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TRIAL AND ERROR

County Attorney Barbara LaWall is touting a chart that allegedly proves that her trial rate--more than four times that of Maricopa County--has nothing to do with the cost of administering justice in Pima County.

As a jury foreman in the court of public opinion, The Skinny isn't buying the prosecution's case.

LaWall's graph shows the cost of indigent defense rising even as the trial rate has dropped from roughly 10 percent to just less than 8 percent. (Maricopa County's trial rate, by comparison, has been less than 2 percent for the last two years.)

We agree that indigent defense costs are too high, mostly because the county has been farming out so many cases to contract attorneys rather than handling them in-house with the Public Defender's Office. That's a problem that new Public Defender Robert Hooker is eager to tackle by taking on more cases, especially complex ones.

But LaWall's comparison completely ignores that the indigent defense budget doesn't just cover the cost of battling local prosecutors. Thanks to a recent change in state law, the county is also obligated to provide counsel to juveniles in cases that don't involve the county attorney at all.

Besides that, the indigent defense budget includes the high cost of death-penalty appeals, even though the county attorney hands those cases off to the state attorney general.

We have no doubt that trying fewer cases would bring down court costs. But we also doubt LaWall, who has said she wants to run for another term in 2008, will ever willingly change her see-ya-in-court approach, no matter how much it costs taxpayers.


DIS-APPOINTED COUNSEL

Speaking of indigent-defense costs: Judge Nanette Warner on Tuesday, June 21, ordered that Dr. Bradley Schwartz pay for his defense to the extent that it's possible. She ordered that his ex-wife, Joan Schwartz, pay $44,283 to the court. That money was from Schwartz's disability income for the past eight months; Warner said future disability income also should be applied to his defense.

Finally, Warner ordered that $70,000 from returned medical-office supplies be held in escrow, with the possibility that the money be paid to the county.

Warner's decision will likely be appealed by Joan Schwartz's talented lawyer, Dennis Rosen.


DEFENSE DEPARTMENT

A final note on indigent defense: Pima County's $13.5 million lawyer pork was abruptly pulled from the Board of Supervisors table this week, which means Lourdes Lopez, the star sensation in the middle of the murder case against former lover Dr. Brad Schwartz, will have to wait a little while before budgeting the $140,000 she is programmed to receive in county contracts to represent poor people accused of felonies, murders and misdemeanors.

For Lopez, the new contracts mean an unbroken county subsidy to her downtown law practice. Despite her 2002 federal drug bust ("Defense Contract," May 5), Lopez pulled in multiple county contracts worth around $250,000. This for a woman who told the detective investigating Schwartz's role in the Oct. 5 murder of his former associate, Dr. David Stidham, that most of her clients are "idiots." This year, Lopez is in line to receive two contracts worth $50,000 each for felony and murder cases, and another $40,000 contract for misdemeanors.

Several of Lopez's (former?) friends from law school and their days as county prosecutors also were down to take a share of the lawyer patronage--243 contracts--before the matter was pulled for further consideration. Several are the same (former?) friends who had to fight in a protracted civil-service commission hearing to clear their names, which were sullied by being too close to Lopez. Former prosecutor Brad Roach, now in private practice, is down to receive up to $115,000 for county work in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The whole process was thrown out of whack by the appearance of the Lopez confidantes Paul Skitzki and Nicki DiCampli. Each was recommended for $90,000 in county contracts. But that turned out to be Plan B for both. Skitzki is happy as a lawyer in the restyled Public Defender's Office, and DiCampli is a prosecutor for the Pascua Yaqui tribe.

Janet Altschuler, another former prosecutor swept up in the Lopez-Schwartz mess, is in line to get $90,000 in county contracts to give her new private practice a boost. And Anne Elsberry, another member of the club, is recommended for three contracts totaling $90,000. Hers was not Plan B. She is leaving her job as clerk to U.S. District Court Judge William D. Browning.

On another matter related to Schwartz: The Arizona and Tennessee grifter who bilked Tucson-area auto buyers out of $1.5 million was sentenced June 20 to seven years in prison and seven years of probation. Carroll Carson Sanders had hoped his efforts to rat out Schwartz would shave more than the year Judge Charles Sabalos trimmed from the eight-year maximum on the plea agreement. Sanders said Schwartz attempted to use him and his son to frame the murder of Stidham on Dennis Walsh, another con awaiting sentencing. One of Sanders' victims told Sabalos that chalked his fleecing up to a "stupid tax."

