Allister Adel, the new Maricopa County Attorney, says she wants to clean up the county attorney’s office and hold employees accountable for bad behavior.
But she’s also praised former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who just resigned to become a state Supreme Court justice and is facing a Bar complaint alleging he covered up a top prosecutor’s sexual misconduct.
Will the new Maricopa County Attorney be just like the old Maricopa County Attorney? Or will she turn away from some of Montgomery’s oft-criticized ways?
After days of closed-door deliberations, the county Board of Supervisors unanimously voted on Thursday to appoint Adel as the new Maricopa County Attorney. She was selected over seven other applicants for the powerful county attorney job and is a bit of an outsider when compared with three of the other five finalists for the spot, all of whom have already spent years working in leadership positions at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
How Adel will run the third-largest public prosecutorial agency in the country remains to be seen. The office prosecutes more than 30,000 felony cases annually and has over 900 full-time employees, including attorneys, investigators, paralegals, victim advocates, and support staff. The county attorney also serves as legal counsel for the Board of Supervisors and all county departments.
Here’s everything we know about why the Board picked Adel, what she’s said and done in the past and how that might inform her intentions for the County Attorney’s Office, and what all of this means for next year’s county attorney race.
How the Board Picked Adel
After Governor Doug Ducey gave Montgomery a state Supreme Court seat, Montgomery resigned from the post he’d held since his first election in 2010, and the county Board of Supervisors put together a citizens advisory committee to interview all the applicants for the job. Eight people applied, and five finalists were selected after closed-door interviews with the committee on September 27. The Board again interviewed the five finalists in another closed-door session on Wednesday. Deliberations lasted into Thursday morning, when the Board made its decision in an unanimous vote.
Why the Board Picked Adel
The applicants were essentially vetted in private, despite the County Attorney typically being an elected position, so not much is known about why the Board made its choice beyond some brief public remarks made by the Supervisors. Rachel Mitchell, who had been filling in for Montgomery for the past month since he left, has been working in a leadership position at the county attorney’s office for years, as have fellow finalists Jon Eliason and Gina Godbehere.
Adel did work for the office from 2004 to 2011 in the vehicular crimes, gang, and drug enforcement bureau. But more recently, she’s been working as a consultant for nonprofits and small businesses. She also was general counsel for the Department of Child Safety, a judge for the state Department of Transportation’s executive hearing office, and executive director for the Maricopa County Bar Association, giving Adel more varied experience than some of the other candidates.
Adel got her bachelor’s degree in political science and government from the University of Arizona in 1999, then got her law degree from Arizona State University’s College of Law in 2004. Her husband, David DeNitto, works for Wells Fargo, and when not talking about politics, her social media posts are often about her two children, her dogs, and her support for local sports teams. She’s been a registered Republican since 2000 and donated $250 to Senator Martha McSally in June.
The County put out a statement late Thursday after Supervisors seemingly ducked questions from reporters for most of the day, but it still didn’t give much insight into why the Board chose Adel. Essentially, it said it thought all the candidates were great, but that Adel was the best.
“Allister Adel rose to the top,” Board chairman Bill Gates said. “She has a background in criminal law and civil as well.” Gates called her an excellent attorney and community leader, and an experienced administrator with a long track record of public service.
Supervisor Clint Hickman said he thinks Adel “is the best person to carry on the fantastic work being done by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.”
On the other hand, Supervisor Steve Gallardo, the lone Democrat on the five-member Board, said he “looks forward to working with Adel on criminal justice reform efforts.”
Montgomery, by contrast, was known for standing in the way of such reform. In June, Montgomery sent a letter to Governor Ducey asking him to veto SB 1334, a modest sentencing reform bill that would have put Arizona on par with other states by preventing the sentencing of people as if they were repeat offenders when they had never before been convicted of a felony. Ducey vetoed it.
How Adel May Run the Office
Adel talked a little bit about how she intends to run the office on Thursday, but she’s made conflicting statements, and it’s hard to say at this point what her intentions are or how she will actually run things.
She told reporters that she would address any sexual harassment allegations in the office “appropriately and swiftly, but justly.” She also said she thinks transparency is important and would work to make sure people have access to public records through the office.
Her predecessor, Montgomery, was notoriously terrible at both those things. The American Civil Liberties Union sued Montgomery for not fulfilling records requests in a timely manner, and Montgomery is currently facing a Bar complaint accusing him of covering up Jodi Arias prosecutor Juan Martinez’s sexual misconduct. The state Supreme Court recently assigned special outside counsel to investigate the complaints against Montgomery and Martinez.
But Adel praised Montgomery in her application, saying he had “served our county well” and that she’d “be honored to build upon that legacy.” She also has tweeted in support of Montgomery on several occasions, congratulating him when he got the state Supreme Court seat and calling an op-ed he wrote on civil asset forfeiture “excellent.”
