• Arpaio back in action

    Arpaio back in action

  • Ed Montini weighs in on Arpaio's loss

    Ed Montini weighs in on Arpaio’s loss

  • Arpaio officially charged with criminal contempt

    Arpaio officially charged with criminal contempt

  • Inside the Sheriff Joe Arpaio protest

    Inside the Sheriff Joe Arpaio protest

  • Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's attorney speaks

    Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s attorney speaks

  • Protesters demonstrate against Arpaio outside federal court

    Protesters demonstrate against Arpaio outside federal court

  • MCSO's legal bills keep growing in racial-profiling case

    MCSO’s legal bills keep growing in racial-profiling case

  • MCSO considered closing Tent City

    MCSO considered closing Tent City

  • Arpaio stripped of internal affairs oversight

    Arpaio stripped of internal affairs oversight

  • Arpaio in contempt of federal court

    Arpaio in contempt of federal court

The lead defense attorney in the criminal case against former Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been cut loose by a federal judge three weeks before the scheduled trial, granting the attorney’s request and leaving the case in the hands of a second lawyer who signed on three weeks ago.

The trial is set to begin April 25. The longtime sheriff, who lost a re-election bid in November, potentially could face up to six months in jail after failing to follow a judge’s order that prohibited him from enforcing immigration law.

On Monday, Arpaio’s longstanding defense attorney Mel McDonald filed a cryptic motion in federal court, asking to bow out of the case. The motion cited a potential ethical violation and asked U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton for an official decision immediately.

Thursday’s hearing provided a decision yet failed to shed anymore light on the cause of the separation.

At the start of the proceeding, Bolton muted the Justice Department prosecutors on the phone and dismissed all in the courtroom aside from the defense. With others out of the room, McDonald presumably detailed his rationale for leaving the case he has headed for more than two years.

The public was allowed back in the courtroom after about 10 minutes. Bolton then announced that McDonald’s motion was granted and that he was excused.

The hearing proceeded to touch on other pending motions, but little else was decided. Bolton said defense motions to preclude victim testimony and Arpaio’s campaign statements could be debated at the time of the trial. Another defense motion to delay proceedings until an appeal on the civil side of the contempt case has been decided will be up for debate in court on Wednesday.

Arpaio and McDonald were civil with each other shortly before the hearing began. They shook hands outside the courtroom as Arpaio quipped, “I’m tired of this building.”

Arpaio declined to comment after the hearing, referring questions to his new attorney, Mark Goldman.


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‘I’ve always had great respect for him’

When reached for comment, McDonald offered little insight on the underlying issue.

“I’ve known the sheriff for 35 years,” McDonald said. “He’s a great human being, I’ve always had great respect for him and I wish him well.”

Motions filed by Goldman in recent weeks may tell more of the story.

After officially signing onto the case March 17, Goldman filed a series of motions without listing McDonald on the document. On one in particular, Goldman alleged that Arpaio failed to receive proper assistance of counsel when Arpaio conceded he had committed civil contempt. McDonald was one of Arpaio’s attorneys at the time.

Previously, the official line was that Arpaio agreed that he had defied U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow’s orders from a racial-profiling case, but that the mistakes were unintentional. Under the law, the difference between civil contempt and criminal contempt is intent.

Goldman’s motion, filed March 24, argued that Arpaio was “coerced” into this acknowledgment. The motion states that Arpaio only agreed to this admission because he believed it would spare him a criminal charge.

It’s unclear specifically whom the motion intends to blame. While McDonald has represented Arpaio’s criminal-case interests throughout the contempt proceedings, other attorneys from the same firm handled the civil matters.

Stall tactic alleged

Critics of the former sheriff see the latest move as a stall tactic by Goldman.

Lydia Guzman, a civil-rights activist and longtime opponent of Arpaio, speculated that McDonald’s situation was similar to that of another former Arpaio attorney who ultimately dropped out of the case.

“It’s interesting. When Tim Casey opted out, we kind of knew it was because Arpaio was going to throw him under the bus,” Guzman said. “I think this is going to be one of those cases just like that.”

Sheriff Joe Arpaio legal troubles

When faced with civil contempt, Arpaio attempted to place blame on Casey for failing to explain the judge’s orders. Casey ultimately ended up testifying against his former client.

“Today, I think, the only way that I can explain it is ‘theatrical,’ ” Guzman said. “One thing is for sure, Arpaio didn’t seem too confident in there.”

Goldman’s emergence as lead attorney could signal a stark departure from McDonald’s defense strategy. McDonald, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona, outlined what would have likely been his case in a memorandum filed last year, arguing why Arpaio shouldn’t be charged criminally.

McDonald at the time stressed that Arpaio’s agency had made “significant efforts” to comply with the court’s compliance orders stemming from the racial-profiling case.

“Sheriff Arpaio has overseen an overwhelming and, at times, expansive undertaking to substantially restructure MCSO’s entire law enforcement operation in order to comply with this Court’s Orders,” McDonald wrote. “It should be quite clear that MCSO, under the direction of Sheriff Arpaio, has a deep and profound commitment to complying with the Order.”

Goldman opted for a more indirect approach, his motions seeking to delay the trial by whatever means necessary. He unsuccessfully attempted to continue the trial due to the timing of his son’s bar mitzvah, and he was the attorney who filed the motion to stay the trial while waiting on an appeal.

Goldman said on Thursday he would “most likely” ask for another delay after moving up to lead attorney.

“Our firm feels good about getting prepared for it,” he said. “Yet our firm is also concerned that we still don’t have all the documents in connection with the case, so it is impossible to prepare for it to a certain extent unless we went to a magic school and could all of a sudden made them appear in our office.”


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