After tumultuous year, County Attorney Allister Adel points to changes in prosecutor's office as she seeks election
When Gov. Doug Ducey announced longtime County Attorney Bill Montgomery's appointment to the Arizona Supreme Court, his successor knew she would have to prove to the community a new day had arrived.
Allister Adel, a private attorney and consultant, beat out three supervising attorneys from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and a section chief at the U.S. Attorney’s Office to become the Board of Supervisors' pick as Montgomery's replacement in October 2019.
She immediately was immersed in a number of high-profile cases involving police use of deadly force. She fired Juan Martinez, the office's storied death penalty prosecutor. She updated pretrial diversion programs.
Now Adel, a Republican, faces Julie Gunnigle, a Democrat, in her bid to win the election herself.
"What I have learned over the past year is this job is difficult yet rewarding," Adel told The Republic. "This position requires unwavering leadership and consistent communication to balance supporting our staff, engaging the community and administering the needs of the office."
The county attorney has the support of police unions and several Republican politicians, including former County Attorney Rick Romley, former Gov. Jan Brewer, Attorney General Mark Brnovich and county supervisors Bill Gates and Clint Hickman.
Rae Chornenky, defense attorney and chairwoman for the Maricopa County Republicans, told The Republic she believes Adel is the right person for the office.
"She will commit the time and resources necessary to improve the delivery of justice in our county and maintain the safety of our Maricopa County residents," Chornenky said.
Either Adel or Gunnigle will be the first woman to be elected as a county attorney in Maricopa County. According to a 2019 report by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, 24% of elected prosecutors in the country were women, while 73% were white men.
Adel said she is proud to be the first woman to serve as county attorney and said her approach differs from her hard-line predecessor.
"I do support reforms and I think I've demonstrated that by my record," she told The Republic. "My leadership, my experience, is not just being a prosecutor."
Adel said voters should have confidence in her ability to lead the office based on the record of changes she has made in one year.
"I will continue to work hard and navigate this with integrity and be transparent and accountable to the voters," she said.
Wanting to make a difference
Adel, a graduate of the University of Arizona and Sandra Day O'Connor School of Law at Arizona State University, grew up in Dallas.
Lessons Adel learned from her parents and her school helped carry her to her position today and influence the way she raises her two sons, she said.
She attended a prestigious all-girls school, The Hockaday School, where she was taught to be empowered and to speak up.
Her father made many sacrifices to make sure she could attend the school, she said: "Down to the point that he may only have $20 in his pocket and he would give it to me."
After graduating from college with a degree in political science, Adel worked at Maricopa County Superior Court from 1999 to 2001 in criminal court administration.
She decided to attend law school to become a prosecutor. After graduating in 2004, she was hired by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
Like Gunnigle, Adel doesn't want to label herself by how she thinks in relation to other people in her political party. It shouldn't matter what letter comes after a candidate's name, she said.
"It is unfortunate in a position of law enforcement that you have to pick sides," Adel said.
"I am doing the right things for the right reasons. I will enforce the laws that are on the books."
7 years as a career prosecutor
While she was at the County Attorney's Office from 2004 to 2011, she worked in the vehicular crimes, gang and drug enforcement bureaus.
Adel said she learned how to talk to victims and their families during her first few years as a prosecutor. She realized it may be the first time many people come in contact with the criminal justice system, at a time they are grieving for a loved one.
One of her cases involved a drunk driver killing on-duty Phoenix police officer Shane Figueroa, 25, in 2008. Salvador Vivas-Diaz was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2009.
Fairness and doing the right thing were at the top of her mind. "Just because you can doesn't mean you should," Adel said.
Michael Munoz, a Tempe-based criminal defense attorney, met Adel when they were working in the vehicular crimes bureau. He said she was passionate about her cases and standing up for victim's rights.
"Allister is genuinely a good person. She's very knowledgeable, very helpful to staff and other attorneys," he said. "At the time and now, she's a very experienced prosecutor who's done a ton of trials."
Munoz said Adel really does care about doing right and wants to keep the community safe.
Aimee Anderson, a retired Maricopa County Superior Court judge, wrote to the Board of Supervisors that Adel was one of the "outstanding young attorneys" that appeared before her during her time on the bench.
