Two members of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors are under investigation and could potentially be removed from office for allegedly conspiring to violate state law when they sued the county’s elections director last year amid a dispute over auditing ballots, multiple sources have confirmed.
And if that is not a dark enough cloud, one of the two employees in the county’s elections department is unexpectedly leaving June 15. The resignation will leave Elections Director Bob Bartelsmeyer as the department’s only staff member, having started in the position just a few days ago.
All of which comes at a time when county officials want to move past the 2022 election cycle which saw Bartelsmeyer’s predecessor, Lisa Marra, receive a $130,000 payout from Cochise County’s insurance provider to settle claims of a hostile work environment created by Supervisors Tom Crosby and Peggy Judd.
Marra, who resigned in February, subsequently took a position with Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes as one of Arizona’s top elections officials. Her claims against Cochise County included the fact Crosby and Judd allegedly ignored Arizona’s Open Meeting Law (OML) to initiate a lawsuit against Marra.
Attorney Bryan Blehm sued Marra in her official and personal capacity on Nov. 14. The lawsuit, which listed Crosby and Judd as individual plaintiffs “in their official capacities,” was withdrawn within a few days.
Their lawsuit sought to force Marra to cooperate with an expanded hand count audit of ballots cast at 16 of the county’s 17 voting centers. But Marra refused to facilitate the expanded audit, based in part on legal advice from the Cochise County Attorney’s Office.
Arizona’s OML is a set of statutes intended to ensure government transparency and accountability by opening the decision-making process to the public. It requires meetings of public bodies be conducted openly, with notices and agendas provided for such meetings. In addition, a majority of the members of a public body cannot conduct business outside of a properly noticed meeting.
For the Cochise County Board of Supervisors, that means no two of the three supervisors can secretly communicate, meet, or otherwise confer to consider official business.
But there was no vote by the county board to retain Blehm for legal services to sue Marra, nor even to approve taking legal action against the county employee. There had not even been notice to the public that such actions were being considered.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office has authority to investigate alleged OML violations, as does each of the state’s 15 county attorneys. Members of the Cochise County Attorney’s Office, including County Attorney Brian McIntyre, have frequently verbally sparred with Crosby and Judd at board meetings about alleged violations.
It is the same authority Attorney General Kris Mayes possesses, including the power to “issue written investigative demands to any person,” conduct examinations under oath, examine “computers, documents, minutes, papers and recordings” in connect with alleged OML violations.
As to the Marra lawsuit issue, the investigation can also delve into whether anyone, including Blehm, directly aided Crosby and Judd in trying to circumvent OML. Legal action can then be commenced in Cochise County Superior Court for any alleged OML violations.
The Court “may impose a civil penalty against each person who knowingly violates” OML or who “knowingly aids, agrees to aid or attempts to aid in violating” the statutes. Civil penalties imposed against a supervisor cannot be paid on behalf of nor otherwise reimbursed by the public body.
In addition, a judge has the option to remove a public officer from elected office if it is determined the public officer knowingly violated the Open Meeting Law “with intent to deprive the public of information.” State law requires the court to assess the public officer and / or person who knowingly aided, agreed to aid or attempted to aid the public officer in violating this article “with all of the costs and attorney fees” which may be awarded.
Crosby has stated he “never communicated” directly with Judd about initiating the lawsuit. Meanwhile, Judd has insisted her communications about the matter were done through Blehm, from deciding to file the lawsuit to its withdrawal.
“At no time did I meet with Mr. Crosby outside a public meeting at any time, ever, by any means personally or electronically,” she said back in April.
The county’s third supervisor, Ann English, was not advised in advance of the plans by Crosby and Judd to retain an attorney to sue Marra or of the decision to actually file the lawsuit.
“Naturally, I was appalled when I heard what they had done without Board consent,” English noted in response to an inquiry by Mayes’ office. “It was just another instance of them not observing the OML and thinking they could go through their lawyer instead of the public process.”
And English did not mince words in other comments to the attorney general’s office.
“I am asking you as the authority to give severe consequences to an individual who is out of control and shows no remorse for breaking the law. Even his followers in the audience on occasion tell him he does not have to listen to the County Attorney or the Attorney General,” she wrote referring to Crosby.