PHOENIX — The Senate’s audit of Maricopa County election returns will continue, at least for the time being.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Christopher Coury on Friday ordered a halt to the process through at least noon Monday. He said there were sufficient questions raised about the procedures being used by Cyber Ninjas, the Florida firm hired by the Senate to do the work, and whether they complied with state law.
But Coury made his order contingent on the Arizona Democratic Party posting a $1 million bond. That would compensate Cyber Ninjas should they need to hire additional help to make up for lost time.
After the hearing, however, attorney Roopali Desai, who represents the party, said her client won’t be putting up the cash. She said the amount sought by the judge to cover the cost of the delay of a few days has no bearing on a project that, according to the Senate, was supposed to cost just $150,000.
And then, Desai said, Cyber Ninjas is “not trustworthy.’’ She said there is nothing to prevent the company from claiming it needed the entire $1 million for compensation.
“It’s a huge risk for the party to take,’’ she said.
But Desai said Friday’s hearing was not a loss or a waste of time.
She pointed out that, separate from the question of halting the work, Coury did order the company to comply with all election laws. More to the point, the judge wants to see copies of all of their procedures, including hiring and training, to ensure that the ballots and the election equipment now at Veterans Memorial Coliseum are protected.
“They’re going to have to come to court on Monday and explain that,” Desai said.
Coury’s order came despite objections from attorney Kory Langhofer who represents the Senate that the judge really has no authority to intercede.
It starts, Langhofer said, with the fact that legislators are immune from civil suit while the legislature is in session. The lawsuit by the Arizona Democratic Party and Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo names Senate President Karen Fann and Sen. Warren Petersen, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
And he said Cyber Ninjas, by virtue of having been hired by the Senate, is now and agent of the legislature and entitled to the same immunity.
The larger issue, Langhofer told Coury, is the constitutional separation of powers.
He noted that lawmakers have said the purpose of the audit is to determine if there are weaknesses in state election laws and whether revisions are necessary.
“How the legislature conducts its own investigations in determining whether new legislation is necessary and what that legislation might look like isn’t a question on which the judicial branch can opine,’’ Langhofer said.
But Coury said his overwhelming concern is the protection of both the integrity of the ballots as well as the secrecy of information turned over to the Senate — and now in the hands of Cyber Ninjas. So he scheduled a hearing to review all that on Monday.
Dissatisfied with that response, Langhofer late Friday asked Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick to overturn the order. But Bolick, who is the duty justice, said he saw no reason to second guess Coury’s order to produce documents about hiring and training.
“I think that Judge Coury was overtly mindful of the fact that courts have to tread very carefully in this area,’’ Bolick said. “And I do not see anything in the order that makes me think that we ought to intervene at this point.’’
But Bolick said he and his colleagues may be forced to take up the issue later of whether Coury ultimately has any power to intercede in the audit.
Desai said the lawsuit, filed late Thursday, is not about the authority of the legislature to subpoena the ballots and equipment to conduct an audit. That, she said was already decided by a different judge.
“The question here that we are raising is that the audit that the Senate and its agents are conducting violate many provisions of state law,’’ Desai said.
She told Coury that there need to be procedures in place to ensure that the ballots and equipment are protected. There also needs to be a “constant chain of custody of every single ballot and every piece of equipment.’’
Then there’s the question of who has been hired by Cyber Ninjas to actually do the work.
That, she said, starts with doing background checks on the people who will be handling the ballots and getting access to the equipment, as well as providing sufficient training. To this point, she said, none of that information has been provided.
And there’s something else.
“There must be sufficient safeguards in place to ensure the audit is not biased, skewed or subject to tampering,’’ Desai said.
That goes directly to the fact that former Secretary of State Ken Bennett, named by Fann to be the Senate’s liaison with Cyber Ninjas, has admitted that the work cannot be done for the $150,000 the Senate has agreed to pay. That in turn has led to Christina Bobb who works for the conservative One America News Network announcing she had raised $150,000 through a web site called “Voice for Votes’’ to cover the additional costs.
Cyber Ninjas has declined to disclose any outside source of dollars. And the Senate, in response to a public records request by Capitol Media Services, said it has no information on money given directly to the company.
And Voice for Votes, set up as a social welfare organization under federal tax laws, is not required to disclose its donors.
Desai said if private money is, in fact, going to Cyber Ninjas, “there are serious questions about who is influencing, directing and controlling these workers.’’
“The Senate has told us they’re running this so-called audit, that they have abdicated their duty entirely to rogue actors who are making a mockery, with all due respect, of our election laws and our procedures,’’ she said.
