County supes fire public defender, who then files suit

In an extremely rare action, the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors publicly fired Public Defender Dan DeRienzo Wednesday after he refused to resign.

DeRienzo immediately filed a complaint with the Arizona State Personnel Board accusing numerous county officials of retribution related to his attempts to properly defend poor people against criminal charges and overcrowded jail conditions. The complaint seeks an injunction against his termination, $175,000 in damages and attorney’s costs, and disciplinary action plus a $5,000 fine against all the defendants.

DeRienzo filed the complaint against all three county supervisors, County Administrator Jim Holst, County Attorney Sheila Polk and her chief deputy Dennis McGrane, Board of Supervisors Attorney Dave Hunt, Sheriff Buck Buchanan, his jail supervisor Scott Mascher, and Human Resources Director Julie Ayers.

Supervisors Chip Davis and Lorna Street agreed Wednesday to fire DeRienzo. Supervisor Gheral Brownlow did not attend the special meeting.

The supervisors gave Davis the authority to appoint an unnamed interim public defender until the supervisors’ next regular meeting Monday.

Street read a written statement that cited two causes for the termination: After the supervisors agreed to hire DeRienzo’s paralegal Anita Pitroff as an entry-level attorney, DeRienzo promoted her without their permission in September; and DeRienzo allowed another attorney to continue to work from home after the supervisors denied his request.

Those actions “have resulted in a loss of confidence in the public defender’s ability to properly manage the affairs of his department,” the written statement said.

“This is a very difficult, difficult thing to do,” Street said after the meeting.

The firing had nothing to do with past publicized actions such as DeRienzo’s October 2003 court action seeking the release of nearly 600 prisoners because of overcrowded county jail conditions, Street said.

“He just doesn’t understand that he works directly for the Board of Supervisors,” Street said.

DeRienzo’s Personnel Board complaint, however, alleges that the firing had a lot to do with the jail action.

The complaint makes numerous allegations, including:

• Because DeRienzo filed the jail complaint and cooperated on jail issues with the U.S. Department of Justice, Holst told him to resign with three months pay or the county would fire him.

• As a paralegal, Pitroff’s two-year investigation into jail conditions led to the jail complaint, and DeRienzo sought her promotion because the defendants wanted to punish her by hiring her as an attorney for less money after she passed the bar exam.

• The defendants repeatedly told DeRienzo not to take actions to defend his indigent clients who faced criminal charges, violating the Rules of Professional Conduct, Bill of Rights and Arizona Constitution.

• Buchanan, Brutinel, Davis and Holst aligned themselves with Polk in the jail complaint.

• DeRienzo felt pressure to settle the jail complaint and signed a settlement agreement.

• Sheriff Detective Dave Szabos conducted an internal investigation about a Pitroff letter to the Department of Justice that was critical of the jail conditions. Szabos demanded that Pitroff give testimony during the internal investigation, but the Public Defender’s Office refused to comply with the investiga-tion.

• After Pitroff reported violations of the Eighth Amendment, Sixth Amendment and due process at the jail, Buchanan asked the Board of Supervisors in writing to block Pitroff’s appointment as an attorney for the public defender after she passed the bar.

• After DeRienzo filed a motion for discovery of evidence in February 2002 alleging that the Arizona Department of Public Safety was stopping motorists based on racial profiles, he received threats of adverse personnel actions from Davis, Brownlow and Street. Davis later criticized DeRienzo about the motion during a public budget hearing.

• McGrane told DeRienzo he would make the racial profiling litigation as expensive for the Public Defender’s Office as possible, so DeRienzo would have to explain the high cost to the Board of Supervisors.

• Holst told DeRienzo that the supervisors were angry about the racial profiling motion, and that Holst and the supervisors thought DeRienzo should make the issue go away.

• Over the same racial profiling issue, Davis used an e-mail to threaten DeRienzo’s job and threaten to eliminate the Public Defender’s Office.

• As a result of the above threats, DeRienzo was forced to withdraw from all of the cases involving racial profiling.

• DeRienzo received verbal discipline for writing a letter to McGrane that criticized the county attorney for mismanagement, gross waste of money and abuse of authority.

• DeRienzo received a 1-percent raise in July 2004 while other department heads got 3 percent and all other attorneys got 10 percent. Brownlow told DeRienzo the lesser raise was discipline for not firing an attorney who helped file the jail action. Davis told him it was punishment because of the racial profiling involvement. Holst told him it was punishment for the jail action.

• Hunt sent a letter in April 2004 to the county Human Resources Department saying it must refuse any DeRienzo appointments without Board of Supervisors approval.

The supervisors and County Attorney’s Office were unavailable for comment on the complaint Wednesday afternoon.

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