When Gov. Doug Ducey pledged $25 million last month to deploy the Arizona National Guard to the Mexico border he did so after the Biden Administration ignored pleas from state and local law enforcement officials to address the influx of immigrants and smugglers making it unhindered across the border.
The governor noted the National Guard troops would be on State Active Duty to assist with medical operations in detention centers, help with installation and maintenance of border cameras, monitor and collect data from the cameras, and analyze the situation at the border to identify trends in smuggling corridors.
The deployment was well received by two border sheriffs -Cochise County’s Mark Dannels and Yuma County’s Leon Wilmot- who spent the last three months trying to get federal authorities to come up with a plan for the escalating public safety threat and humanitarian crisis at and well beyond the international border.
However, Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos has insisted his agency does not need National Guard support even though the county shares nearly 130 hundred miles of border with Mexico. The same “no thanks” approach was expressed by Sheriff David Hathaway of Santa Cruz County.
The difference in the positions of the sheriffs falls across political lines – Dannels and Wilmot are registered Republicans, while Hathaway and Nanos are Democrats.
The same political division is reflected in an April 21 letter signed by one county supervisor from each of the border counties in which they chastised Ducey for not asking for their input about the border situation. The signers -all of whom as Democrats- serve as their counties’ representatives on the Arizona Border Counties Coalition.
“We are disappointed that you failed to consult with the various Boards of Supervisors of each border county on this matter,” the Coalition letter states. “If asked, we would have requested assistance for transportation services, specifically buses and drivers, to provide those transportation services that we are now left to arrange on our own.”
The letter was signed by Sharon Bronson, Pima County; Ann English, Cochise County; Bruce Bracker, Santa Cruz County; and Tony Reyes, Yuma County.
Chief of Staff Mark Napier of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) serves as his county’s point of contact with the Arizona National Guard. Last Thursday more than 30 troops arrived in Cochise County to perform a variety of non-law enforcement duties, including working with an extensive camera system utilized by the Southeastern Arizona Border Region Enforcement (SABRE) team to monitor cross-border traffic.
The troops are also providing support in CCSO’s jail and other clerical activities which allows sheriff’s personnel to deal with “other service demands and address the increase in challenges associated with the border crisis we currently face,” Napier explained.
On Friday, Napier told AZ Free News he and Sheriff Dannels had no advance notice that Supervisor English was signing the letter to Ducey, but they do not see the supervisor’s stance about deployment as being in conflict with CCSO’s position that the border crisis “presents a public safety, national security and human rights issue” which must be addressed in collaboration with federal, state, and local partners.
“The letter expresses some frustration over the lack of engagement between the Governor and Supervisors with respect to the deployment of AZNG personnel,” Napier said. “That is a matter between those Supervisors and the Governor.”
Napier added the Coalition’s letter also states border security is a responsibility of the federal government, “which in fact it is.” And the letter does not deny there is a public safety concern related to the current conditions along the border, he noted.
The Coalition’s letter makes no mention of the frequency or cost of transportation services any of the counties have had to provide or arrange for.
On Feb. 12, 2019, Pat Call had been serving on the Cochise County Board for more than a decade representing for the Sierra Vista area, which includes the Army’s Fort Huachuca. It was also the day Call and his two fellow supervisors took part in a public and then a private meeting which ended with his appointment as justice of the peace of the Sierra Vista Justice Court.
The new job paid twice Call’s supervisor salary despite the fact he was not an attorney and had no judicial experience. But there was no advance public notice that Call was even interested in the position, and during the meeting Call suggested the board not utilize a nomination committee to review any perspective candidates, all of whom were lawyers with experience in justice court operations.
The Arizona Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it will hear a local resident’s challenge to Call’s appointment based on alleged violations of Arizona’s Open Meeting Law and Conflict of Interest Statute. The case is being watched by public agencies and government attorneys across the state.
“When it comes to holding public officials accountable for backdoor deals, this is the most important case in Arizona history,” appellate attorney David Abney said after the justices accepted the case for review.
Abney is one of three attorneys representing David Welch, the Sierra Vista resident who challenged the appointment. He told AZ Free News it does not matter that Call’s term on the bench ended in December 2020.
“There are still penalties and sanctions that can be assessed against those who violate the open-meeting and conflict-of-interest laws,” Abney said. “So Justice of the Peace Call’s departure does not insulate him or his collaborators from liability.”
The county defendants contend they did nothing improper in filling the court vacancy, and point to the fact the Cochise County Attorney’s Office provided legal advice throughout the process.
“The Arizona Legislature has made clear that, for a plaintiff making claim to a private right of action under Arizona’s conflict of interest or open meeting laws, he or she must be ‘affected by’ the alleged violation,” according to the county’s petition for review to the supreme court. The county contends Welch has no standing to challenge the board’s action.