Given that, it’s unclear whether Adel actually will break from Montgomery to address sexual misconduct, support criminal justice reform, and improve transparency. She has some incentives to stay Montgomery’s course: Adel has the seat until January 2021, which is the remainder of Montgomery’s term. She has already stated she plans to run for county attorney in the 2020 race, and her chances of winning have been improved by getting this appointment. Republican Maricopa County voters supported the job Montgomery was doing, so she may not want to risk alienating voters by acting differently.
Past Comments, Future Choices
The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) supported her candidacy for county attorney, as did the Fraternal Order of Police, according to Adel’s remarks to the Board yesterday. PLEA even wrote a letter of support for her, which she included in her application. She’s a member of the 100 Club, a nonprofit organization that supports the families of fallen law enforcement officers, and has used the #thinblueline hashtag on several occasions, a phrase that supports law enforcement and has become popular with the Blue Lives Matter movement.
Adel has a good relationship with law enforcement, which is obviously important for the job, but it also suggests there’s little chance she’ll move to increase police accountability, something criminal justice reform advocates had called on Montgomery to do.
In June, news broke that nearly 100 Phoenix police officers had shared racist, Islamaphobic posts on social media, calling black people “thugs” and Muslims “rapists.” Officers also joked about shooting former President Barack Obama in the face, driving a car through a crowd of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and, in one instance, congratulated George Zimmerman after he was acquitted of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The Facebook posts were published by the Plain View Project in an effort to catalog bigotry and racism among police officers nationwide. When racist posts from Philadelphia police officers surfaced, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said it could lead to certain officers being barred from serving as witnesses in criminal trials. As a result of the posts, St. Louis circuit attorney Kim Gardner put 22 officers on her office’s witness exclusion list.
Montgomery didn’t do any of that. In fact, he never said a word about the Facebook posts, and he shrugged off an explosive, viral video of a Phoenix police officer threatening to shoot an unarmed black man in the head in front of his pregnant fiancée and children, which ignited calls for police reform. Adel’s close ties to law enforcement indicate she won’t be any more likely to hold police officers accountable for their misconduct, or maybe even less likely: Montgomery did at least charge Mesa police officer Philip Brailford with murder after the officer shot a man dead without justification. A jury acquitted Brailford.
Decisions Ahead: Juan Martinez and Rachel Mitchell
The Arizona Republic broke the news on Thursday that Jodi Arias, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2015 for murdering Travis Alexander, may get another chance to plead her case because of Martinez’s alleged misconduct during that trial.
Martinez is accused of striking up a sexual relationship with a blogger covering the trial and using her to get information on a holdout juror who he wanted to get off the case. He then lied about it later during an investigation into his misconduct. He also sexually harassed a Superior Court employee, not to mention what he’s accused of doing to the women in his office.
The Court of Appeals is looking over those misconduct allegations in Arias’ case. If they decide Martinez’s alleged prosecutorial misconduct affected the case, Arias potentially could be back in court.
Adel has tweeted about Arias a couple of times. Once, she retweeted former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods saying, “Bad day for Jodi Arias in court today. Continually exposed as diabolical. She just may have talked her way into the death penalty.” Another time, in 2015, she shared a TV news story about Arias, commenting, “most defendants waive appearance for restitution hearings but Arias can’t miss a media opportunity.”
It will be interesting to see what Adel does next when it comes to Martinez, and what happens with the Arias case under her watch. In her three weeks filling in for Bill Montgomery, Rachel Mitchell transferred Martinez out of the capital litigation bureau to the auto theft bureau. Adel said in her application that she is dedicated to improving the ethics and professionalism of the office, but again, given her praise for Montgomery that remains to be seen.
Whether Adel will leave Mitchell as second-in-command, or choose her own chief deputy, is also up in the air. Adel did call Mitchell an “outstanding choice” when she was tapped to question Brett Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford. But Mitchell also got the chief deputy job in July following some behind-the-scenes office turmoil.
On July 29, the Board of Supervisors received an anonymous letter accusing Montgomery’s old chief deputy, Mike McVey, of being in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. McVey, meanwhile, had only become the chief deputy in January after Montgomery’s prior second-in-command, Mark Faull, took an extended medical absence.
McVey wasn’t in an inappropriate relationship, it turned out — the couple had disclosed the relationship per MCAO policy and she was not his subordinate. Nonetheless, the letter seems to have sparked a change in leadership since two days after it was received, on July 31, Mitchell took over as chief deputy.
At the time, Supervisor Gallardo said the sudden change in leadership raised questions, since Ducey was deciding whether to appoint Montgomery to the state’s highest court.
“I probably would have preferred letting the actual Supreme Court appointment work its way through before making these types of decisions,” Gallardo told Phoenix New Times. “Because if Montgomery gets the appointment, we’re going to have a whole different county attorney and we’ll have a whole different person in terms of what they look for in a number two, that sort of thing.”