A new unit to defend against lawsuits was created by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Monday, drawing a court challenge from County Attorney Andrew Thomas within hours.
The board voted unanimously to strip Thomas' office of about $527,000 allocated to hire outside lawyers to defend the county in civil cases. That money, coupled with about $194,000 from other accounts, will be used to create a civil litigation unit that will answer to the county manager.
By Monday afternoon, Thomas' office sought a temporary restraining order asking a judge to block the board's action.
Thomas and the board have been warring since December, when county prosecutors announced the indictment of Supervisor Don Stapley on 118 criminal counts. Within days of that announcement, the board hired its own outside lawyers for advice and has since stripped Thomas' office of its power to represent the county in civil litigation.
Thomas sued the board in December. The motion to block the board's most recent action was filed in that case. A judge has yet to rule whether the board overstepped its bounds in bouncing the county attorney from civil cases. Rather than wait for a resolution of that case, "the Board has steamrolled ahead in its plan to disenfranchise the County Attorney of his statutory duties," Thomas said in his motion for a restraining order.
Aside from their duties as prosecutors, county attorneys typically defend county agencies when they are sued and act as legal advisors to boards of supervisors and county agencies. But since the Stapley indictment, board members have complained that Thomas has a conflict of interest in prosecuting Stapley while acting as the county's legal advisor.
Thomas contends state law clearly gives the county attorney the responsibilities both to prosecute crimes and act as the county's lawyer in civil cases. He has also accused the board of retaliation for the prosecution of Stapley, and of trying to hinder the ongoing investigation of the Mesa Republican.
Stapley was indicted on 118 criminal counts that accuse him of failing to list business and real estate deals on financial disclosure statements he is required to file.
Board chairman Max Wilson characterized the vote Monday as an attempt to control spiraling costs of hiring outside lawyers to defend county agencies under Thomas. Under Thomas' watch, the cost for private lawyers representing the county has gone from about $12 million in 2004 to about $22 million last year, according to county estimates.
Richard Romley, a former Maricopa County attorney hired to advise the board in its battles with Thomas, said Thomas has dramatically overspent his budget for hiring private lawyers. The board's action is part of an ongoing attempt to control those costs, Romley said.
As to the timing, Romley said the lawsuit filed by Thomas challenging the board's actions could drag on for years. It would not be prudent to wait for that case and any appeals that may result from it to be resolved before moving forward with a county litigation office that would help control costs, he said.
"The budgets have been busted under Thomas for too long," Romley said.
The board's action Monday would create a separate unit under the control of the county manager to handle civil litigation for the county. Because the money taken from Thomas' office comes from his budget for private lawyers, creation of the new unit will not result in staff reductions in the county attorney's office, according to a county news release.
Thomas contested that notion in his request for a restraining order, arguing if the board is successful it would force the layoffs of many of the 32 attorneys in his civil division.