Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard risks turning into a 21stcentury Barney Fife if he continues to pursue costly, time-intensive conflict-of-interest cases against elected officials which end with either small-change plea deals or larger charges being thrown out in court.
On the old “Andy Griffith Show,” Don Knotts’ character was so overzealous about detecting any possible infraction that he was only allowed to carry a single bullet, and that was in his pocket. (This was a 1960s sitcom, of course; that joke probably wouldn’t be so funny today, even on “Reno 911.”)
Goddard’s track record in conflict-of-interest cases over the past several years isn’t very impressive, as Mark Flatten reported in a Tribune series published July 8 and 9.
He has charged or threatened to charge eight officials with 100 felony or misdemeanor counts related to their conduct in office. Four of the five resolved cases ended with the defendant pleading guilty to a single charge for mostly financial reasons. The fifth case did go to trial, but the single-count conviction of ex-Maricopa County Assessor Kevin Ross was thrown out on appeal, and Goddard’s office is pursuing the case on up the judicial chain.
A sixth, the prosecution of Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools Sandra Dowling, was recently dealt a setback when 12 of 25 grand jury charges were dismissed by a Superior Court judge who ruled that possibly exonerating evidence had been withheld.
There may well have been some fire behind the smoke detected by Goddard; the appeals court which overturned Ross’ conviction determined the assessor’s attempt to make money for himself off of a list of low-income elderly homeowners did not violate any laws, but “may raise some ethical and public records issues.”
But the attorney general’s office has thrown a massive amount of state resources into this and other highly publicized cases with underwhelming legal results. Looking into the allegations against Ross, brought by two employees Ross was trying to force out, involved surveillance of Ross and a tracking device on his car. Investigators spent eight months scrutinizing the actions of State Treasurer David Petersen before admitting there was no evidence of any conflict-of-interest violations, and one instance in which he had failed to report less than $5,000 of income as required by law.
We might expect an ambitious rookie prosecutor to misjudge how many charges can stick in any given case, but that isn’t what Goddard is supposed to be.
As former Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley told Flatten, “The best thing that a seasoned prosecutor can bring to the table is judgment. The rules and regulations are so complex and at times so unknowing of individuals that you’ve got to take into account exactly what occurred and why it occurred.
“You’ve got to look beyond just technical.”
Five of the eight officials prosecuted by Goddard, a Democrat, have been Republicans. This is at least partly a function of the state’s political makeup, and the defendant who faced the most charges (40), a Santa Cruz County school superintendent, is a Democrat.
But without exercising better judgment, Goddard risks going into his post-attorney general political future being viewed as a partisan hack or a Fifeesque character who can’t be trusted with a loaded gun.