"I also recognized that Ms. Adel is someone that not only other prosecutors went to for advice and guidance - but defense attorneys would routinely seek her guidance, due to her knowledge and expertise in the area of the law," Anderson said in her 2019 recommendation letter.
New roles at other agencies
Chornenky, who spent most of her 37 years in the legal field as a public defender and private defense attorney, said Adel's experience with helping governmental agencies and professional organizations with strategic management shows her "unique leadership ability."
Adel said she "took a leap of faith" by leaving the County Attorney's Office in 2011 to become the chief administrative law judge for the Arizona Department of Transportation.
While at the department, she helped clear up a backlog of 5,000 DUI cases within months. Adel said she enjoyed administration and strategic planning.
She worked as general counsel for the Arizona Department of Child Safety from 2014 to 2015.
For two years she was the executive director for the Maricopa County Bar Association. Some lawyers criticized Adel's leadership at the organization. However, several county bar board members supported her during the appointment process.
"I enjoyed my time as executive director of the Maricopa County Bar Association and have tremendous respect for the organization and the support it provides to our diverse legal community," Adel said. "I was recruited to lead the organization during a period of financial hardship to make it sustainable and departed once that goal was accomplished."
Changes at the county attorney's office
In a recent forum hosted by the County Bar Association, Adel frequently stated she has had to deal with a lot as county attorney during the pandemic. She also cited numerous internal changes she made at the office before COVID-19 began.
She created a transition team and community and business advisory boards. The advisory boards were designed to give advice on how to improve the criminal justice system and to prevent recidivism.
Many members of her transition team and community and business advisory boards have donated to her campaign, worked with her in the past or are well-connected in the legal and public service communities.
Community members were added to the critical review team to help review cases involving police use of force. Adel said this is an example to her commitment to transparency.
The office has not released the names of the members on the critical review team. The Republic requested documents detailing the applications of all who applied and the emails relating to the formation process.
Adel said she has friends in the legal community and mentors that help her understand different perspectives. They have meaningful conversations about their different views, she said.
When Adel took charge, she was informed of allegations concerning then-deputy county attorney Juan Martinez.
The Republic, in an investigation published earlier this year, documented the accounts of 17 women who say Martinez harassed or mistreated them in various ways. They included women across Maricopa County's legal system, including inside the county attorney's office.
The Republic also reported how past county attorneys, judges and regulators at the State Bar of Arizona wrote off allegations of misconduct and reports of sexual harassment against Martinez.
Documents of the County Attorney's Office internal investigations of Martinez under Montgomery and Adel's administrations have not been released despite multiple public records requests. An office spokesperson told The Republic the records would be released once the judge in charge of attorney discipline says they can be unsealed.
According to a report by a hearing officer of the Maricopa County Merit Systems Commission, Adel was told about claims of retaliation made against Martinez. The county attorney instructed Ken Vick, chief deputy, to place Martinez on administrative leave and later fire him in February.
“Any inappropriate behavior, any harassment, workplace, sexual or otherwise will absolutely not be tolerated,” Adel said after Martinez was disbarred in July. “The women in the office need to feel safe where they work. They need to know we are taking care of them, protecting them and empowering them.”
Criminal justice reform efforts
Adel has called herself a leader who works for victims and families. Her campaign has described Adel as a reformer for all the changes she has made to the office in a year.
Munoz said Adel's work has created positive change compared with Andrew Thomas and Montgomery administrations. He said the office was known to be a "very punitive and tough prosecuting agency."
"The truth is Allister is exactly what Maricopa County needed for a very long time. I was hired during the Andrew Thomas administration, which was a complete mess," he said. "The transition to Bill Montgomery, who had his own style, was pretty harsh."
Munoz said the office is becoming more reasonable in approach and starting to look into different factors in cases that were not considered in prior administrations.
In July, the county attorney's office announced it was forming a prosecution integrity unit to investigate claims of wrongful conviction. Pima and Pinal counties have similar initiatives.
High-profile prosecutor Rachel Mitchell was selected to lead the unit.
Mitchell was the lead questioner of Christine Blasey Ford during the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Ford accused Kavanaugh, who was later confirmed to the high court, of sexual assault when they were teenagers.
