Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and his office will face a special independent investigator in several ongoing ethics probes against them, the State Bar of Arizona announced Wednesday.
The State Bar, which oversees all Arizona lawyers, also said Thomas should be forced to follow the same rules as any attorney statewide, even though he was elected to his post.
The organization made the statements in a 99-page filing Wednesday with the Arizona Supreme Court that marked the latest blow in a conflict between the two sides.
Last month, Thomas, the Valley’s chief prosecutor, asked the Supreme Court to step in and halt as many as 13 investigations that had been opened against him and other attorneys in his office.
Thomas said the State Bar was using the investigations to go after him because its leaders don’t like his politics, including his hard-line stance on illegal immigration.
But in its new filing, the State Bar said Thomas’ request was “premature” because the investigations are in their earliest stages. Some have already been dismissed, the filing said, and others “may not even ripen into formal disciplinary proceedings.”
“To liken this to a criminal proceeding, Mr. Thomas is attempting to convince this court … to order that the police stop investigating before the case has even been referred for prosecution,” it said.
Still, to avoid any appearance of conflict, the State Bar told the high court it would appoint an independent investigator to finish handling the cases.
A spokesman for the county attorney’s office, Barnett Lotstein, called the decision a “historic admission by the State Bar that the Bar itself cannot conduct a fair and impartial investigation.”
Lotstein, one of the lawyers targeted in an investigation that was later dropped, added: “The Bar has admitted that this investigation has been botched.”
Thomas was out of town and unavailable for comment.
A spokeswoman with the State Bar declined to comment, saying the court filing speaks for itself.
The State Bar is a powerful force in the Valley’s legal community. Under state rules, every lawyer has to join the organization and pay dues in order to practice in Arizona.
In turn, the Bar acts as the community’s watchdog, enforcing ethics rules and requiring members to take law classes on a regular basis.
The Arizona Supreme Court has control over the organization and its rules.
By asking the Arizona Supreme Court to step in, Thomas made a move that was widely thought to be unprecedented.
The State Bar apparently thought so, too.
“A high-profile elected prosecutor should not be allowed to stop disciplinary investigations,” the organization’s filing said. “No Arizona lawyer is above this court’s rules.”
The group did not say who it would appoint as an independent investigator, but Lotstein said he thought the organization may have to go out of state to find one, considering every lawyer in Arizona is a member of the Bar.
“We are skeptical as to whether an independent investigator can be found,” Lotstein said.
The county attorney’s office was the first to suggest a special investigator be appointed when it made its original request last month. If the court did not halt the probes, the office wanted a special investigator assigned.
But Lotstein said things have changed since the office’s May 27 request.
He pointed to what happened to prominent Valley attorney and former Bar president Ernest Calderón after he sided with the county attorney’s office on the issue.
Calderón was up for re-election to a prestigious post with the Bar but was turned down just days after voicing his opinion.
“It kind of warns any other attorney that if you come down in favor of Thomas, you could suffer professional consequences,” Lotstein said.
The county attorney’s office has until early next month to respond to the State Bar. After that, the Supreme Court will decide what to do with the investigations.