Maricopa County Attorney

More from this show

The new Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery discusses how his office plans to enforce immigration laws and prosecute crime in Maricopa County.

Jose Cardenas: Bill Montgomery was sworn in as the new Maricopa County attorney back in November. Since he took office, he pledged to enforce illegal immigration law and help heal the relationship between he and the county supervisors. With me now to talk about the priorities for his office is Maricopa County attorney Bill Montgomery. Mr. Montgomery, welcome to "Horizonte."

Bill Montgomery: Thank you.

Jose Cardenas: First, congratulations on your election victory last year.

Bill Montgomery: Thank you very much.

Jose Cardenas: Before we get into that race and the steps you've taken since you've been the county attorney, give us a little bit about your background. I know you ran for attorney general back in 2006, but I dare say most people didn't know much about you until you did run for county attorney.

Bill Montgomery: Well, my sort of background begins in California where I was born and raised by a single mom. She raised myself and my younger brother and sister under pretty difficult circumstances, and we grew up just south of South Central Los Angeles near Watts and Compton in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. There were periods of time where the only source of income we had was welfare. But out of that environment, I had some opportunities to pursue other educational options, and I wound up being my high school's first graduate to go to West Point. I served 6½ years in the military on active duty, and subsequently wound up moving to northern California, where I met my wife, and we moved here to Arizona for me to go to law school at ASU. I wanted to be a prosecutor, and they had a unique prosecution fellowship opportunity that I competed for and won. Spent the third year of law school working as a prosecutor, and after that have spent the overwhelming balance of my legal career working in prosecution at the county attorney's office.

Jose Cardenas: You talked about difficult circumstances you faced growing up. You also faced pretty daunting circumstances when you took office. You took office in November, you were the third county attorney we had last year.

Bill Montgomery: Yes.

Jose Cardenas: An office in chaos. At least in terms of its relationships with the supervisors office. What is the first thing you did once you took office?

Bill Montgomery: One of the first things I did was to affirm and follow through on what I had said over the course of the campaign, which was that I intended to work in a cooperative and collaborative manner with the board of supervisors, collectively and individually, and other county officials. And so I started right off the bat by reaching out and sitting down with other officials and each member of the board of supervisors, sharing with them exactly what I intended to do, and we started work together by looking at how we could return the functions of civil litigation to the county attorney's office.

Jose Cardenas: That was something that the county supervisor had taken away from your office. How many lawyers were we talking about?

Bill Montgomery: We were talking about roughly 30 lawyers that the county administration had sort of hired. Some of whom did come from the county attorney's civil division, to perform litigation functions on behalf of the county. And as a consequence of an appellate court decision which said, no, you can't run this on a continuing basis, in fact, only by exception could you take control of any one particular case, I used that as an opportunity to reach out. We started discussing how we were going to return those functions, and over the course of that as well I made it very clear it was no longer my intention to litigate disputes with fellow county officials, but we were going to work through things. And so I'm proud to tell you here this evening that we've ended all litigation. There's been no additional contested hearings or cross filings of pleadings regarding the civil division, and we're at the stage where we're now working on the nuts and bolts of returning those positions to the county attorney's office.

Jose Cardenas: And what about criminal prosecutions aimed at the members of the board of supervisors?

Bill Montgomery: Well, for the most part those prosecutions were taken away from the office, so to speak, because of a court ruling that declared there was a conflict in having the county attorney's office provide civil representation and given the nature of the subject matter involved, then conducting criminal investigations and prosecutions. So one case was sent to Yavapai County, two were sent to Gila County, and as of the last couple weeks the case involving supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox was concluded in Gila County with the opinion rendered by the county attorney that there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction, and there was no reason to pursue that case. And I have since stated that absent any additional information, I have no intention of asking any other outside investigatory or prosecution agency to take another look at that. So that case is done for all intents and purposes. And I have taken the position that if there were allegations of wrongdoing by other county officials, given everything that we have been through in the last couple years, that I don't think it would be appropriate for me to carry out that investigation or prosecution, and that I would ask an outside agency to do that.

Jose Cardenas: So the criminal matters are concluded subject to any additional findings or evidence coming forward. But the civil aspects continue to haunt us. Most recently, just last week, your former boss, your predecessor, Andrew Thomas, along with Lisa Abubuchon, one of your colleagues, and David Hendershott of the sheriff's office, filed a notice of claim against the county for millions of dollars. On top of the millions of dollars that other -- the people were basically on the other side of these issues have already filed. What are we to make of all of that?

Bill Montgomery: Well, the total amount claimed thus far or requested in order to satisfy claims is over $100 million. And it's very troubling as a citizen of Maricopa County and as a taxpayer, and now as an elected official, it's sort of disappointing to see where all of that fighting has taken us. Really at this point what I would like to say to everyone is put your lawyer down, and back away from the court. It sounds facetious, but we have been too quick and too ready to try to litigate disputes and go to court to resolve matters that I think otherwise could and should have been resolved just in discussions between fellow elected officials.

