New U.S. Attorney for Arizona

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Meet Arizona’s new U.S. Attorney John Leonardo and hear what he has to say about the role and responsibilities of his office, as well as some of the high profile cases it’s involved with.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. A measure to make permanent a one-cent state sales tax can go to November's ballot, that ruling today from a three-judge panel of the state Supreme Court. The measure was challenged by Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who said that language on petition sheets did not match language provided to his office. The Court today ruled that supporters of the initiative did substantially comply with requirements regarding initial applications. John Leonardo was sworn in last month as the new Attorney for Arizona. Leonardo is a former Pima County Superior Court judge and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney. He replaces Dennis Burke, who resigned amid fallout from the fast and furious investigation. Joining us is U.S. Attorney for Arizona, John Leonardo. Good of you to join us.

John Leonardo: Thank you for having me.

Ted Simons: What is the role of the U.S. Attorney?

John Leonardo: The US Attorney is the chief federal law enforcement officer for the district; in this case the district encompasses the state of Arizona. We are responsible for prosecuting all federal crime in the district. We are responsible for defending the United States in all civil suits. And we're also responsible for collecting those debts that are owed the United States that can't be collected through administrative process. That, in essence, is it.

Ted Simons: You are the federal arm in Arizona.

John Leonardo: That's correct.

Ted Simons: Let's get to some high-profile cases here. I've got to ask you, does federal law preempt Arizona's medical marijuana law?

John Leonardo: It does. We have an unusual situation where medical marijuana laws have been passed, and they conflict with a federal law that still prohibits the possession and use of marijuana. So there we are, and that creates some anxiety with folks, undoubtedly. But there is that conflict. The only way to eliminate it is to ask your federal Congresswoman or Congressman to change the federal law.

Ted Simons: But the concern is that state, county, local workers might be at risk of prosecution once this particular program is enacted. Is that a legitimate risk?

John Leonardo: All I can say is what the Department of Justice has already said. And I think many other U.S. Attorneys across the country have said. That is that we are interested in prosecuting significant controlled substance traffickers, including marijuana. But we have limited resources. We have to marshal those resources in areas where we think we can have the most impact on public health and safety. It's unlikely that we will ever conclude that the prosecution of people who are using marijuana for medical purposes, who have suffered from serious diseases like cancer and are in compliance with the state law are going to be the subject of our scrutiny.

Ted Simons: I know the 13 to 15 county sheriffs and prosecutors got together and sent a letter to the Governor. One of the prosecutors said that you fully intend to keep these dispensaries from operating in Arizona, and you fully intend to go ahead and seize these things once the operation begins. Do you fully intend to do those things?

John Leonardo: No, those statements that were attributed to me were inaccurate. We've never made those statements. Our position has always been as I've just stated it.

Ted Simons: Selective enforcement sounds like a pejorative, but there seems to be some going on here. Does that correlate with the prosecutorial discretion when dealing with illegal immigration?

John Leonardo: Every prosecutor exercised prosecutorial discretion and that's the result of inevitably having insufficient resources to prosecute every crime that comes to your attention. That's in every prosecutor's office in the town or country, whether it's federal, state or local. It's just an extension of that. You have to decide, what are the cases that are the most significant? That could depend on a number of factors, such as the criminal history of the person that did this, is there some other agency that can prosecute other than the United States Attorney's Office, and most can be prosecuted by other authorities. Some of those are considerations that you would take under review when you're deciding whether or not to prosecute a case.

Ted Simons: Does it seem unusual to you -- you were an assistant for 20 some odd years and a judge, as well. Does it seem unusual to have these kinds of side-by-side issues, it's against the law but -- it's against the law but.

John Leonardo: It is unusual to have those situations. One of the bedrock principles of criminal law that is people can project whether their activities or actions are going subject them to criminal prosecution. People need to be able to predict that in order to order their lives. This flies in the face of that to some extent. It is the result of the laws on the books, the state law and the federal law. We are not the lawmakers or the law interpreters. We're the Executive Branch of the government and it's our responsibility to enforce the law.

Ted Simons: Jared Loughner, no death penalty for Jared Loughner. Do you think that was right? Do you think that was fair?

John Leonardo: I do. The statement I made subsequent to the change of plea reflected that, I think. It's a very considered decision. We decided, given Mr. Loughner's significant mental health issues that went undiagnosed and untreated for a long time before the shooting occurred, and still existed afterwards, made it clear to us that this was the only logical solution to this case. We made that argument to the attorney general, who has the final word in deciding whether or not to seek the death penalty. He concurred with our judgment. We also of course consulted with all the victims before that offer was made and they were all supportive.

Ted Simons: And that was big impact, consulting with the victims, Gabrielle Giffords included?

John Leonardo: It was an important aspect of our decision-making.

Ted Simons: For critics who say if there is a death penalty and it doesn't apply here, then there is, de facto, no death penalty, how would you respond?

John Leonardo: Well, there is of course a death penalty. You have under federal law a person's mental state at the time that they committed the offense, as well as at the time of trial are significant considerations. And there was still a chance that a jury could have found that he was mentally incompetent at the time of the offense, which would have avoided the death penalty, even if we had sought it. Keep in mind, even if he had been convicted and the jury had imposed the death penalty, it takes an average of 18 to 20 years before the appeals run on, and the sentence is actually executed. Not to mention the significant expense of housing somebody during that period of time in a death row situation which is usually isolated and expensive.

Ted Simons: Before we let you go, we have to ask regarding the federal allegations regarding abuse of power with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, what can you tell us? What can you say about this? It seems it has gone on forever. Any information?

John Leonardo: I can't really tell you anything. Because of my prior history as a judge ruling on a matter that touched on the Maricopa County sheriff's office, I recused myself from any investigation of him or his office. I can't tell you what's going on in our office, and I can't tell what you has gone on in the past. I'm just out of the informational loop, as well as the decision-making loop. Anne Shield was the acting U.S. Attorney prior to my appointment, the person in charge of whatever investigation there is in that regard.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, is it a surprise it's gone on -- does something like this usually go on this long?

John Leonardo: It is important to conclude investigations, if there are investigations. But it's more important to get it right. It's more important to make the right decision as to whether there is sufficient evidence to go forward or there isn't. That's the key.

Ted Simons: All right, it's good to have you here. Thanks for joining us, we appreciate it.

John Leonardo: Thank you for asking me.

John Leonardo:U.S. Attorney for Arizona;

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