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Arizona DA accused of stonewalling records request

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – In more than six months since receiving a request for thousands of documents, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has provided just a single list of employees – a clear violation of the Arizona Public Records Law, the American Civil Liberties Union and a freelance journalist say in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

This past October, reporter Sean Holstege, a consultant working on an ACLU report about Arizona prosecutors, asked for five years of records detailing the office’s case management system, criminal cases prosecuted, charges declined, attorney discipline, policies on bail and plea bargaining, procedures, and administrative and budget information.

The ACLU and Holstege sought the documents to see how Maricopa County Attorney William Montgomery and his prosecutors wield the “immense power” of their office, the lawsuit says.

The failure to timely comply with the request is typical for Montgomery’s office, the plaintiffs say.

Montgomery came under fire last year when he told police departments his office should have the final say on whether to release a public record, threatening “financial consequences” if they did not comply.

He also failed to disclose information related to his office’s internal investigation of Assistant County Attorney Juan Martinez, who served as a prosecutor in the high-profile trial of Jodi Arias. The State Bar of Arizona filed a complaint against Martinez in May, alleging he engaged in unethical misconduct during his representation of Arias after he reportedly used a blogger to investigate a juror preventing Arias from receiving the death penalty in the murder of her ex-boyfriend.

Since Holstege’s request, the office has provided only one list of prosecutors and their salaries for one of the five years requested, the lawsuit against Montgomery and his office says. 

ACLU attorneys Jared Keenan and Somil Trived, who are representing the ACLU and Holstege, announced the lawsuit on an ACLU blog.

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“The state’s courts have held that far shorter delays than this one – which now spans over 210 days – violate the public records law. Courts are also clear that the government must demonstrate that it conducted a diligent search and explain why any documents are being withheld. Montgomery and his office have also failed on both these counts,” the attorneys wrote in a post.

They say prosecutors’ offices are often the least open government agencies nationwide.

Almost none of the nation’s elected prosecutors voluntarily release information on plea bargaining within their offices even though nearly 95 percent of criminal cases end in plea bargains.

Montgomery’s office responded with a statement Wednesday noting some parts of the request have been addressed, and because the request is large it will take time to ensure privacy laws are followed when the documents are eventually released.

“The office has incurred an increasing number of public records request in the past few years which has led to increasing response times, especially since the office answers requests in the order they are received. There is no other way for us to try and fairly respond to requests from a multitude of outlets,” Montgomery said in the statement.

Montgomery decried the lawsuit and Holstege’s work as part of a George Soros-funded campaign by the Open Societies Foundation and other groups to discredit prosecutors nationwide.

“There should be no doubt that this is a part of a larger agenda.  Prosecutors across the country, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, have been a focus of the Soros campaign,” he said.

In a series of email updates between October 2018 and April 2019, Montgomery’s staff first warned the records request could take four or five months. In February, staff said they were “chipping away” at the request. On April 3, the ACLU got the single document, and the office said the rest of the request was “not completed yet,” the lawsuit says.

The law requires Arizona government agencies to maintain records and make them promptly available to the public. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled even a delay of 49 days is too long, the lawsuit says.

“Defendants have failed to furnish any of the remaining records – much less furnish them ‘promptly’ – and have not provided any legitimate explanation for why they are being withheld,” the lawsuit says.

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The plaintiffs want a judge to order Montgomery to release the records and pay their attorney fees.

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