Welch lives within the boundaries of the Sierra Vista Justice Court and had a misdemeanor case pending at the court at the time of Call’s appointment. His case would have been heard by Call, but the county attorney’s office had the case dismissed the day Call took office.
The county later invoked the ratification option in Arizona’s Open Meeting Law to reaffirm Call’s appointment as justice of the peace during a special meeting in March 2019. Welch, however, takes the position shared by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich that the supervisors may still be open to personal liability if it is shown they engaged in misconduct.
But it is not only the open meeting law issues that Welch has challenged.
Public records show Call engaged in discussions about how to fill the court vacancy he was awarded a few hours later. He also took part in an executive session with the other supervisors, a deputy county attorney, and the county administrator just before being appointed.
Arizona’s conflict of interest statute requires a public officer who has a substantial interest in any decision of a public agency to make known such interest. Then the public officer “shall refrain from participation in any manner…in such decision.”
There is no ratification option in that statute to simply “do-over” or reaffirm a decision.
A judge from outside Cochise County initially dismissed Welch’s complaints on the basis of a lack of standing to bring the challenges. That ruling was overturned in a unanimous Arizona Court of Appeals decision in October 2020, which sent the case back to the lower court for a new hearing on Welch’s arguments.
For now the case is on hold while the supreme court reviews the appellate decision. Attorney Chris Russell has been on Welch’s case from the beginning and understands some residents are frustrated the case has been going on more than two years with no immediate end in sight. But he is looking forward to the attention the Arizona Supreme Court’s review will generate.
“Corruption thrives in the darkness,” Russell said. “Without open and transparent government free from conflicts-of-interest we are no better than a cabal run by the rich and powerful. History has proven that such a circumstance is always detrimental to the people.”
The supreme court has given the parties until early May to file any updated legal briefings before oral arguments are conducted later this year.
Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels has taken part in a number of media interviews in recent weeks about the growing influx of illegal border crossers coming in from Mexico, and it is clear who he blames for the uncontrolled public health and public safety situation getting worse by the day.
“The border patrol is no longer securing the border,” Dannels told KFYI’s James T. Harris on Monday. “What they’re doing is taking care of children and adults.”
Dannels told Harris that the White House is using a “very kind choice of words” when discussing the number of people trying to cross the 1,954-mile international border in the last few weeks. Words, the sheriff says, which are “in conflict with what is truly going on at the border.”
And that, the sheriff says, requires calling the situation at the country’s southwest border what it is – a crisis, not “a challenge” as a spokesperson for President Joe Biden recently called it.
According to Dannels, recent reports place the number of people trying to cross the southern border at 2,500 to 4,000 per day, with 400 to 500 of them being children. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expects those numbers to hold steady for several weeks before it spikes as more migrants from South America make it through Central America and Mexico.
Dannels told Harris that he has seen no logistical support nor mitigation efforts coming out of Washington D.C., which he believes should concern all Americans, not just those in border states.
“When you fail to recognize a problem and you avoid it or ignore it, it only gets worse,” he said. “What happens on the southwest border doesn’t stay here, it migrates throughout the United States into communities throughout.”
Cochise County’s southern boundary shares more than 80 miles of the international border. Dannels has installed hundreds of surveillance cameras focused on the border and other remote areas of the county to supplement those in use by DHS agencies such as Customs & Border Protection and U.S. Border Patrol.
Earlier this month Dannels was interviewed live on Fox & Friends about Biden’s order in January which halted border wall construction, including one section of old fence the sheriff said was recently seeing “five or six groups” coming through every day.
The sheriff noted he and other sheriffs along the border were not briefed in advance about Biden’s wall construction order. There has also been a deafening silence about the border crisis from Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, as well as national public health officials.
“Nobody is talking about what’s going on at the southwest border when it comes to the health pandemic in this country,” Dannels said during a March 5 interview on Fox & Friends. “And then you look at the public safety aspect of this, it’s upsetting.”
It is the same message Dannels shared a few days earlier in an interview with Fox News’ Your World program and then again March 8 on Fox’s American’s Newsroom show.
“Talking to my federal partners, talking to local law enforcement, talking to our health department – I mean when it comes to public safety, national security, when it comes to the health pandemic, we’re in trouble –we’re in serious trouble and this all started under the word politics,” he said March 8.
“When this administration failed to engage with my governor, my attorney general, our health departments, our emergency services coordinator- along with other border states and beyond- that’s when it started. So we’re trying to pick up the pieces right now.”
AZ Free News has confirmed Dannels is being suggested as a possible Republican candidate in 2022 when Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s seat in Congress comes open. Dannels said Monday he has been approached about running for various political offices, but he has not considered such a move as his current term runs through 2024.