Right on. Memo to the greedy and stupid: If someone tells you that he'll get you a $38,000 car for $13,000, he's probably a crook.


TRUTH IN ADVERTISING

Pima Prime Minister Chuck Huckelberry was set to have his Board of Supervisors rubber-stamp his $1.3 billion (if you count all revenue potential) budget on June 21, but discovered that the county's new legal advertising carrier, Gannett's Tucson Citizen, "failed to adequately advertise the hearing."

State law, Huckelberry told the supes in a June 16 memo, "calls for the Truth in Taxation notice to be published twice, once between 20 and 14 days before the hearing, and again between 10 and seven days before Board of Supervisors action for budget adoption. The Tucson Citizen correctly advertised the first publication of the June 21 Board meeting, but failed to meet the second advertising deadline."

Tsk Tsk.

Here's the reasoning from Sandra D. Riggins, classified advertising manager at Tucson Newspapers Inc., the advertising, circulation and business partnership of the Citizen and the Arizona Daily Star: The "legal notice for the Truth in Taxation Hearing Notice of Tax Increase ... inadvertently did not run on the 13th because of Tucson Newspapers' system issues. To compound the error, another ad for June 14th was ordered that also inadvertently did not run as scheduled."

Gannett's Citizen, it must be noted, outbid our sister publication, the Daily Territorial, which has had the county legal contract since the Stone Age. Still, we would make fun of this screw up no matter the connection. The Citizen, which is seeing its circulation plummet, landed the contract in April and began that work May 1 at $350,000 a year.

Its blown deadline--hey, it happens; this was written two days after it was promised--would be a problem and even threaten passage if this were a government other than Pima County. Huckelberry has no problem getting supervisors to approve what he sets before them. He has more trouble getting them to the table, particularly in the summer.

"It is unfortunate that this problem has arisen as I know the Board has planned vacations or other activities around the budget adoption schedule that was published months ago. I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused the Board as I know one or more members will be absent throughout the month of July due to scheduled activities," Huckelberry wrote.

Wonder if those marvelous supervisors tell the truth to voters? "Yes, I want your vote. Yes, I'll work miracles, never make a mistake, and by the way, I'll need July off."

When they do convene on July 5, supervisors will see some minor tinkering in the county's horrendous property tax rate. Huckelberry has once again whittled it down by what equals $7 a year on a $200,000 home. The total county tax bill for the owner of a $200,000 home will be $1,092, down (wow!) from $1,099. Library taxes, under Huckelberry's latest plan, will rise less dramatically--only $9 a year on a $200,000 home. Any savings, as homeowners all over the county know, will be wiped out by the steady increase in property values determined by the county Assessor's Office.


SEWER RAT

Michael Gritzuk, who as director of Phoenix's huge Water Services Department angered the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-truth politicians when he blew the whistle on contaminated drinking water earlier this year, is the new director of Pima County Wastewater Management.

A strong hand is needed. The regional sewer system, bestowed to county government in a landmark deal in 1979, was once rich (so much so that it could lend other county departments tens of millions of dollars just a few years ago) and well-run. Now it needs incessant rate increases to keep up with a tattered, battered and broken system that three years ago resulted in millions of gallons of raw sewage spilling from a broken main on the urban westside.

Gritzuk begins his $120,000-a-year job July 1. Credit John Bernal, the deputy county administrator for public works, for keeping the county sewer department from complete meltdown.

Not all can be blamed on former director Kathleen Chavez. Most of the blame belongs with the politicians, and mostly those who were on the Board of Supervisors in the 1980s and 1990s. Their neglect led to the problems that erupted in Menlo Park and Barrio Hollywood in 2002.

The department was adrift, mostly because of the retirement of George Brinsko, the sometimes crusty, sometimes combative Marine and former Pittsburgh sewer boss, who ruled Pima County's system with an iron fist. Brinsko was the perfect man for the job. He extracted millions from developers, ran his department gloriously in the black, worked well with lobbyists who forced local congressmen to bring home the bacon and didn't tolerate saboteurs or whiners inside or outside.

Gritzuk, who has 26 years in the business, begins July 1 and will be paid $120,000 a year in salary--wildly more than what Brinsko was paid.

Gritzuk earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering and environmental sciences from New York University. Besides the landing in hot water from his boil-me-first advisory on Phoenix water, he also got his taste of the politics of sewage from his work to implement the federal court order for the cleanup of Boston Harbor.

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