Ex-county assessor Kevin Ross left court Friday with his freedom intact but without a real-estate license.
Judge Thomas O'Toole put Ross on three years unsupervised probation, but rejected defense arguments that the felony conflict of interest charge for which he was convicted in December be designated a misdemeanor.
"The defendant did an admirable job as county assessor until the dollar signs got in the way," O'Toole said. O'Toole had the power to designate the charge a misdemeanor, but declined to. He said that Ross breached his duty of public trust, the felony designation wasn't "unduly harsh" and that Ross engaged in "secretive, surreptitious conduct in order to gain a benefit."
O'Toole said that the felony conviction was grounds for taking Ross' real estate license. Ross, a Gilbert Republican who was defeated in the Sept. 7 primary election and then stripped of his office immediately after a jury convicted him, declined comment after his sentencing in Maricopa County Superior Court. His attorney, John Hannah, said only that they planned to appeal.
The job of the county assessor is to determine the value of property in the county for tax purposes. Ross was accused in a three-count indictment returned in May of obtaining a confidential list of 15,000 senior citizens who were eligible for a freeze on the tax valuation of their homes, and then giving the list to a mortgage broker to solicit reverse mortgages, for which Ross would earn a commission. He was also accused of trying to cover up the alleged crimes. Reverse mortgages allow homeowners older than 62 to borrow money against their homes without having to make monthly payments.
The jury acquitted Ross on the cover-up charge and O'Toole tossed one of the conflict charges because he found that the list was not confidential. The jury convicted him on a conflict charge that accused him of using his official position to get the list that no one else had access to. Ross said in court that he didn't go through the proper channels to obtain the list, but that wasn't a conflict of interest.
"It was a lack of judgment, I've paid dearly for it," he said. Hannah said that Ross' actions were no worse than a public official using a publicly paid cellular telephone for personal use, an act that is wrong but not criminal.
Assistant Attorney General E.G. Noyes asked O'Toole to put Ross in jail for two months, saying that the jail sentence would impress upon Ross and the community the seriousness of the crime. Noyes said that even without the jail sentence, the community can still interpret the sentence as a serious consequence because Ross is now a convicted felon and the three years of probation is a "fact of life ordinary folks don't have to worry about."
"Just the verdict itself was a serious consequence," Noyes said. He added, "That was a good sentence from a good judge."