Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas on Tuesday revealed that he and some of his prosecutors are the targets of a wide-ranging series of ethics probes by the State Bar of Arizona.
In doing so, he asked the state’s highest court to end the investigations, which he believes are politically motivated and meant to silence his criticisms of Valley judges.
At an afternoon news conference, Thomas lashed out at the State Bar, the organization that oversees Arizona’s lawyers and has the power to investigate ethical lapses.
He said the group was using 13 such investigations to retaliate against him for a number of fights last year between him and Maricopa County Superior Court judges. One of those fights was over a new law dealing with illegal immigration.
“They’re besmirching my reputation and violating my rights as an American, and I’m not going to stand for that,” Thomas said.
All of the investigations, he said, are without merit and should be dismissed.
Thomas filed a motion Tuesday with the Arizona Supreme Court, asking the justices to intervene by either stopping the probes altogether or appointing an independent investigator to settle them.
The motion itself was about 50 pages but arrived at the Supreme Court with thousands of pages of supporting evidence to back Thomas’ request.
The first investigations began last October, shortly after Thomas’ office asked one of the highest-ranking judges in Maricopa County to remove himself from all cases involving its prosecutors.
The office had accused Judge Timothy Ryan of bias and filed a motion saying Ryan intentionally ignored a law approved by voters that required all serious felony suspects to be asked about their immigration status.
A few weeks later, Thomas and two of his closest allies, Special Assistant County Attorney Barnett Lotstein and private attorney Dennis Wilenchik, received letters from the Bar’s top investigator, Robert Van Wyck, asking them to respond to allegations they had violated ethics rules.
In the following months, ethics complaints began trickling into the county attorney’s office covering a wide range of cases.
One referenced comments Thomas made to a newspaper about Baseline Killer suspect Mark Goudeau. Several involved the criminal investigation into the Phoenix New Times newspaper, which was eventually dropped.
Another looked at the case of a Phoenix teen accused of looking at child pornography.
Thomas’ motion to the court said he believes the probes are part of an organized effort against him, in part because of information provided to his office by the state’s elections director, Joe Kanefield, who is also the State Bar’s secretary/treasurer.
According to the motion, Kanefield said several people including retired judges approached the State Bar shortly after the Ryan brouhaha and said the organization needed to “do something” about Thomas.
Kanefield did not return a request for comment late Tuesday.
Dan McAuliffe, the president of the State Bar, said the allegations that the organization was part of an organized effort to target Thomas was “an out-and-out falsehood.”
McAuliffe also disputed the motion’s claims that he knew about the investigations and had been involved in getting them started. “I’ve stayed just a hundred miles away from that thing,” he said.
One of the primary reasons Thomas wanted to get the investigations thrown out is because he believes the State Bar’s head investigator, Van Wyck, is biased against the office and therefore has a conflict of interest.
Van Wyck said he could not comment on the matter because the investigations were still ongoing.
“I can confirm that there are a number — that there are pending investigations and I can’t confirm the number and I can confirm that some of them have been resolved and some of them have not,” he told the Tribune late Thursday.
Cari Gerchick, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Supreme Court, said she had not known of any other lawyer in Arizona doing what Thomas did on Tuesday.
The State Bar is only an investigatory arm in the ethics process. Normally, if there is enough to indicate a possible violation, the allegation ultimately goes to a public hearing in front of a committee that decides whether it is legitimate.
Thomas, however, said he did not have faith the process would work.
“Members of the county judiciary and the State Bar are not going to run this office,” he said at the news conference. “If they want to be county attorney, they should run for county attorney and win the votes that I won.”