Maria Brandon Testifies on Retaliation by Ex-Bosses at Maricopa County Attorney's Office
Maria Brandon's federal wrongful-firing complaint is a messy leftover of years of infighting among Maricopa County officials.
But unlike lawsuits that have resulted in millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded settlement payouts to former county leaders and judges, this one's gone to trial.
The veteran lawyer accuses her former bosses at the County Attorney's Office of retaliating against and firing her in 2011, essentially because she was too good at her job defending Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
On Tuesday, as the trial at the federal courthouse in Phoenix kicked off, Brandon took the stand and described how county leaders conspired to retaliate against her after she talked to an Arizona Republic reporter.
County Attorney Bill Montgomery and several top officials in his office, such as Tom Liddy, are scheduled to testify at some point. So is Sandi Wilson, deputy county manager, and Rocky Armfield, former county risk manager who's now the director of risk management for the Maricopa Integrated Health System. The latter three were in the courtroom observing the first day of proceedings on Tuesday.
Brandon filed her federal complaint in April 2012. She's been a lawyer for a long time -- a very long time. The Donny and Marie Show was still on the air in 1979, when she started as a lawyer for the county. She's worked for the County Attorney's Office since 1986. These days, she's working as a part-time county court commissioner.
A few years ago, in the chaos of the "unholy collaboration" of disgraced ex-County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Brandon got stuck defending -- among other things -- lawsuits against Arpaio's office. In particular, she represented the Sheriff's Office in a case brought by seven protesters arrested in 2008. She figured the protesters, whose trumped-up criminal cases had all been dropped, could get by on $7,500 or less each to settle their subsequent civil lawsuits.
After two county lawyers and Armfield persuaded the county's self-insured trust board to raise the payout limit to a maximum of $100,000 per protester, a July 9, 2010 article by Craig Harris and Yvonne Wingett detailed the settlement amounts:
* Monica Sandschafer and Kristy Theilen each $99,999.On Tuesday, Brandon recalled getting Harris' phone call seeking comment on memos she'd authored that had leaked out of the MCSO. She told him she couldn't talk about them due to attorney-client privilege.
* Jason Odhner and Joel Nelson each $75,000.
* Guillermina Bethancourt and Ayensa Millan each $50,000.
* Raquel Teran $24,700.
The public release of the memos, it's clear from the 2010 article, would have been embarrassing to county leaders. In them, Brandon told Arpaio's former chief deputy, Dave Hendershott, that:
"...the county intended to start discussions with an offer of $2,000 per person and had no intention of giving away a lot of money...The article also served as a platform for Hendershott, the likely source of the leaked memos, to blast the county for the expensive settlements, which he called a "fraud."
"In a July 2 memo, Brandon stated that she and Armfield argued about the protesters, and he said it was OK to protest at the county's headquarters.
"'He says the animal masks and pig snouts are for 'fun.' I said, 'Will they like it the next time if it is skinheads and neo Nazis?' ' Brandon wrote."
In response to questions from her lawyer, Larry Cohen, Brandon recalled on the stand that Armfield called her after the article was published, asking for a copy of the memos. She told him she couldn't turn them over to him unless the Sheriff's Office agreed it was okay.
No one brought up the article until May 2011. After settling back into the office following her return from a vacation and work-related seminar, she noticed that she hadn't been assigned any new cases, she testified.
She asked Liddy what was going on. He told her that Armfield and Wilson didn't trust her work and that the Board of Supervisors had discussed her during an executive session, Brandon said. Wilson reportedly had asked Liddy, "What are we going to do about Maria?"
Liddy told her the problem Wilson had with her regarded her handling of a 1998 lawsuit for the county, Brandon said.
As documents filed in the lawsuit show, though, the county seems to have tied her firing to a June 2011 squabble between Brandon and a paralegal named Jackie Garcia at the County Attorney's Office. A squabble in which Garcia, a detective decided after interviewing witnesses, had been the aggressor.
Legal secretary Nadxiely Valerio stood next to the two women as they began to argue. Garcia, normally a quiet woman, was unusually loud, Valerio reported. It's unclear what the argument was about. Garcia said something like she was "done with this shit" or "something like I'm tired of this shit to Maria and then she said like you're not going to bully me like you bully everyone else in here," according to a report by Karen Ashley, a detective with the county attorney's professional standards unit.