The first letter appeared at the eighth-floor office of Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas in October.
It was the kind of letter no lawyer likes to get.
“Information concerning your professional conduct has come to the attention of the State Bar,” it said. “A copy of the information is enclosed.”
What followed was a mishmash of newspaper articles, court documents and letters between high-ranking state officials.
Each one mentioned something about a well-publicized debate between Thomas and Valley judges over how to handle a new law dealing with illegal immigration.
None of them said why the State Bar of Arizona had sent the letter in the first place.
“I certainly had never received any inquiries like this from the Bar,” Thomas said in a weekend interview with the Tribune about the situation. “Neither have any of the people I’ve talked to.”
The letter gave the county attorney 20 days to respond to the cryptic allegations.
Thomas now says that letter was the start of what he believes was an organized campaign by the State Bar to target him because its leaders disagree with his politics, including his hard-line stance on illegal immigration.
6 MONTHS, 13 INVESTIGATIONS
During the past six months, Thomas and several of his prosecutors have become targets of 13 such investigations, most dealing with vague allegations of ethics violations. For many, Thomas said, “it’s not even clear what was being inquired about.”
The president of the State Bar of Arizona, Dan McAuliffe, and its chief investigator, Robert Van Wyck, have both denied the investigations were politically inspired.
Thomas took the unusual and possibly unprecedented step last week of asking the Arizona Supreme Court, which oversees the State Bar, to intervene by either killing the investigations or appointing someone to review them independently.
That request and the previous six months of fighting the State Bar over the investigations has cost taxpayers $300,000 already, according to the county attorney’s office.
The cost will likely climb, too, since the battle has now been taken to court.
One of the reasons it has cost so much, Thomas said, is because many of the State Bar’s original allegations against his office were so vague.
Often, the letters came much like the first one, with newspaper articles or court documents attached and nothing to indicate what the attorney might have done wrong.
Even when Thomas would ask the State Bar to clarify, the organization refused, he said.
Because of this, the county attorney’s office had to respond to “every conceivable concern” based on what was attached to the letters, he said. “That entailed an awful lot of work and attorneys’ fees incurred by the taxpayers,” Thomas said.
Still, despite the vagueness of the allegations, many appear to be minor, said Jonathan Rose, a professor at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Rose read news accounts of the allegations last week and said most, if found to be true, would lead to only minor punishments, such as reprimands. None of the investigations appears to be “the kind of thing that would lead to disbarment or even suspension for any significant period of time,” he said.
The ultimate punishment that could result from a Bar investigation would be to strip an attorney of his license to practice law in Arizona, but none of the probes appears to go that far, he said.
FIRE INSIDE LEGAL COMMUNITY
No matter the outcome, though, the actions taken last week by Thomas have ignited a fire inside the Valley legal community. The State Bar is a powerful force in Arizona. Every attorney in the state is required to join it and pay dues, and the private organization has authority by state law to investigate and punish lawyers for ethics violations.
Thomas’ motion, in effect, took on the organization, accusing it of its own ethics violations.
Among Thomas’ allegations, his Supreme Court motion said he had specific evidence from a high-ranking State Bar official showing the effort to target him was likely organized and political. The evidence, the motion said, was that a group of retired judges and others had asked the State Bar to “do something” about Thomas after his public fight with Valley judges over the immigration law.
According to the motion, the high-ranking State Bar official was Joe Kanefield, also the state elections director. Kanefield said in an e-mail last week, however, that nobody had asked the State Bar’s leaders, including him, to launch investigations into Thomas. At one point, Kanefield wrote, a group had asked the State Bar to issue a statement in support of the Valley judges, which the organization did. “Nobody has ever approached me asking that the State Bar take any discipline action against Andrew Thomas,” Kanefield wrote.
The Arizona Supreme Court has asked the State Bar to respond to Thomas’ allegations by June 18. Van Wyck, the Bar’s chief attorney and investigator, said the organization plans to do so and is currently exploring its options.