Jose Cardenas: There are efforts underway to mediate these disputes, at least they were underway before the most recent round of findings. Do you see any prospect for resolution in the immediate future?

Bill Montgomery: Well, in the immediate future I'm not so certain. I've been named in my official capacity, I certainly would --

Jose Cardenas: as a defendant.

Bill Montgomery: Yes. And I believe that it would certainly be in the county's best interest for us to get these resolved as quickly as possible. Because the very fact we have lawsuits pending makes it difficult in many ways to try to be able to work through the day-to-day aspects of county government. And for folks to be able to do their job. And I think it is in the best interest of Maricopa County citizens and taxpayers for to us get these suits taken care of at an absolute minimum cost. I don't think it would be an unreasonable suggestion that if we were to cover reasonable attorneys' fees for everyone and call it a day, that I think we would be able to meet the objective of minimizing expense to taxpayers, recognize the cost that some folks have gone through in trying to defend themselves, and having to engage council for a myriad of different proceedings. But at the end of the day, just about everybody involved was in a position where they were serving the people of Maricopa County. And I think that should be the highest focal point that we look to as we try to move through these proceedings and get everything resolved.

Jose Cardenas: I do want to talk about other areas in which you seem to have taken a different path than your predecessor, Mr. Thomas. But there is one area where you seem to be on a similar path, and it may be of great concern to some in the Hispanic community, and that is the subject of illegal immigration. You were very candid during the campaign, and since then in talking about the importance of your office dealing with that. I think there are many who hope that it's not as high a priority as it was for Mr. Thomas. But tell us what your position is on that, and then we want to discuss a few specifics.

Bill Montgomery: Sure. Well, my general approach to illegal immigration is focused first and foremost on what my responsibility is to the community as a law enforcement official. And so as I look at the issue, my concern is the criminal consequences and the criminal impact of illegal immigration. And I'll illustrate it for you this way. I'm not looking to be the illegal immigration county attorney. But as the county attorney for a destination county for human and drug smuggling, if I don't appreciate the impact of illegal immigration on our community, and when I say our community I mean the totality of it, whether it's a drop house in south Phoenix, or north Scottsdale, crime associated with human smuggling affects all of us, regardless of what your racial or cultural or ethnic background might be. We're all in the same community. So when I look at human smuggling, I think, OK, there's several components to this. I mentioned the drop houses. But there's also the reality that as long as human smuggling is being undertaken as a legitimate criminal enterprise, that doesn't sound too much like an oxymoron, where people think they can smuggle folks into the United States illegally and make money off of it, we run the continuing reality of having people die in our southern desert. And I think that that is a human rights tragedy. I recall several years ago during my campaign for attorney general there was the story of a mother who was being smuggled through the desert with a coyote, who left her alone, in the middle of the night, and pointed out the lights of Phoenix to her and said, that's where you need to get to. And at night it looks like Phoenix is not more than maybe 10 hours away. Over the course of the next day while she's walking and trying to travel and make it to Phoenix, she gets to a point where she winds up leaving her 3-year-old behind. And border patrol catches her, and it's only after several hours of being questioned that she then finally relates to the border patrol agent that her son is still out there. By the time they get to him that little boy was dead. It is a tragedy. It's something that I don't find -- it's incomprehensible for us as human beings to allow a system to continue where a tragedy like that can occur. And so to address it I've talked about indicting both the coyotes and their clients, as human smuggling coconspirators. I want to cut down on the number of coyotes engaged in this criminal conduct, and I want to impact people who think that that's something that they can negotiate for the services of a coyote and have an expectation that they can get smuggled across our desert and make it up here to Phoenix to be able to find a job. The reality is that that's not really happening. And instead for a lot of people, they wind up in employment situations where they're being taken advantage of. They're being paid substandard wages, and substandard conditions. And that's another thing that I think I have a responsibility to look out for. The short-term view is to say that you're just trying time pact illegal immigration. I am, but the greater context for it is that I'm also concerned about the impact on our community, and for other people being taken advantage of in those conditions.

Jose Cardenas: There's some who -- or many who would agree with what you just said, but you've made some comments that make some wonder whether it's a political issue for you in terms of perhaps possible future office, higher than the county attorney, in the same way that it was for Andrew Thomas. We have a quote of a statement you made at what I understand to have been a Republican party function on January 8th.

Bill Montgomery: Yes.

Jose Cardenas: That we want to show on the screen regarding the subject of illegal immigration and you had just begun your remarks and right after the introductory statements as we have on the screen you say, at the state level I look forward to working with our attorney general Tom Horne to make sure we do all we can in Arizona to fight illegal immigration. And it makes it sound like that's your number one priority. I know have you other priorities, but this is the one you led with.

