Filler Crime Time

Democratic Voters Must Choose Between A Veteran Prosecutor And A Personal Injury Lawyer To Head The County Attorney's Office.
By Tim Vanderpool

AN EMPIRE FOUNDED by war has to maintain itself by war," said Baron de Montesquieu.

If the dead French writer was right, then prosecutor Barbara LaWall is grappling with a 10-megaton question as she arms for Tuesday's Democratic county attorney primary against lawyer Rick Gonzales.

Can Chief Administrative Deputy LaWall, a 20-year agency veteran, halt nearly two decades of intergovernmental combat waged by Stephen Neely, the man she hopes to succeed? Neely was a governmental samurai who countered every budgetary squeeze with the specter of baby killers running free.

Or is Rick Gonzales, who spent several months as a county prosecutor in the late 1970s, and ensuing annums as a judge pro tempore and high-end personal injury lawyer (they chase dented limousines), the guy to bring a kinder, gentler feel to the post of top county head-roller?

LaWall just wants to squash the issue. "I am not Stephen Neely," she says. "I'm more collaborative. I believe in working with the system. Stephen takes things very personally, but I believe in establishing relationships and communication long before budget time."

As for the Board of Supervisors, the fiscal culprits prompting most Neely tirades, LaWall says, "They've never dealt with me personally."

Gonzales labels that a smoke screen. "Listen, she's been there 20 years," he says of LaWall. "She's the chief deputy attorney, she's been following the policies.

"I think a public official should work for the public," he says. "When personalities become paramount, you've got a problem. It's the same approach in private practice."

Among county attorney rituals Gonzales opposes are cash bonuses for top performers, case quotas for prosecutors, and what Gonzales calls questionable spending for youth crime prevention programs.

He says the agency has been grandstanding for too long. "They've been trying a high number of cases, but the crime rate isn't going down. They haven't been selective. They go after the slam-dunk cases, and on the tough cases they plea bargain."

He says it's a matter of ambitious number-crunching. "Go talk to the cops. They'll tell you that's the county attorney's emphasis. But the statistics don't mean anything."

And offering bonus pay only to some employees creates a divisive atmosphere, "where people are always looking over their shoulders," he says.

But LaWall says the numbers do count, that her agency never flinches from nasty prosecutions, and that there's no crime in doling out extra gravy to prosecutors going above the call.

She also wonders if Gonzales is being intentionally ironic.

"It's really interesting he says those things, that the prosecutors have goals," she says. "But that's the model of a private law firm like his, where they have so many billable hours, and are rewarded for the more clients they bring in. All we do is reward prosecutors with extra money."

It's a moot point either way, she says, since the supervisors axed the $250,000 bonus fund from this year's budget.

As the primary nears, Gonzales has also increasingly focused on the county attorney's multitude of youth programs, saying he smells waste behind all their interventionist rhetoric.

"I've been hearing that from people within the county attorney's office," he says. "When you start hearing enough, it becomes a real concern."

He points to the county's ACT NOW truancy program as an example. "I mean, how effective can it be, when Pima County still has the highest truancy rate in the state?" he asks. "I've already heard enough judges tell me it's a waste of time."

The program aims to rein in truant teens through a variety of escalating strategies, culminating in potential prosecution of parents, the offending kids, or both.

Asked for specifics, Gonzales complains the attorney's office has never let him peek into it's paper-shuffling innards.

LaWall calls that a lie. "He's never asked for information even once," she says, and counters that the two-year-old truancy program--among her personal brainchildren--has been a stunning success.

"It emphasizes the parents' responsibility," she says. "Last year we sent 1,600 letters to families with chronic truancy problems. Out of those, we got 1,200 kids back in school. Four hundred were referred to the Center for Juvenile Alternatives, and we only prosecuted 18."

Dispelling any further doubt, she says, was a local school meeting where 75 people spontaneously stood and cheered the program.

"So I think when Gonzales calls that worthless, then he's just clueless," she says.

While LaWall counts ACT NOW and several other county youth programs among her claims to fame, Gonzales is probably most notable for his work on the 1985 lawsuit against Hughes Aircraft Co. He went to court on behalf of southsiders allegedly sick from a solvent the defense giant had long dumped into their groundwater.

Gonzales and a team of lawyers landed an $85 million settlement, and a cesspool of resentment from residents excluded from the pool of 1,600 plaintiffs.

Many claim they found out they were being left out only when it was too late to join.

One county official, requesting anonymity, says the southside anger is real. "Many people felt there were some 1,600 individual winners. But victims are victims," the official says. "Now they feel that nothing was done, that there should have been a broader, long-term remedy."

In addition, Gonzales agreed to act as a future expert witness for Hughes and pledged no further suits against the company as part of the settlement, the official says.

Gonzales, a native southsider, doesn't deny the arrangement, but says it's not that simple. "Some people thought they were entitled to a class action, but when they contacted our office, they were told that it wasn't that kind of case."

Countless plaintiffs were left behind when the courts placed a cap on filings, fearing the case would never get underway, he said.

And Hughes asked him to be an expert witness only after an agreement had been reached and the company was fighting its insurance company, he says. "So I figured, 'Why not?'

"I was six months away from Bankruptcy in that case," he says, adding the episode had a very personal bent. "My father and mother live there, and suffer from epilepsy that may be contamination-based."

But edging on red ink ultimately paid off: His law firm, Gonzales and Villareal, split 40 percent of the settlement with two other law firms.

Despite complaints that he's since ignored his less-affluent old neighborhood for a pricey legal practice and plenty of well-placed friends, Gonzales denies misplacing his roots.

"We've walked that area personally; I've got family down there working for me," he says. "If some people feel that way, well, you can't please everybody."

Coalescing all sides of the city--along with the often competing arms of county government--is among his prime goals if elected, he says.

"We need a new way of doing business, to bring people together to discuss and negotiate," he says, and to stop what he calls a "knee-jerk reaction" against crime, a blatant reference to Neely's reputation as a ball-buster.

"People walk around and talk about how tough they are on crime. But there's a lie in that statement," Gonzales says. "We've spent 10 or 15 years with that, and crime rates have gone up."

And that hard-core attitude is reflected in Prop. 102, Gov. Symington's juvenile crime initiative slated for the November ballot, which Gonzales opposes.

The initiative would require youths 15 years old and up to automatically be tried as adults for certain violent crimes. LaWall supports the measure, calling it a first step towards addressing juvenile crime. Both she and Gonzales tout victims' rights, though only LaWall has gained an activist reputation. She says Gonzales has been a no-show at MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) and Parents of Murdered Children meetings.

Gonzales says he's just ready to do what it takes to reduce crime in the community, and help everybody get justice. "That's the top of my agenda, and it's do-able. It's not a new theory, nothing brilliant, it just takes brainstorming and everyday problem-solving."

But LaWall says her opponent just doesn't have what it takes. "It's like a local pediatrician wanting to run UMC, but not having the background to do it," she says.

"What are we looking at here? He comes from a two-person law firm, and doesn't have the experience to manage a multi-million dollar law firm, because that's what the county attorney's office is now."

Gonzales counters that time doesn't necessarily equal prosecutorial progress. "It's still the same bureaucracy it was 16 years ago, the same leadership, the same direction," he says. "They've got a set philosophy."

Besides, he says he's probably the only candidate who's otherwise set: "I don't need the job, I want the job. And I can do what needs to be done." TW

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