PHOENIX — In her first television interview in months, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel provided false information about the situation surrounding a top prosecutor who’s the subject of an ongoing ABC15 investigation.
The county attorney’s office also announced late Thursday that it has cleared Erin Otis after Adel’s promise for a “full investigation,” and she’s back prosecuting capital cases.
Adel’s interview with Arizona Horizon on PBS aired on March 8.
She mostly addressed her public battle with sobriety and the calls by her top staff to resign.
But during the interview, host Ted Simons asked Adel about ABC15’s recent “(dis)Honorable” investigation into prosecutor Erin Otis.
When MCAO hired Otis, she was under investigation by the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct for frequently exchanging cruel emails and memes to mock people in her courtroom during hearings and trials.
“During the course of the hiring process, we were not aware of what was going on,” Adel said. “And ultimately the judicial conduct commission found a failure to supervise, which really wouldn’t have prevented her from being hired by us. But once we were made aware, we put her on administrative leave, and we’re conducting our own full investigation to make sure the allegations are either proven or disproven.”
Adel and other top MCAO officials have declined ABC15’s interview requests to discuss the hiring of Otis. But the county attorney’s statement stating that she was placed on leave once MCAO was made aware is not accurate.
MCAO placed Otis on administrative leave on February 11, 2022 — the same day ABC15 aired the first report in the station’s “(dis)Honorable” investigation.
MCAO officials were made aware of the judicial commission’s case much earlier.
On June 15, 2021, two attorneys assigned to assist a pro se defendant in a murder case filed a motion alleging prosecutorial misconduct against Otis.
The motion included information about the judicial investigation and it was forwarded to MCAO leadership and the State Bar of Arizona.
In response, MCAO Division Chief Barbara Marshall then filed a bar complaint in September against those two defense attorneys and attached a copy of the judicial commission’s final order in Otis’s case as an exhibit.
In the PBS interview, Adel was asked a second question to clarify if just she was unaware or if MCAO as a whole was unaware.
“The office was unaware. But we’re only so good as the information we get. Because when there’s a pending judicial investigation, for example, it’s not like it’s public, and it’s on a website and we would know about it,” Adel said. “Somebody would have to disclose that. And usually those proceedings are private. So the information we had at the time, we do a very thorough background check on every single person that we hire.”
MCAO officials did not respond to questions about Adel’s PBS interview and the discrepancies in her answers.
In a previous report, MCAO officials did not directly answer several written questions from ABC15 about when the office became aware of the judicial investigation or if Otis disclosed it.
MCAO’s application for Otis specifically asks her to agree to the following: "I authorize current and former employers to give Maricopa County or the Judicial Branch of Arizona in Maricopa County any and all information concerning my previous employment and any pertinent information they may have, and release all parties from all liability for any damages that may result from furnishing such information.”
It’s not clear if MCAO’s background investigators failed to check with Superior Court officials or if the court system failed to disclose the investigation.
ABC15 obtained documents showing then-Presiding Judge Janet Barton was aware of the allegations and commission investigation into Otis.
Barton also conducted interviews with members of Otis’s staff, and the court system sent the commission copies of her emails, records show.
MCAO also admitted that their application process did not specifically ask judges if they were under commission investigation — a loophole the office closed days after ABC15’s report.
So far, Otis has avoided any discipline.
The Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct dismissed the 2019 complaint against her and scrubbed Otis’s name from their final findings.
Otis received a confidential warning letter in the event she should ever return to the bench.
It’s not clear how deeply the judicial commission or Superior Court investigated the case against Otis.
The commission and court system both follow special Arizona Supreme Court rules — not Arizona public record laws — which make their investigations confidential.
Both agencies refused ABC15’s request for more information and documents about their investigations and deliberations.
In the following statement sent late Thursday, MCAO said Otis has returned to work.
“The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) has completed its internal review regarding Deputy County Attorney Erin Otis. Ms. Otis was placed on administrative leave on February 11, 2022, while we reviewed conduct that occurred while she was a judicial officer. The MCAO’s internal review confirmed that the conduct that was the subject of a dismissed judicial complaint has not occurred during Ms. Otis’ tenure at MCAO. Ms. Otis is not a supervisor in this office, and we have not found any evidence of her distributing any unprofessional material among her colleagues.
As we have previously stated, the dismissed judicial complaint would not have changed our hiring decision had we known of it at the time. We are not aware of information establishing any violations of the Arizona Rules of Professional Conduct or MCAO Policies and Procedures.
Ms. Otis has publicly accepted full responsibility for failure to supervise her staff. We continue to have full confidence in her abilities as a prosecutor and look forward to her continuing the important work of this office.”
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.