Bill Montgomery: Well, it was. And it's because there is a concern that going forward, we're going to have a continued law enforcement approach to dealing with illegal immigration, and so I refer to Tom Horne. I didn't return to our congressional delegation or to our governor, or to others who would be involved in the public policy aspect of it. That's where I say, my voice in talking about the impact of illegal immigration on Maricopa County and Arizona is one voice that I can participate in that conversation, but I'm not going to drive that public policy. When we talk about the law enforcement aspect of it, that is the proper form for me to have a role, because of the nature of what we deal with in Maricopa County, I think that's an appropriate place for me to act in trying to address the impact of illegal immigration.

Jose Cardenas: Is securing the border an appropriate issue for the Maricopa County attorney's office?

Bill Montgomery: Well, when I talk about the issue in its totality, that's one aspect. If we wanted to talk about illegal immigration as a general issue, not just the law enforcement --

Jose Cardenas: let me explain the context in which I ask. After you made that statement about working with Tom Horne, you then went on to make references to SB 1070, the government's lawsuit, the federal government's lawsuit against the state, you then made some comments about giving homeland secretary Janet Napolitano a gun and putting her on the border. Obviously to a certain degree tongue in cheek, but it was as if you were running up the Republican party base there on an issue that is pretty emotionally charged to begin with.

Bill Montgomery: It can be. And Jose I would ask people to also focus in on exactly what I said, and the language I used and the way I communicated it. Because it wasn't focused on any particular group of people, I identified a problem, and I identified some actors at the federal level who have failed to do their job that then leaves it to us here in Arizona to try to do what we can in our positions of responsibility to address the issue. And I made my reference to giving Janet a rifle and a couple pairs of combat boots was specifically in reference to her statement that's boarder is now more secure than ever. And I dare say that the family of Robert Krentz or the family of border agent Terry would beg to differ.

Jose Cardenas: And you can point to instances where bad things have happened, but isn't that true, that there is more enforcement at the border by many -- multiple folds, in terms of thousands more people at the border, securing the border, arrests, which are some indication of how many people are crossing, are way down, and so hasn't the situation actually improved?

Bill Montgomery: Well, when we talk about border security, I think an important part of that is looking at the incidents and what we're seeing on the border. Because violence is on the increase. There have been more instances of violence over the border patrol agents than we've seen before, and certainly I think there is a legitimate concern about creeping cartel violence. And this is another -- I think a difference between how I deal with this issue and what those who would like to just deal in the rhetoric have addressed it. I think if we were to secure the border, we were to cut down on those smuggling avenues for cartels, be it drug or human, and/or both, we would also benefit Mexican citizens on the southern side of the border who over the last several years I think the number now is upwards of 40,000 have died in border violence, cartel violence, that has occurred in Mexico. And that sort of in a way is a shared tragedy. Because the United States and Mexico are more than just border neighbors, our cultures are intertwined. Our futures along the southern part of our border and the northern part of the Mexican border are intertwined. And I think that we have a shared interest in wanting to move forward and address that type of violence. So border security and the ultimate cooperation that would be necessary in order to do that I think is a positive thing to be talking about. And I think a responsible thing for us to be talking about.

Jose Cardenas: You talked about avoiding rhetoric. But at the same January 8th meeting, there was some pretty strong rhetoric coming from you, it is time -- this time you're referring to the results of the last election and going forward. And we've got some -- a couple of quotes I want to use. Usual referring to the last election, and how that was a vote against legislation and arrogance, and then you made this statement "and this next election cycle we will vote against individuals and their arrogance. We need to assure Barack Obama and his Chicago goons are one and done." And then you ended your remarks, right near the end, with another pretty strong statement that we want to put up on the screen. And then discuss both of them. And this follows some further talk about conservative principles, individual rights and so forth. But then you say, "but as we have seen, those principles have been under assault from an administration that will not honor the term under which it operates socialism in many instances, communism in others, and has tried to fool the American people into believing that if we can give you everything you want, you'll give us everything we need as a government to control and to have all powers centralized in one entity. Well, we fought a revolution to say no to that, and we are going to do it again in two years." The sad irony, and I know you weren't aware of this, is that that's the same day that congresswoman Giffords was shot. So I'm sure you would agree that was a poor choice of words.

Bill Montgomery: Well, actually, no. Because what I'm referring to there inherently involves our political process. 20 years ago I fought in the first Gulf War to defend our constitution and our country. And I would never advocate nor would I stand for the violent overthrow of our nation.

Jose Cardenas: You're referring to the revolution?

Bill Montgomery: Correct.

Jose Cardenas: What about -- a lot of the discussion since the shooting has been about the tone of civility, and what we need, and do you really think it's consistent with that principle, to talk about the president and his goons?

