Defense Contract

Pima County forgot its 'Bad-Boy' Ordinance when it came to handing clients to Lourdes Lopez

Lourdes Lopez, a key witness in the case against the man accused of ordering the murder of Dr. David Stidham, scored four Pima County contracts to represent indigent defendants in superior and justice courts, despite being under a federal indictment and federal plea agreement.

Pima County did not invoke provisions included in a 14-year-old amendment to its procurement code that bars contractors under criminal indictment or those who have been convicted. Instead, the county provided Lopez with four contracts, with a total value of $255,000, from February 2004 through June 30 of this year.

Lopez, 36, is a central figure in the case against her former fiancé, Dr. Bradley A. Schwartz, the ophthalmologist who is in Pima County jail awaiting trial on charges that he hired another man to kill Stidham, a former associate. Ronald Bruce Bigger, also in county custody, is accused of murdering Stidham, a pediatric ophthalmologist who was found outside his office at 4727 N. First Ave. on Oct. 5. Stidham had been stabbed 16 times and his skull was crushed, according to an autopsy report.

Schwartz, 40, and Bigger, 39, were arrested on Oct. 15, one week after Lopez told sheriff's detectives that Schwartz repeatedly told her that he wanted to have Stidham killed in what would look like a carjacking at his office. The arrests also came nearly two weeks before Lopez's federal conviction on one drug count was dismissed and her record cleared after her successful completion of conditions of her plea agreement that included a $2,500 fine and community service.

Lopez, Schwartz and his former office manager were indicted in September 2002 on charges that arose from Schwartz's prescription fraud deployed to fuel his addiction to pain medication. Lopez pleaded guilty to a reduced, single charge of illegally obtaining hydrocodone for Schwartz through a prescription he wrote for her.

County Attorney Barbara LaWall, a Democrat who is under fire for her handling of early portions of the case against Schwartz and Bigger and the conflicts that arose from close alliances that a half-dozen of her prosecutors maintained with Lopez, allowed Lopez to resign rather than be fired a couple of months before she was indicted.

A 1997 graduate of the University of Arizona College of Law, Lopez was a deputy prosecutor for three years. After leaving LaWall's office, she worked for Rick Gonzales, who lost the Democratic Primary election to LaWall in 1996. She then opened her own practice that is buttressed by her county contracts to represent those who cannot afford lawyers in defense of misdemeanors and felonies.

County records show she was awarded a $20,000 contract for defense work on Feb. 14, 2004, 10 days before she signed an agreement in which she pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of acquiring hydrocodone "by misrepresentation, fraud, deception, and subterfuge" for Schwartz.

According to the county's Office of Court Appointed Counsel, Lopez filed an application for contract defense work on Oct. 23, 2003. She answered "yes" to this question: "During the past 10 years, have you ever been arrested, summoned, charged or convicted of any criminal offense (excluding minor traffic offenses)?"

Asked to explain, Lopez wrote: "Arrest--Oct. 2002, charge in Federal Court; 2 counts of controlling vicodin--No conviction."

Her lawyer, Walter Nash, had begun in 2003 a protracted process of delay and negotiation that culminated in Lopez's February 2004 guilty plea. Her plea agreement was unsealed only after the charges were dismissed in November.

Lopez received a second contract worth up to $35,000 on March 5, 2004. That and the earlier contract were through the end of the 2003-04 fiscal year that ended June 30, 2004. She then won two contracts through June 30, 2005 for misdemeanor cases in Justice Court and defense in more serious cases in Superior Court. Those are worth $100,000 each, though records through last month show Lopez has been paid $54,600 on the felony contract.

According to county reports that update the caseloads of contract attorneys monthly, Lopez is handling 29 cases, ranking her seventh among the 70 lawyers included in the April report.

Pima County spends about $10 million a year providing lawyers for those who cannot afford to pay lawyers to defend them on charges that range from shoplifting to murder. Included in that amount, spread among more than 100 lawyers, are juvenile court assignments, mental health petitions, criminal appeals and post-conviction relief.

Under a landmark addition to the procurement code adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 1991, the county could have barred Lopez from receiving any appointments. The ordinance targeted companies and contractors who ran afoul of federal law, Arizona law, laws of other states and rules of regulatory bodies.

Philip Maloney, the administrative attorney in charge of the county's Office of Court Appointed Counsel, said he was unaware of those provisions of the county code when Lopez's contracts were issued.

Judges who spoke to the Weekly on the condition they not be named said Lopez appears to be conscientious representing clients and treats court personnel, witnesses and others politely and professionally.

Maloney praised Lopez for her detailed and prompt record keeping, an area that the county has worked to clean up and has forced contract lawyers to improve.

Lopez is facing a turbulent time as a witness in the criminal case against Schwartz and Bigger, now scheduled for a November trial, and in civil and personnel litigation arising from Stidham's murder.

Lopez has said she broke up with Schwartz last May. But they remained in contact, including days before and days after Stidham was killed. She sometimes represented Schwartz on legal matters.

Prodded by Paul Skitzki, a friend and former colleague in the Pima County Attorney's Office, to go to the police, Lopez told sheriff's detectives three days after Stidham's murder that Schwartz had repeatedly told her that he wanted Stidham killed, that he would hire someone to do it at Stidham's office and make it look like a carjacking.

Lopez claims she told Skitzki of Schwartz's threats before Stidham was killed. Skitzki has vociferously denied that she told him anything before the murder. LaWall told Skitzki "there is no reason to believe that Lourdes Lopez fabricated that she informed you of these threats and shared her concerns with you."

Skitzki and former prosecutors Nicki DiCampli and Brad Roach are now fighting to clear their names after they were disciplined by LaWall for allegedly having information about the murder and not coming forward to supervisors and the police. The three assert that they did provide whatever information they had. LaWall fired Skitzki and suspended DiCampli, Roach and another prosecutor, Janet Altschuler, for three weeks. DiCampli, Roach and Altschuler later resigned.

All four have appealed LaWall's action to the Merit Commission, the county's civil service board. DiCampli, Roach and Skitzki were expected to have their answers Monday, May 2, but closing arguments in their appeal were postponed when the session extended past 5 p.m. and county officials could not guarantee access to the hearing room after county buildings were closed.

The session will resume Monday, May 9, at noon in the fourth-floor hearing room of the county Health and Welfare Building, 150 W. Congress St.

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