Gunnigle was critical of the move. "I hope that wrongfully convicted Arizonans will be treated more fairly than Christine Blasey Ford," she tweeted in July.
".@allisteradel has no appetite for reform and this appointment is further evidence she is marching lockstep with the last forty years of this office," she later tweeted. "It is time we elect a leader with moral courage focused on restoring integrity."
Adel said the revamping of diversion programs will help more defendants receive treatment instead of a prison sentence. In January, the office announced it was combining its drug diversion and felony pretrial intervention programs and creating a sliding payment scale for participants. A drug diversion partnership with TASC, accused of charging unfairly high costs, was scrapped.
Diversion programs provide individuals charged with certain crimes the opportunity to avoid prosecution if they successfully complete the requirements.
"Those who want to have the chance to succeed and do better and be better should not be incarcerated," Adel said.
The office made changes to its plea policies and posted them online. Among the updates, some people accused of marijuana possession may avoid prosecution if they get a medical marijuana card.
Adel said she worked to create a home detention program allowing some defendants to not stay in jail for a DUI. They are able to use an ankle monitor to continue to work.
Before the pandemic, the county attorney was discussing with lawmakers sentencing reform and expungement laws.
Last month, Adel sent a letter to Ducey and several lawmakers asking them to mandate body-worn cameras for law enforcement officers. She called the technology a "matter of public concern."
She drew criticism for writing an opinion piece in The Republic claiming organizations advocating for the release of inmates during COVID-19 have "political agendas."
"Don't let these organizations fool you. Their efforts to release prisoners is not about saving lives," she wrote. "It is about exploiting a public health emergency to forward a political agenda."
In an opinion piece in the Arizona Capitol Times, two pastors said "divisive language from Adel pitting criminal justice reform advocates against victims' rights organizations undermines public safety and public health."
During the pandemic, numerous community groups and faith leaders have advocated for the release of certain inmates in jails and prisons, and for better health care inside the correctional facilities.
Maricopa County is currently facing a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Puente Human Rights Movement for its response to the pandemic in the jails.
Adel told The Republic she wrote the op-ed because she was frustrated and felt like she was being attacked for her response to the virus.
Tackling racism in the legal system
Across America, prosecutors are having to deal with issues concerning race in their communities. Adel is no exception.
In September, Adel announced a state trooper would not face charges for shooting and killing Dion Johnson, a 28-year-old Black man. His mother and community groups said the system has failed Black people.
He died on the same day as George Floyd. Both men's deaths created a series of protests across the Valley.
Janelle Wood of the Black Mothers Forum said Adel's decision didn't surprise her.
"I recognize the injustices that continue to reign supreme when it comes to our Black sons and daughters being anything other than criminalized, demonized and harassed," Wood said.
Earlier this year, she announced a Tempe officer would not be charged in the death of 14-year-old Antonio Arce.
Bob McWhirter, a former federal public defender criticized Adel for her decision concerning Arce's death when he was running in the Democratic primary. He said "the plea for justice for Antonio fell deaf" on her ears.
"Adel's decision harkens back to the terrible days of police brutality under the regime of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andy Thomas," he said.
Adel said the officers in both cases feared for their lives during the encounters.
During her year in office, communities of color have questioned if they can trust the legal system because of police shootings and data reporting racial disparities.
Adel said working to regain the trust of communities of color is tough and will take time.
"It's something that we have to rebuild, trust and faith," she said, "not just in our criminal justice system but our community as a whole because we have to be there for each other."
In July, the ACLU released a report analyzing data that showed people of color were given longer jail sentences and higher crimes in Montgomery's administration.
Adel said the office is thinking about hiring an outside consultant to look into the data and to help them "do better and be better."
"We have an obligation to our community as the third-largest prosecution agency in the country in the fourth-largest county to do the right things," she said.
Adel told The Republic she started meeting with several groups when taking over the office and during the pandemic, including the African American Clergy Coalition and the ACLU.
Warren Stewart Sr., the pastor of First Institutional Baptist Church and one of the leaders of African American Clergy Coalition, said the group met with Adel in February.
They shared their concerns over the racial disparities that have occurred in County Attorney's Office prosecutions and "the challenged relationship" it had with Montgomery.
