Scandal-Plagued Arizona Prosecutor Won’t Release Records, Lawsuit Alleges
The ACLU of Arizona is suing Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s office over its alleged lack of transparency.
William Montgomery, head prosecutor for Maricopa County in Arizona, has long been dogged by accusations that he operates in secrecy. He has allegedly discouraged police departments from disclosing public records and withheld information about internal investigations.
His alleged lack of transparency is at the root of a lawsuit filed today by the ACLU and ACLU of Arizona against Montgomery and his office for failing to comply with a public records request for information, including demographic data, on its prosecutions from 2013 to the present.
The request was filed last October by freelance journalist Sean Holstege, who is working for the ACLU of Arizona to investigate the state’s prosecutors.
“Prosecutors are the most powerful players in the criminal justice system,” said Somil Trivedi, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s national office. “Without first encouraging or forcing prosecutors’ offices to disclose the basic data about their offices, we can’t understand whether they are doing things like driving mass incarceration and racial disparities, or if they are embracing smarter approaches.”
Holstege requested information about each criminal case prosecuted and declined by Montgomery’s office, as well as policies governing bail and plea bargaining, and “personnel and discipline issues” related to prosecutors.
In response to the request, the office said its turnaround time for public record requests was typically three to five months. Although Holstege requested information as it became available, he has received only a single staff roster for one year out of the six years he requested, the suit alleges.
No explanation has been provided as to why certain items have not yet been disclosed, according to the suit. The same requests were sent to the prosecutors’ offices in Pima and Yavapai counties, which have provided “significantly more” information than Maricopa, according to Trivedi.
Amanda Steele, spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney’s office, told The Appeal via email that she could not comment on the suit because she had not yet received it. Holstege’s request, she noted, was “quite broad and our custodian of records is working with the requester.”
Trivedi acknowledged that the request was broad. “We want it to be broad because we want to understand the entire office.”
Montgomery has a track record of attempting to stymie access to public records, according to the suit.
Last year, the Arizona Republic reported that Montgomery sent a letter to local police departments telling them to consult with the prosecutor’s office before responding to public information requests in ongoing criminal investigations. Failure to comply, Montgomery wrote, could result in the department having to pay legal fees if litigation results from an “unauthorized release.”
Montgomery has also been accused of failing to disclose information related to his office’s internal investigation of Deputy County Attorney Juan Martinez, the prosecutor in the high-profile trial of Jodi Arias, who was accused of killing her ex-boyfriend. The investigation concluded that Martinez had engaged in “inappropriate and unprofessional conduct towards several female MCAO [Maricopa County Attorney’s Office] employees and/or interns.” Martinez received training and was reprimanded which, according to an April 16 statement from Montgomery, meant that he was ineligible for “performance pay” that year, worth several thousand dollars.
But last year Montgomery’s office sought and received a court order to ensure that documents the office turned over to the State Bar of Arizona, which was conducting its own investigation into Martinez, be provided under a protective order and thus temporarily shielded from public view, reported the Arizona Republic. Montgomery denied the office unilaterally sought the order.
In March, the state bar filed a complaint against Martinez that alleged, among other things, that he had disclosed the name of a holdout juror in the Arias trial to a blogger who was covering the case and with whom he was engaged in a sexual relationship. According to the Arizona Republic, Martinez has faced at least seven bar complaints in the past four years. Martinez, who is still employed by the office and just began a murder trial this week, has denied all wrongdoing.
In April, four state legislators and a number of local organizations called on Montgomery to resign over his handling of the allegations against Martinez. American Friends Service Committee in Arizona was one of the groups that signed the letter. “There needs to be some accountability,” Rebecca Fealk, the organization’s program coordinator, told The Appeal.
In response, Montgomery wrote a letter defending his investigation and emphasizing his commitment to gender equality in the workplace.
“I do not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and I will impose appropriate discipline on any employee who harasses or discriminates against another,” he wrote.
Montgomery was recently considered for a seat on the state Supreme Court, which garnered public rebukes from the ACLU of Arizona and the president of the advocacy organization Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice. Though Montgomery was not chosen to fill the vacancy, applications are now being accepted for another seat.
Prosecutorial transparency is essential to unraveling both mass incarceration and racial disparities, Trivedi said. Arizona’s imprisonment rate increased 20 percent between 2000 and 2016, according to an ACLU of Arizona report released last fall. The state is home to the fourth-highest imprisonment rate in the country, the report found, as well as the highest incarceration rate for Latinxs in the country, according to the most recent data available.
Gipsy Escobar, director of research innovation for Measures for Justice, a nonprofit group, says data from a prosecutor’s office can help reveal whether, for instance, the prosecutor’s office is making fair decisions about which cases to charge.
“You want to see prosecutors declining cases,” said Escobar. “They have the responsibility and the duty to screen cases.”
Trivedi hopes the suit will draw attention to the need for such data in order to transform the criminal justice system. “Transparency is good for everyone, including law enforcement,” said Trivedi. “Prosecutors and other members of law enforcement have just gone unchallenged for so long that they feel like they’re not obligated to abide by the same sort of transparency rules that everybody else is.”