prosecution did not prove its case and no reasonable jury could reach a different decision.) That same month, Melongo was acquitted.
Gunnigle defends her record
The Melongo case became an issue in the Maricopa County race during a virtual candidate forum held by Mass Liberation and other activist groups on June 18. An organizer from Cook County asked Gunnigle about her actions in this case, noting that Melongo filed a lawsuit against Gunnigle and others over her prosecution. Gunnigle said prosecutors are routinely sued in the course of their work, and noted the lawsuit had been “dismissed with prejudice,” said there was no finding of misconduct, and she “paid nothing.” She also painted Melongo as a conspiracy theorist.
“For those who are curious, a suit was brought by a woman who alleged that I was part of a conspiracy involving high-level Obama officials to facilitate the theft of over $40 million that never went missing,” Gunnigle said. “And the fact that we’re giving any air time to what—as she’s put forward—is essentially a deep-state conspiracy theory, I just don’t think is a great use of my time.”
Gunnigle’s broadside against Melongo ignores the fact that the majority of Melongo’s claims in her lawsuit have to do with her assertions that Gunnigle and others retaliated against her for using her First Amendment right to free speech to document her prosecution online. Melongo also believed that prosecutors lacked probable cause to arrest her for eavesdropping because, as she said on her website, she believed she was legally permitted to record her conversation with the court reporter because she believed a crime had been committed. (Melongo’s complaint also makes no mention of former President Barack Obama.)
Gunnigle’s response also makes it seem the lawsuit was dismissed for being frivolous, when in reality it was dismissed only because Gunnigle and other defendants decided to settle the case in August 2019, after six years of litigation. And although she may have paid nothing personally, Cook County taxpayers ended up paying $975,963 to settle the suit, according to minutes from an October 2019 Cook County Board of Commissioners meeting.
After the forum, Gunnigle wrote a Medium post addressing the issue, where she accused an unnamed opponent of engaging in “gutter politics” by circulating “an anonymous, un-cited, and baseless attack memo” full of lies in an attempt to bash her. (This appears to refer to a memo that was posted anonymously online about the Melongo case; the Arizona Republic reported that it contained “numerous errors.”) She repeated this charge in her statement to The Appeal, writing, “It’s unfortunate that one of our primary opponents has focused on circulating disproven memos full of attacks on our campaign.”
When asked about the origins of the memo, Gunnigle’s campaign manager, Tom Williams, said her opponent Will Knight’s campaign manager emailed a personal statement from Knight (which has also been posted on his website) to Maricopa County Democratic Party leadership and local legislative district chairs “attempting to lend credence to a disproven memo.”
“We released our statement because we were being accused and they were misconstruing the truth,” Knight told The Appeal of the letter Williams is referring to. “They not only wrote that open letter accusing the other campaigns, but then went on a witch hunt…I had to put forth what I knew. I had nothing to do with that memo.” Knight also responded publicly, saying that he had “never even seen such a document, much less participated in creating or circulating one.” He told The Appeal that he was shocked by Gunnigle’s reaction to the questions about the case.
“I am staggered by Ms. Gunnigle’s obsession with the ‘who’ over the ‘why’ in her own record,” Knight said. “The only reason I can fathom that Ms. Gunnigle hasn’t given us an explanation for her role in the systemic injustices inflicted on Annabel Melongo is that she must genuinely see nothing wrong with caging a vulnerable Black immigrant … all because Annabel dared to record a public official.”
In her Medium post, Gunnigle said Melongo claimed she was being set up to take the fall for fraud committed by Spizzirri and SALF, but “the FBI and the Illinois Attorney General independently investigated and found these claims to be false.” A Freedom of Information Act request to the Illinois attorney general’s office seeking “all records associated with any investigations by your agency that reviewed Ms. Melongo’s claims and found them to be false” yielded nothing. A FOIA officer said the office had “no records responsive to your request.”
“I no longer have access to my file,” Gunnigle told The Appeal when asked where she got the information on the FBI and attorney general investigations, “but Melongo reported the alleged $40 million dollar fraud/coverup to the FBI in addition to her claims about Cook County changing transcripts. That agent appeared in court during the eavesdropping case trial and after the judge compelled the agent to testify, testified that in her opinion, there was no merit to these allegations and no evidence to support them.”
“SALF was audited on several occasions,” Gunnigle added. “It is very possible that the audit was initiated by the AG as part of due diligence, and not directly by Ms. Melongo, which is why there was not a return on that FOIA.”
Gunnigle also said Melongo was “calling the Cook County Court Reporter’s Office requesting they change court transcripts to make it falsely appear that she did not attend court hearings,” though Melongo claims the court reporter had falsified the transcript and she wanted the reporter to fix it. Gunnigle said Melongo created a blog post “accusing the court reporters of treason,” leaving out the first half of Melongo’s statement from that post: She believed the court reporters were responsible for “consciously falsifying court transcripts [which] is not only a felony but it’s the highest treason a court official can perform.”
Gunnigle said Melongo had threatened the judge in her case in a blog post. Melongo was arrested for threatening a public official by saying she had a “surprise” for the court, but she was never charged for that. In her deposition in the civil suit, taken on April 23, 2018, Gunnigle said she didn’t remember if Melongo had made threats on the illinoiscorruption.net site. When asked to elaborate on these alleged threats, Gunnigle told The Appeal, “It was both this [‘surprise’] post combined with information that had been given to the first chair in the case, Mr. Bob Podlasek, by the U.S. Marshal Service that started the investigation regarding a threat to Judge [Joan] Lefkow.”
Asked by Melongo’s attorney whether she had participated in “any discussions regarding whether Ms. Melongo had committed the crime of threatening a public official or intimidation,” Gunnigle said “no, that was not—that was not referred for my prosecution.”
Gunnigle said the settlement was reached over “allegations of substandard physical and mental healthcare in the county jail,” and told to The Appeal that it had something to do with the hysterectomy Melongo underwent while incarcerated, but said she would not elaborate further out of respect to Melongo’s privacy. But Melongo’s complaint made no mention of her care in the jail, and she didn’t include the sheriff or jail’s medical provider as defendants. The minutes from the Cook County Board of Supervisors meeting where the settlement was approved indicate the settlement was related to the state’s attorney’s office, not the Department of Corrections. And a judge in the civil suit denied Gunnigle’s motion for summary judgment because “a jury could reasonably conclude the Defendants lacked probable cause for the computer-tampering and eavesdropping charges.”