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Guest opinion

Fein: A change is needed for Pima County's attorney

An election is coming up in August that will decide the next Pima County attorney. There are no Republicans running, so the winner of the Democratic primary will assume the position. There are three candidates on the ballot. Two candidates are working within the Pima County Attorney's Office — Jonathan Mosher and Mark Diebolt — and one candidate is from outside the office: Laura Conover. I strongly support Ms. Conover for the next Pima County attorney.

Pima's county attorneys has hand picked their successors for 44 years. The office was assumed by Steve Neely in 1976, who was hand-picked, who served 5 terms or 20 years and then Neely hand-picked Barbara LaWall, who has held the office for 6 terms or 24 years. So, from Neely to LaWall, for 44 years, we have essentially had only two county attorneys picking their replacement for the highest legal office in the county. This is not good for Pima County citizens or the integrity of the office.

Imagine if the federal or state attorneys general were a succession of hand-picked individuals for more than 44 years. The public would not stand for this type of succession because of the obvious potential for misuse and abuse. For this reason, LaWall's position as the current county attorney should not be interpreted to allow her to hand-pick her successor as she is attempting to do with Jonathan Mosher.

The Pima County Attorney's Office needs a fresh face and a new look to this top prosecutorial position. Laura Conover is a lifelong Tucsonan and is an experienced career criminal lawyer and administrator. She is well equipped to assume the position of Pima County attorney.

Too many years of one person passing the baton from one to another can lead to a narrowing a vision of possibilities for how that Pima County Attorney's Office can best meet the needs of our community in these increasingly modern times. With this long-term administration intent of hand-picking its successors, there is a danger of less accountability to the public at large. For example, during LaWall's terms, prosecutors have been reprimanded by the Arizona State Bar, disbarred, and murder convictions have been reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct from her office. Continuing the same regime is akin to having the "fox guarding the chicken coop" time and time again and is not healthy. Allowing the same head of the office to continue signals to some assistant prosecutors the green light to conduct disreputable conduct without any repercussions.

We need to break the 44-year Neely-LaWall stranglehold on that office and move in a new direction with more accountability for for the citizens of Pima County. Laura Conover is the person to do it.

Jimmy Fein is a former deputy Pima County attorney and licensed Arizona attorney at law since 1974. He is former president of the Arizona Association for Justice (aka Arizona Trial Lawyers Association) and former chair of the Democratic Nucleus Club. He has lived in Tucson since 1973.

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2 comments on this story

Jul 21, 2020, 5:50 pm
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Steve Neely wrote a reply to the OpEd article I wrote that appeared in your newspaper. 

Steve resigned from the Pima County Attorney’s office before his term expired in 1996.  As near as I can recall, Steve and his wonderful and beautiful wife Lynn decided to pick up and move to New Zealand with their young family and seek citizenship there.  He apparently wanted nothing further to do with our city, county, state or country, which of course is his right.  Now, out of nowhere, he reappears representing himself as an expert on Pima County Democratic politics after being absent for more than 25 years of inactivity.  Makes you wonder about who contacted him and his motivation to speak after all these years.

Steve was preceded in office by Dennis DeConcini, an outstanding County Attorney who of course went on to serve 3 distinguished terms in the United States Senate.  Dennis was not a prosecutor nor even a trial lawyer for that matter, but he was an excellent administrator and it served him well.  In my opinion, he was the best County Attorney in my lifetime in Tucson, without any prosecutorial experience. 

Steve, you don’t need to be a career prosecutor to be a good county attorney.  You need someone with administrative experience and knowledge of criminal law. How many cases did you try after you became County Attorney?…..none I recall.

Steve I don’t know if you even live in Pima County or the United States but your views on this office are outdated and passe. 

Laura Conover will lead this office just as Dennis DeConcini did with honor and distinction.  She has full knowledge of criminal law and is an experienced administrator.  Time for a change my friend!

Jul 17, 2020, 2:52 pm
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It is important that conversations about the race for County be undertaken with complete candor. My name is Steve Neely. I was Pima County Attorney from 1976-96. I have some knowledge about some of Jimmy Fein’s topics here which puts me a step ahead of him.

First, let me touch on the topic “hand picked.” I was endorsed by my predecessor, but I was not hand picked him or by anyone. I was also endorsed by two other previous county attorneys and they didn’t hand pick me either. I was re-elected four times by wide margins so perhaps the voters who knew me well hand picked me. That is as it should be.

When I was leaving office my two Chief Deputies informed me that they would run for the office. Barbara was one of them. I didn’t solicit or hand pick either of them to run. I did endorse Barbara in the primary because she was running against a defense attorney. I believed then as I believe now for obvious reasons that a career defense attorney has no business running the County Attorney’s Office. That would be Jimmy’s proverbial fox in the henhouse, wouldn’t it?

Jimmy should remember that after Barbara won her primary, I endorsed both candidates, because both were experienced prosecutors. So much for “hand picked.”

Finally, as to his absurd contention that somehow “accountability” can be improved by electing his defense attorney friend, let me point out that prosecutors are held accountable by judges, including on appeal and by the Bar Association. County Attorneys are held accountable by the voters. Between us, his so-called “Neely-LaWall stranglehold” was renewed nine times by the voters of this county. Defense attorneys and their criminal clients probably didnt approve, but then they shouldn’t have the right of approval, should they?

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