Stewart said Montgomery told the group "that the disproportionality of African-Americans being prosecuted as a consequence of the MCAO prosecuting those persons that the police arrested and forwarded to his office."
The faith leaders told Adel that systemic racism "permeates" the county attorney's office and the whole criminal justice system. She shared with them her plans to revamp the diversion programs, according to Stewart.
The pastor said he and other members of the Black and Latino community met with Adel after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.
"In that meeting, I asked her to define systemic racism and she did not, but in turn, asked us to define it for her," Stewart said. "In that meeting, she got a 'quick course' on systemic racism that is rampant in the MCAO system that she now leads."
Stewart said he didn't leave the meeting hopeful of much change in the office in the treatment of people of color in the criminal justice system.
Adel supported a proposal, backed by Ducey, to amend the Arizona Constitution to cement a ban on sanctuary cities. She said in a statement that her priority was to make sure families "within our diverse community are safe." Ducey later abandoned the effort.
Gunnigle called the legislation "embodying one of the darkest parts of recent Arizona history." She said in a statement in February that it was not surprising Adel supported the proposed amendment because Brewer, who signed the anti-immigration measure SB 1070, endorsed her.
The prosecutors' ranks in the County Attorney's Office are overwhelmingly white,but Adel said she has made changes to the hiring staff inside the office and asked them to look at diversity on every level. A diversity and inclusion coordinator position was created.
She said a member of the LGBTQ community was hired to be on her executive team.
"Moving forward, we're going to absolutely be looking at these things because it is a shift. Despite the pandemic, we will accomplish this," she said.
"Can we do better? Absolutely," Adel said.
Support from law enforcement
In the weeks leading up to the general election, Adel has stepped up criticism of her opponent. Her campaign called Gunnigle a radical and a "Chicago-style politician" on a website comparing the two candidates.
Marcus Ismael, Gunnigle's communications director, said Adel is worried about what voters will think of her record.
"Adel is worried that Arizona voters will find out her radical record on stripping women of their reproductive rights, her bigoted comments on the LGBTQ+ community, and mismanagement of the County Bar Association to realize she’s a Texas transplant that is all hat and no cattle," he told The Republic.
Adel has not given a "yes" or "no" answer to The Republic or Gunnigle on if she would prosecute women for having an abortion if Roe v. Wade were overturned. In a debate hosted by KTAR, she said such speculation is irresponsible and those issues should be taken to the Legislature, which passes the state's laws.
Arizona also has laws banning abortion and birth control dating to before the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling on Roe v. Wade.
Democrats criticized Adel for the comments she made while talking about her dog's DNA test that many believed were transphobic.
"I have tremendous respect for the LGBTQ+ community and I advocate daily for inclusivity within the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and our broader community. I apologize for the insensitive comment and deeply regret it," Adel said in response.
The county attorney is endorsed by the Log Cabin Republicans, which works to advocate equal rights for the LGBT community. She has also signed the Unity Pledge for MCAO and reversed the office's anti-gay adoption policy.
Adel has been endorsed by law enforcement agencies, but she said during the Maricopa County Bar Association forum that she does not base her charging decisions on endorsements.
She said her office has charged law enforcement officers for crimes, including for rape and revenge porn.
Adel won the support of multiple law enforcement unions before she became county attorney through her history of helping officers and victims when she was a prosecutor and in her non-profit work.
She was the 2019 chair-elect and a board member for the 100 Club of Arizona. The organization provides financial assistance to first responders and their families who are seriously injured or killed in the line of duty.
Michael London, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, wrote a recommendation letter for Adel stating the union is proud to partner with her.
"Ms. Adel shares our commitment to make our community safe and has the experience to get that done," London said. "We envision a relationship with Ms. Adel every bit as excellent as that we have enjoyed with her predecessor, Bill Montgomery."
According to campaign finance records, Adel's campaign received a donation of $6,500 from Steve Twist. Twist, the former chief assistant attorney general, is a victim's rights advocate and foe of recent criminal justice reform efforts.
This summer, Twist was one of many who worked on getting the Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act off November's ballot. The act would have cut "non-dangerous offenders' sentences by up to 50%" if they maintained good behavior and were willing to participate in prison programs.
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