Does Bill Montgomery know enough about justice to be one?

February 28, 2019 6:03 am

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery likes to refer to his experience as a line prosecutor when he addresses the media in his regular press conferences.

But if you look at his bio on the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office website, that experience is only alluded to hazily.

And now, his name is in consideration to fill a soon-to-be vacant seat on the Arizona Supreme Court.

Recently, defense attorney Mikel Steinfeld wrote on this site that Montgomery lacked the qualifications to serve as a justice because, “He can’t fairly consider misconduct allegations, is driven by ideology and lacks appellate experience crucial to the highest court in our state.”

The truth is that Montgomery has spent nearly twice as much time supervising prosecutors as actually serving on any “line.”

In fact, he has exactly five years’ experience prosecuting cases — those years are not contiguous — and many of the most serious cases he tried were motor-vehicle offenses.

And while Steinfeld alluded to Montgomery’s willingness to look the other way on prosecutor misconduct and police use of force, he didn’t mention the tendency to slow-walk or seal public records that the public should be entitled to.

Montgomery frequently refuses requests for comment from reporters, preferring to demand corrections after a story is published – corrections he refers to as “retractions,” as if the portions of the story he does not like are false statements.

Judging from my past experience covering Montgomery for The Arizona Republic, his response to the above paragraph would likely be, “You are not an attorney.”

Montgomery is an attorney. He has been for nearly 18 years, eight of those as Maricopa County Attorney.

That’s the longest tenure of any job he’s held since he left the military.

Montgomery, 51, graduated from the Arizona State University College of Law in 2001 after serving as an Army officer and working in business as a product marketing engineer.

After law school, he went right to work in then-Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley’s office, first as an intern, then a provisional hire, then as a deputy county attorney. He left the office after three years and four months, according to his application to the Arizona Supreme Court. He recently told an Arizona Republic reporter that he joined a private practice because he wasn’t earning enough money, but he only stayed there for 13 months.

In 2005, Montgomery joined a victims’ rights agency as a staff attorney and spent another 13 months there.

Then, in 2006, with five years’ experience as an attorney, three of them as a prosecutor, he decided he was ready to run for the office of Arizona Attorney General. He lost the race to Terry Goddard.

Montgomery returned to victims’ rights for another eight months, then went back to the same private law partnership as before for 13 months and then landed back in Andrew Thomas’ Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, where he rose to the position of chief of the motor vehicle crimes bureau.

In 2010, Thomas resigned as county attorney to run for attorney general, and Montgomery put his name in the hat to be appointed to the vacancy by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. The supervisors chose Romley instead, so Montgomery resigned from the County Attorney’s Office. His second stint with MCAO lasted one year and eight months. His total time as a line prosecutor: five years.

That November, he defeated Romley in a special election. He has been county attorney ever since.

I fell from Montgomery’s favor in 2014, after The Arizona Republic published my series about prosecutorial misconduct, including an article about star prosecutor Juan Martinez, who has been the subject of several bar complaints over the last few years.

In 2016, I set up an interview in a Maricopa County jail with a young man who had been charged with bank robbery and other crimes.  

When I arrived at the jail, I encountered an MCAO investigator who informed me that he was sent to tape record my interview with the prisoner.

I told him, “Hell no!” and immediately called the county attorney’s public information officer, who told me it was done all the time. I responded that it was not and called the newspaper’s attorney, who told me to make a record of it.

Essentially, I read the young man his Miranda rights and warned him that anything he said to me could be used against him in his case. He agreed to talk anyway.

My editors were furious with the incursion by Montgomery’s office. I filed public records requests asking for the policy statement, the metadata supporting it and other information. We soon discovered that reporters at other outlets were being followed and recorded as well, and our attorneys sent out letters to Montgomery and then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose office ran the jails.

The next day, I asked Montgomery about the policy in a regularly scheduled press conference.

He echoed the notion that it was done all the time and that anything said in jail was public and subject to recording.

