Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall spent more than $12,200 in public funds in less than four years for 31 trips that took her out of the office in the heart of what has become one of the nation's leading crime cities. The trips amounted to more than 100 days for crime-talk junkets in such destinations as London, Vancouver, Washington, D.C., Florida, San Francisco and Monterey.
LaWall, a Democrat who is in her third term, is sometimes more accidental tourist than savvy traveler, including the time she used $107 in public funds for a rental car that she drove just 25 miles while attending a two-day conference in San Antonio in December 2003, according to county travel records and vouchers reviewed by the Weekly. Another time, LaWall flew to Seattle and drove a rented car to Vancouver as part of a conference and 10-trip in July 2004.
By state law, LaWall is paid $109,450 a year, and also receives health insurance and retirement benefits and use of a county car and the fuel it needs. She sometimes nickels and dimes Pima County, refusing to pay for airport parking, forcing use of public funds for a political appearance at a $15 Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce breakfast, and paying retail for gas at least once when she and other county officials can fill up at county pumps at significantly lower cost.
Devotion to prosecutor associations and conferences took LaWall to Monterey at a critical time, some say a crisis, last year after the Oct. 5 murder of Dr. David Brian Stidham. LaWall was out of her office for a week following the Oct. 15 arrest of Dr. Bradley A. Schwartz, Stidham's former employer, and Ronald Bruce Bigger, the man accused of killing Stidham for Schwartz. Both men say they are not guilty and are in Pima County Jail awaiting Feb. 28 trial on first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. She was on that trip as Deputy County Attorney Baird Greene was presenting the case to the grand jury.
The murder rocked LaWall's office. Schwartz had been engaged to Lourdes Lopez, a deputy prosecutor until LaWall forced her to resign in August 2002 pending federal drug charges against Lopez and Schwartz. Lopez remained close with several people in the County Attorney's Office. She also failed to notify police or warn Stidham of Schwartz's supposed murderous rants. She told a detective three days after the murder that she had told Paul Skitzki, a well-regarded prosecutor, of Schwartz's obsession prior to the murder.
Skitzki denies Lopez told her anything of the sort before the murder and he compelled her to go to the police. LaWall fired him. He is now an assistant public defender. Also in the days and weeks after Stidham was killed, Brad Roach, a former prosecutor now in private practice, was pressing for LaWall and her top management to declare a conflict of interest because of Lopez's connections and because Roach, who had to rescue Lopez from Schwartz during a domestic violence episode, detested Schwartz. He said defense attorneys would assert a "rush to judgment" defense--based on his and other prosecutors' dislike for Schwartz. LaWall suspended Roach and two others for three weeks in December. He appealed and his suspension was erased.
Pressure built to transfer the Schwartz-Bigger case, a prize for any prosecution team, to another Arizona county attorney after Schwartz and Bigger faced their Oct. 25 indictment and their Nov. 4 arraignments. LaWall eventually shipped the case to the Pinal County Attorney's Office. The conflicts also prompted an internal investigation that led to the discipline LaWall dished out later.
"I am in daily contact with staff and my chief deputies (David Berkman, criminal, and Amelia Craig Cramer, civil) wherever I am and was in regular contact with my office and with my chief criminal deputy during this time," LaWall said in a written response.
"My being on business out of the office had no effect upon the course of our investigation," LaWall said.
Three weeks later, LaWall was in Los Angeles for a conference titled "Living up to the Public Trust." She spent $356 in public funds for that trip.
LaWall, in two days of testimony before the county Merit Commission that heard appeals from Roach, Skitzki and Nicki DiCampli, complained that the three violated ethical standards and rules.
The "Living up to the Public Trust" conference included "how to identify, create and sustain an ethical organizational culture; the five principles of public service ethics; beyond compliance; conflicts of interest; evaluating character and ethics in hiring; promoting and selecting employees; and improving ethical decision-making, among other things," LaWall told the Weekly. "This training provided tools that are being implemented throughout my office to instill ethical principles even more broadly than are mandated by the (Arizona) Supreme Court's ethics rules for attorneys and my own formal office policies. This training was valuable because it provided some insight and tools to use to determine what level of discipline to impose upon these deputies (prosecutors). This is not a matter I took lightly."
LaWall testified that she was shocked to learn of all of the connections in her office and more than once called the lawyers in her office who were close with Lopez "an insidious group of friends."
Lawyers for Stidham's widow, Daphne, and their two children, Alexandre and Catherine, led by Philip Hall and Gerald Maltz of Haralson, Miller, Pitt, Feldman & McAnally, have filed suit against LaWall alleging negligence and breach of fiduciary duty. The suit also names the Lopez, Skitzki and the county.
A former TUSD English teacher whose 32-year legal career has been entirely with the County Attorney's Office, LaWall insists that her trips are justified chiefly because of her membership and leadership in a range of prosecutors' associations, the exchange of ideas at the conferences, her non-stop touting of her Pima County programs, and the fact that more than 91 percent of what her travel cost was paid by RICO funds.
She is the steward of the state and local version of RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) fund, one built with the seized and forfeited cash and assets of criminals. LaWall has wide latitude with money from her RICO account, which totals $4.38 million for the 2005-06 fiscal year that began July 1, according to the Pima County budget. Most--$3.3 million of the $4.02 million--of the antiracketeering revenue for the county this year will come from asset seizures from racketeering cases. LaWall's office and several sheriff accounts share a RICO pool.