And then there’s the question of exactly who Cyber Ninjas has hired, a list that is not public. In fact, Bennett on Thursday even refused to allow reporters to film the review process at least in part because it would allow the recording of the faces of the workers.
“We continue to have no indication of who’s handling the ballots, whether they are known insurgents, representatives of recognized hate groups or on the FBI watch list,’’ Desai said.
That suggestion drew derision from Langhofer.
“When we start talking about the merits, let’s just first of all separate the hyperbole and the political arguments from what is cognizable in this courtroom,’’ he told Coury.
“There is no evidence that I have seen, and certainly that’s not been presented here, that there are hate groups running this audit,’’ Langhofer said. “And to intimate that, with literally no evidence, is a completely unfair smear and an attempt to prejudice your honor into thinking if you rule for the Senate, the sovereign Senate, the state, you’re somehow supporting hate groups.’’
But the judge did pay specific attention to a statement from Joseph LaRue, a deputy Maricopa County attorney. He told the judge that there was evidence that people conducting the audit were using pens with blue ink — ink that could be read by ballot scanners and could be used to alter ballots from what the voter intended without necessarily leaving a trail.
The judge seemed convinced and said that only red pens should be used on the floor.
ELOY — A dust storm caused by high winds on Wednesday complicated Eloy firefighters’ efforts to transport two patients with life-threatening injuries from a collision at Sunland Gin and Houser roads.
The collision happened around 2 p.m. on Wednesday and involved three vehicles, said Robert Maestas, a spokesman for Eloy Fire District. Five people were injured in the accident.
Two of the five people injured had life-threatening injuries and needed to be transported to Level 1 trauma centers in Phoenix, but because of blowing dust, helicopters couldn’t land to fly the patients to Phoenix, Maestas said. The patients had to be transported by ground ambulance, which takes longer.
Maestas said it is not unusual for weather, like dust storms or monsoon storms, to prevent helicopters from flying and transporting patients from an accident.
The cause of the collision was not available although visibility from the dust storm was poor at the time.
FLORENCE — Citizens upset with pending legislation affecting how America conducts elections found sympathetic ears with the Pinal County Board of Supervisors.
The board heard from 11 people in person, mostly from the Oracle area, and one by email Wednesday, urging it to contact Arizona’s U.S. senators and persuade them to vote against HR 1. Luke Myers of Coolidge called the bill “a spectacular exhibit of arrogance.”
Also known as the “For the People Act,” HR 1 would expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, limit partisan gerrymandering and create new ethics rules for federal officeholders.
Some supervisors said it does much more.
“The federal government wants to take over elections,” Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh, R-Coolidge, said. He said he’s been asked at recent meetings, “What we can do to save our constitutional republic?” and he told citizens they need to become involved at every level of government and let their voices be heard.
“I don’t think the citizens of this nation are willing to let their republic slip into the darkness of socialist totalitarianism,” Cavanaugh said. “… Irrespective of whether you believe there was cheating in the last election or not, the federalization of elections is contrary to law.”
He said he would ask that the board draft a letter and take other actions to communicate to Arizona’s congressional delegation that Pinal County is opposed to HR 1. Cavanaugh said the federal government couldn’t provide decennial census results on time, and he cannot trust it to run an election.
Supervisor Jeff Serdy, R-Apache Junction, added, “If it’s left up to only talking to our senators, I don’t have a whole lot of hope for that,” although he believes Sen. Kyrsten Sinema may be open to discussions. If the bill is passed, Serdy said he hopes the state will explore its options to opt out and “keep it the way we should have it.”
Board Chairman Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, said he was already in the process of composing a letter to both Arizona senators and would discuss it in more detail with county staff. He said later in a video being prepared for Pinal County social media that HR 1, or S1 in the U.S. Senate, is about “nationalizing elections and taking away the rights of states to run their elections.”
Miller said in the video he has read the entire bill, and “it will remove all elections processes away from local governments — states, counties and cities. It will all become 100% federally-regulated. And I’ll be real honest with you, governments have a hard time doing anything. You need to leave it to the locals to come up with their system of voting and what they see is the best process for their state.”
More than 20 times, the bill “requires states,” in conflict with the 10th Amendment and states’ rights, Miller said. He said he’s glad citizens are looking at it. “Silence is acceptance, and if you don’t speak out, it’s the assumption that you are OK with whatever is going on.”
Miller said national officials need to know their constituents. “They’re way too disconnected from the day-to-day lives of people out here trying to make a living.”