When I responded that it came close to violating the First Amendment, Arizona’s reporter shield and reporter subpoena laws, case law ruling that reporters should not be used as surrogate investigators, and the prisoner’s Fifth Amendment right to have an attorney present when law enforcement is listening in, he responded, “You are not an attorney.”

It was Arpaio who subsequently ordered that his jailhouse staffers stop allowing county attorney’s investigators to monitor press interviews.

That same year, I was preparing reports on serial killings that took place in 2006 and was blocked from interviewing any of the prosecutors who handled the cases.

“Bill thinks you don’t give him a fair shake,” I was told by a spokesman. “Maybe if you mend some fences…”

A year later, in 2017, Montgomery came to The Republic offices to upbraid me and my editor for a story I wrote about how prosecutor delays in filing intent-to-seek-the-death- penalty notices against defendants had taxed the availability of death-qualified defense attorneys.

I had asked for comment while reporting the story. Montgomery declined through his new spokeswoman, then sought a correction on the statistics and wanted me taken to task because he didn’t like the story.

My editor and I reminded him that he had refused to comment.

I also brought up the time he had me followed into the jail.

“I didn’t have you followed,” he said, raising his voice. And then, out of nowhere, he said, “I didn’t put a GPS device on your car.”

Then, in the following days, when he didn’t get an apology, he went to the newspaper publisher under the pretense of a meet-and-greet, where he announced he had a bone to pick about me.

Meanwhile, public records requests from reporters all over the newspaper were being slow-walked by Montgomery’s office. Requests for death records from the Medical Examiner’s Office had to be screened by the County Attorney’s Office for approval, for example. Even the county Office of Contract Counsel, which hires and supervises defense attorneys that handle indigent cases the public defender offices can’t take, deferred to MCAO before releasing public records.

In May 2018, Republic reporters got hold of a letter Montgomery wrote to municipal police departments, over which he holds no jurisdictional authority, warning them not to release public records to the media without his approval, under threat of monetary sanctions.

Especially at issue was video footage from officer-worn body cameras. Local police departments have different policies about when it suits them to release it.

Consider the Tempe police recently turning over footage of the fatal police shooting of a 14-year-old boy soon after the incident occurred.

Contrast that with Glendale Police Department’s actions. Until ABC15 obtained it earlier this month, the public was unaware video existed of Glendale police repeatedly tasing a man in 2017. The video shows an officer pulling a man from a car and tasing him over and over as he is prone on the ground, while the man and his children scream for officers to stop.

ABC15’s reporting discovered that police had filed aggravated assault charges against the man they tased, which is not uncommon. When prosecutors from Montgomery’s office viewed the video, they dropped the charges. They did not charge the officer with any crimes. And if the video had not been provided to ABC15, no one would ever have known about it.

The uproar from the public after its release, however, prompted Montgomery’s office to reconsider. And when Arizona Governor Doug Ducey told a reporter that the investigation had been “whitewashed,” Montgomery referred it to the FBI.

Under Arizona law, public records requests are supposed to be met in a timely manner. They can take six months for compliance from Montgomery’s office — if it acknowledges them at all.

In August 2018, I began asking for information about a rumored internal investigation into Juan Martinez’s conduct. In December, Montgomery told a different reporter that Martinez had indeed been disciplined, and I immediately asked for details.

I didn’t get any.

In December, while reading over documents open to the public in Martinez’s case before the Bar,  I discovered that Montgomery’s office had asked the Arizona Supreme Court’s disciplinary judge to seal those records in September. When I reported that in the newspaper, Montgomery’s office sent out an email saying the article contained misinformation because the County Attorney’s Office and the presiding judge had an agreement to seal all such information.

That had never been disclosed, which still seems to me to  contradict the public records laws.

But then again, I am not an attorney.

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Michael Kiefer
Michael Kiefer

Michael Kiefer has been a journalist in Arizona for 31 years, including 16 years at The Arizona Republic and eight at Phoenix New Times. Before that, he was an associate editor at Outside magazine and wrote for numerous publications, including Esquire, Playboy and The New York Times. He witnessed five Arizona executions and covered the topic from state murder trials to the U.S. Supreme Court.