Bill Montgomery: Well, given the fact Rahm Emanuel got tossed off the ballot in Chicago after trying to come back and force his way into the mayoral race there and the seat there, I don't think I'm far off the mark.

Jose Cardenas: Calling -- referring to the president's advisor as goons?

Bill Montgomery: Yeah. I really don't think I'm far off the mark. And I also don't think that in using that term it in any way implicates a violent reaction.

Jose Cardenas: Don't you think as an elected official and as a member of the legal community, someone who is sworn to uphold the law, we talk about respect for the law and the institutions, that this country has, that you have maybe a higher standard?

Bill Montgomery: Well, certainly. And I think that as we engage in this debate about what civility is, we cannot define civility to say that we also cannot point out distinct differences in political philosophy or specific differences in policy approach, or to call a spade a spade. Let's not forget, Rahm Emanuel, one of the president's goons, famously went into a shower after a fellow democrat law enforcement to try to tell him exactly how to vote on a particular issue. I think that's the behavior of a goon. So I think that particular term was pretty specific and accurate. But that doesn't mean that I would advocate or accept that that term in and of itself would legitimize or give anyone the excuse to engage in any sort of violence. One of the things we have to be very careful about as we are defining the contours of what civic debate is going to be going forward is that we don't cast a pall over the first amendment, and --

Jose Cardenas: I think most people would agree. Let me ask you one more question about the quotes, and then I want to talk about sentencing reform, because I know that's important to you.

Bill Montgomery: Sure.

Jose Cardenas: Do you really think the president is a communist?

Bill Montgomery: I wouldn't call him a communist --

Jose Cardenas: isn't that basically what you did?

Bill Montgomery: No, I referred to policies and what the administration is doing as referencing socialism and communism. I didn't necessarily call him a communist. But for someone who believes in wealth redistribution, who would use the power of his office to try to force legislation, what we saw with the health care legislation, to dictate to Americans exactly how they should conduct a particular course of their life, does fall under the banner of socialism and/or communism. Particularly when --

Jose Cardenas: I do want to move on, but I appreciate that comment. Sentencing reform. In this current budget crisis, many are saying, we are putting too many people in jail, and that's the problem, if and if we cut back on that we would be fine. What are your thoughts on that?

Bill Montgomery: I think it's a very short sighted and it doesn't take into account the reality of who we have in Arizona's prisons. Almost 95% of those in Arizona's prisons right now are there for repeat felonies, they've committed more than one in many instances more than two felonies, or they're there for a violent crime. That's exactly who we want in prison. Those who are most responsible for harming our community, and fellow citizens. And of the remaining roughly 5%, the overwhelming majority of those are there for drug trafficking or drug sale convictions. Again, a portion of the criminal population that we want to be in prison because of the harm they render to our community and fellow citizens. So when we're engaged in this and we talk about what -- we could just save money if we had fewer people going to prison the reality is this -- right now we have a very large diversion program for first and second-time drug offenders in Maricopa County, where we try to get those folks the rehabilitation services that they may need, to help them overcome an addiction. And you have to work hard to go to prison in Arizona. Your first felony conviction, unless is it a dangerous offense, or particularly violent offense such as causing serious physical injury or murder, or a sex offense, or a crime against a child, you're going to get probation. The second time you come through again with another felony, most of the plea policies in place will permit a court to place that person on probation again. So when we talk about sentencing reform, that's the reality of what we face.

Jose Cardenas: Bill, we're almost out of time. We talked off camera about how you want the Hispanic community to view your office. Especially given past experience. We've only got a few seconds.

Bill Montgomery: Sure. I refuse to segment and divide our community along any racial or ethnic lines. The own community I grew up in was predominantly Hispanic, and those were folks that I played with and went to school with, went to mass with. So I have an affection for the Hispanic community and a different approach to seeing us as an integrated communicated overall.

Jose Cardenas: People should be comforted they can report crimes, go to the county attorney's office without fear that they'll be deported or treated unfairly.

Bill Montgomery: Absolutely. When it comes to criminal conduct, that's my focus. And I'm not interested in going after victims of crime or witnesses to crime. Based on their residency status.

Jose Cardenas: On that note we're going to have to end the interview. Thank you for joining us on "Horizonte." It was pleasure to have you here.

Bill Montgomery: Thank you Jose.

Bill Montgomery:Maricopa County Attorney;

airs Feb. 28

Desert Dreams: Celebrating Five Seasons in the Sonoran Desert

Barry Gibb singing (Bee Gees: In Our Own Time)
aired Feb. 24

Bee Gees: In Our Own Time

A cute little duckling with text reading: Arizona PBS Ducks in a Row Event
March 6

Getting Your Ducks in a Row to Avoid Conflict When You Are Gone

Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson
aired Feb. 23

The Highwaymen: Live at Nassau Coliseum

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: