Hearing officer sides with county over ex-public defender

The Arizona State Personnel Board (ASPB) ruled recently in favor of Yavapai County in the employment termination case of former Public Defender Dan DeRienzo.

The Yavapai County Board of Supervisors fired DeRienzo in October 2004, claiming he improperly promoted Anita Pitroff to an attorney's position, and for allowing attorney Sherman Jensen to work from his home instead of his office as the board directed.

On the same day of his release, DeRienzo filed a complaint under the Whistleblower Protection Act accusing numerous county officials of retaliation for his attempts to represent indigent clients in criminal cases and for overcrowded conditions in the Yavapai County Jail.

Robert Sparks, an ASPB hearing officer, determined that Supervisor Chip Davis and former Supervisor Lorna Street fired DeRienzo for poor department management.

"There are some actions by the Board of Supervisors, which could be interpreted to show displeasure with complainant's legal representation," Sparks wrote. "However, these same actions when viewed in light of the totality of the evidence Š do not constitute retaliation."

Explaining the relationship between the issues brought up by DeRienzo and the burden of proof, Sparks wrote that DeRienzo focuses much of his testimony and legal argument on the independence of the Public Defender and alleged impermissible encroachment by the supervisors on his legal representation functions.

"While the law does recognize the basic principle, it does not grant carte blanche to the administrative and personnel aspects of a position such as Public Defender," the ruling states.

Sparks also wrote that Street credibly testified that racial profiling and Habeas Corpus actions were not part of the rational to dismiss DeRienzo.

The U. S. Department of Justice began an investigation of the jail after it determined in 1998 that conditions at the jail violated the inmates' constitutional rights. In 2001, the agency requested that Pitroff submit eyewitness reports of perceived overcrowded conditions.

Sparks stated that Pitroff's reports contained items of concerns, but also "unqualified statements and inferences of wrongdoing by the county without careful verification of the facts."

The agency closed the case in September 2004 after the county concluded construction of a new jail and changed policies relating to inmate security.

Sparks noted that the supervisors could remove DeRienzo as an exempt employee for any reason or no reason just "not in retaliation for protected prior written disclosure."

Sparks noted that Davis' and Street's records show a series of concerns regarding DeRienzo acting in contradiction to Board of Supervisor directions.

"The Board of Supervisors need not validate these concerns or show they are misconduct," the ruling states. "The board needs to show only that they are reasonable and substantiated by some evidence. They are."

In addition, the record shows a considerable level of tension between the Public Defender's Office, the Sheriff's Office and jail staff.

"The conflict runs both ways," the ruling states. "The overall testimony and demeanor of both Ms. Pitroff and the complainant show an effort to not just vigorously defend but overreach in attributing improper conduct to other county employees."

Sparks wrote that the complainant's actions regarding his attempts to settle a potential civil action by Pitroff against the county, questionable activity regarding her pay in December 2004, and her promotion and subsequent pay raise, "demonstrate activities beyond his (DeRienzo's) job classification and authorization and possibly contrary to law. They also generate possible legal exposure for the county."

Timeline of events in the Dan DeRienzo case

o The Yavapai County Board of Supervisors created the Public Defender's position in 1998 hiring Dan DeRienzo in February to serve as the head of that office until his dismissal in October 2004.

o In September 1998, the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) concluded an investigation of the Yavapai County Jail and concluded that conditions at the jail violated the constitutional rights of inmates.

o Upon request from the DOJ, for about two years starting in October 2001, DeRienzo's subordinate Anita Pitroff, a paralegal, investigated the conditions in the county jail and forwarded reports to the DOJ official assigned to the case. These investigations led to the filings of two writs of Hebeas Corpus ­ Oct. 9 and Oct. 14, 2003 ­ on behalf of certain defendants alleging substandard and unconstitutional conditions at the jail.

Former Sheriff G.C. "Buck" Buchanan and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk were respondents in both matters.

o In November and December 2003, the parties signed a stipulation to dismiss without prejudice the Oct. 4, 2003, Writ of Habeas Corpus.

o In February 2002, the Public Defender's Office filed a motion for discovery of evidence to pursue a legal defense pertaining to alleged unconstitutional stopping of motorists based on racial profiling. The case is still pending before two Yavapai County Superior Court judges although the number of defendants has been reduced to four from 13.

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