Roberto Reveles of Gold Canyon told the board Wednesday, “These are genuine crises, and they’re crises that this board has a responsibility to respond to. I have on various occasions been before this board, questioning the election process.” But after participating in the process, he said he was confident that Pinal County and the state abided by all constitutional requirements. …
“As a different point of view, I nonetheless support the calls that you’ve heard. Calls to not only restore integrity, confidence of the public in both the Elections Department and in the Sheriff’s Department.”
Reveles asked for a performance audit and financial audit of both departments, “in the expectation your findings will reinforce my trust and hopefully gain the trust of others who have spoken this morning.”
FLORENCE — Even as area communities see record numbers of new homes going up, cities large and small are hurting for affordable housing, city managers said at an online Pinal Partnership breakfast meeting Friday.
Casa Grande needs more workforce housing, more multifamily housing and apartments, Deputy City Manager Steven Weaver said. Amid lots of single-family housing, the city has a few multifamily projects underway.
“We have a great need for that. All of our apartment complexes are completely full. And the prices are going up so much to the point that people can’t afford it,” Weaver said.
Apache Junction City Manager Bryant Powell agreed, “Affordable housing is something we need to face in Arizona. I don’t like the increases that we’ve seen and I worry about our residents being able to keep going.”
Apache Junction in the past set aside commercial acreage on every major corner but is now working with the private sector to make some of these areas residential, Powell said.
Superior Town Manager Todd Pryor said gentrification is also one of his town’s big challenges. “All these little mine houses are being bought up and redeveloped, and turned into $300,000 houses — which is great if you’re a developer, but it’s not great if you’re a resident in the community and you want your children to move back to town, and they can’t find an affordable place.”
Superior has “a very hot housing market and a lot of pent-up demand.” But it’s landlocked, surrounded by national forest, “which is an asset and a challenge,” Pryor said. Getting old mining interests to release developable land has been challenging. When 20 or 40 acres become available, “it’s a huge opportunity to get some affordable workforce housing in our community.”
Gentrification, plus “a monster industrial operation” (Resolution Copper) on Superior’s boundary are big tasks for the town. “Managing those conflicting demands is going to be a huge challenge,” Pryor said. Superior also just completed an annexation that swelled the town’s area from 2 square miles to 12.
Maricopa City Manager Rock Horst said his city’s biggest challenge is keeping up with growth. “We could well add 10,000 people to our population over the next 12 months. We’re poised to probably build 2,800 single-family homes and between 500 and 1,000 multifamily units this coming year.” The city has more than 50 projects either under construction or in full entitlement phase, Horst said.
Queen Creek, this fiscal year, will probably issue 2,100 housing permits, well in excess of the 1,750 per year it used to issue before the recession, Town Manager John Kross said. Casa Grande is expecting up to 2,000.
Kross said Queen Creek is also transitioning to its own town Police Department, after more than 30 years of contracting with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department.
The town bought 44 police vehicles from Chevrolet and had a commitment on delivery by June. The vendor is now saying because of a chip shortage in the semiconductor industry, it can’t commit to the town’s January transition to the new Police Department.
“Well that’s very disruptive for us,” Kross said. “…We’ve had to reconnoiter on some different options and we’ve got it figured out, but nevertheless it was a variable we didn’t anticipate.”
Managers described still more challenges. Florence Manager Brent Billingsley said a big one for all of Pinal County’s managers will be to maintain water supply and the ability to develop.
“We need all of the folks that are part of Pinal Partnership, as well as Pinal Partnership, to continue working forward in that direction,” Billingsley said.
“We will,” forum moderator Jordan Rose said. “And that’s actually Pinal Partnership’s number-one priority right now, is helping with the water situation.”
The managers of Coolidge and Eloy said they’re trying to separate their cities from their old landfills. Coolidge City Manager Rick Miller said the city is working with a consultant to finalize a closure plan. Eloy City Manager Harvey Krauss said the city has just released a request for proposals to the private sector to either buy it, operate it on a long-term lease or install a transfer station.
At least two large waste companies are interested in the landfill. Krauss said the goal is to turn it into a revenue-producing asset rather than a burden, while keeping it available for residents to use. “It’s going to be challenging to work out a deal, but it’s kind of exciting, too,” Krauss said.
Miller said Coolidge is working with a consultant on odor control at its wastewater plant. Much of the problem is related to “oversizing” in some of the system. Rose replied that oversizing bodes well for future growth, and Miller agreed: “I think those sewer lines are going to get filled up pretty fast.”