Spending of county RICO funds this year is more than four times than the $1.06 million it was four years ago, county records show.
The RICO monies and some other sources of LaWall's budget, including grants, are not part of the $17.3 million, of a $27 million budget, that is fully supported by Pima County taxpayers.
Sponsoring associations sometimes paid for portions of LaWall's trip, be it airfare or hotel.
Much of her travel time was for conferences and meetings of the National District Attorneys Association, which bills itself as the "nation's largest, primary and most influential organization of prosecuting attorneys," and its affiliate, the American Prosecutors Research Institute.
"All 15 elected Arizona County Attorneys are members of the NDAA and I am privileged to represent them, as well as my community, as an elected NDAA board member and past vice president," LaWall said. "Participation in the NDAA and the APRI have provided more benefit to the Pima County taxpayer than can possibly be conveyed in my answers to your questions."
But she added that her participation in those two associations has resulted in the County Attorney's Office earning "a national and international reputation for outstanding accomplishment and excellence."
County records show LaWall spent at least $3,741 on seven trips to the National District Attorneys Association from July 2002 through May 1, 2005.
The most expensive, at $1,196, was for a five-day trip to the NDAA Metro Conference in Washington, D.C., in May of last year. It included a $300 registration fee for the conference titled "Fighting the Terror Within: The Realities of Prosecuting Domestic Terrorism."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist strikes against the United States, LaWall said, "the threat of terrorism has become a priority for every local and state prosecutor. The community expects its law enforcement leaders to take an active leadership role and to become pro-active in terrorism identification and prevention."
Without providing any information on what possible pro-active steps her office took to make arrests or to prevent terrorism, LaWall said: "Prosecutors are leaders in the fight against crime. In the Pima County Attorney's Office, we prosecute crimes on a daily basis that may be precursors to terrorist incidents, such as identity theft, money laundering, the sale of illicit drugs, and possession of prohibited weapons."
That was the second of four trips LaWall made to NDAA meetings within a seven-month span in 2004. Two months after the session in Washington, D.C., LaWall attended the association's summer conference in Vancouver from July 14 though July 24. She used $947 in public funds billed to the RICO account. LaWall said she was out of the office for six work days. LaWall flew to Seattle and rented a car for $394.54 to drive to Vancouver, where she paid a $20 daily parking fee.
"I was a faculty member and presenter at this conference to an audience of hundreds of elected and appointed district attorneys and Canadian Crown Prosecutors," LaWall said. "It is always a benefit to Pima County for its elected prosecutor and her office's programs to be acknowledged and recognized in national and international settings. As a result of my presentations at conferences, trainings and workshops, many of the innovative programs started in Pima County have since been replicated elsewhere."
Next NDAA stop: Monterey, where LaWall tapped public funds for a week in October for $538, including $397 for a Hertz car, which she upgraded at $9 a day and for which she kept an extra day at a cost of nearly $42.
In between the NDAA trips, LaWall spent $1,072 in public funds for four days in Scottsdale at the annual conference of the State Bar of Arizona. She and other members paid $165 a night for rooms at the Phoenician, the monument to convicted (conviction overturned) S&L operator Charles H Keating Jr.
LaWall said the Phoenician was one of the only hotels large enough to host the State Bar and said she "participated as an attendee and as panelist at Continuing Legal Education programs at the convention."
The Bar convention, LaWall said, also provided the opportunity to recruit lawyers.
LaWall's most expensive trip for the period reviewed was the April 29, 2003--May 1, 2003 trip to Washington, D.C., for the White House ceremony and signing of the Amber Alert bill. That trip to the Rose Garden cost $1,705 in public funds, primarily for travel.
"It was an honor and a privilege to be invited by the president to be present for this auspicious occasion," LaWall said. "The invitation was extended to me because of the leadership position I took in launching an Amber Alert missing child alert program in Pima County years earlier, and for helping bring such a vital and important program to the attention of the state legislature, who subsequently implemented a similar law in Arizona."
Three years ago, LaWall tapped $852 in public funds, for conference registration for the International Association of Prosecutors meeting in London. LaWall quickly pointed out that travel costs for the 16-day trip were picked up by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council. But it derives its money from publicly financed membership fees.
The trip was a benefit to Pima County, LaWall said, "because the topic, 'The Threat of Global Crime: Trafficking in Humans, Trafficking in Drugs and Trafficking in Money,' are issues at the very forefront of concern and importance in the world of prosecution in Arizona and especially Pima County.
"In addition to the plenary session which provided an opportunity to hear eminent speakers across many jurisdictions address the global issue of criminal trafficking in people, drugs and money, there were smaller workshops and forums particularly relevant to prosecution in Pima County, an international border jurisdiction experiencing many of the problems described by other jurisdictions, both nationally and internationally."
LaWall gushes repeatedly that her membership in the many state and national associations, and her roles at their meetings, raises the stature of Pima County.
Supervisor Ray Carroll, a Republican who took office just five months after LaWall began her first term, said LaWall "has been taking a lot of heat. I could see why she would want to be out of town. After that New Yorker article (profiling former star prosecutor Ken Peasley's perjury rap and disbarment), I think she's trying to counter all the negative press. It seems she is out there on all these trips to repair her reputation, rather to enhance a stellar one."
Carroll said he is troubled by LaWall's use of RICO money as her travel budget.
"The public is not served when that money is not put back into the fight against narcotics and gangs," Carroll said. "It doesn't serve anybody for that money to be spent on high tea in London."