PHOENIX — When the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office hired judge Erin Otis to be a capital case prosecutor, she had been under investigation by the state’s judicial commission for months.
Did MCAO know? Did Otis tell them?
In a new written statement, the county attorney’s office does not directly answer those questions. But executives blamed a gap in their application process and background investigation as well as the lack of transparency in the commission’s probe, which was dismissed after Otis was hired.
MCAO then said it wouldn’t have mattered.
“Nevertheless, based on the specific findings in that dismissal order – that there was a failure to supervise, but not to the extent that it required any discipline – if we had those findings, that dismissal alone would not have changed our hiring decision,” the statement said.
Otis was a judge in Maricopa County Superior Court.
An ABC15 investigation exposed she and her judicial staff frequently mocked and ridiculed people in their courtroom by sending cruel and obscene jokes and memes during hearings and trials.
Insiders said no one was off-limits: defendants, their families, jurors, attorneys, witnesses, and even other judges.
ABC15 also discovered an MCAO prosecutor, who now works alongside Otis, also participated in the jokes with her staff during a hearing.
HIRING OF OTIS
Otis joined the Maricopa County Superior Court as a commissioner in 2012 after leaving MCAO as a prosecutor.
Governor Doug Ducey appointed Otis as a judge in 2016.
In mid-2019, Otis was placed under investigation by the Arizona Commission for Judicial Conduct.
Otis began exploring employment options with MCAO later that year and was officially hired as a prosecutor in January 2020.
The commission dismissed the case in March 2021, but issued Otis a private warning letter “should she ever return to the bench in the future.” The investigation and all related documents are confidential, according to state supreme court rules. [Editor’s note: ABC15 is investigating the lack of accountability and transparency in judicial conduct cases for future reports.]
The following screenshot is an email showing ABC15’s specific questions and MCAO’S full response.
MCAO officials have declined ABC15’s standing interview request because a spokesperson said officials find the station’s reporting “very investigative.”
The office routinely answers in written statements.
For this report, the official’s seven-sentence response doesn’t clearly answer if MCAO knew about the investigation before hiring Otis, if she disclosed it, or when the agency found out.
Adding confusion to the matter, MCAO placed Otis on administrative leave on February 11, 2022 — the day of ABC15’s first report about her past conduct.
While the commission’s investigative records are confidential, its rules do not prohibit people involved in cases from speaking about them or releasing information themselves.
PROSECUTOR PARTICIPATES IN JOKE
MCAO has not released any statements condemning the past conduct of Otis or her judicial staff.
ABC15 obtained dozens of messages between the former judge and her bailiff.
The messages were sent and received during hearings and trials in multiple cases in 2017 and 2018. Those emails show that an MCAO prosecutor participated during a series of brief hearings on Sept. 11, 2018.
On pages 49 through 51 of the file above, emails show Otis’s bailiff sends Otis two different photos of Ed Sheeran. The judge and her staff stop multiple times during proceedings to gather and laugh at their computers, according to courtroom video obtained by ABC15.
Josh Clark, who prosecutes felonies including some death penalty cases, then sent a photo of his own.
The subject line: “I see your Ed Sheeran and raise you Steve Zahn.”
It’s not clear who they were making fun of or how Clark knew about the running joke in the courtroom or why he was included.
An MCAO response also did not answer several of ABC15’s specific questions.
Legal experts said Clark’s conduct clearly violates ethical rules and raises serious concerns about ex parte communications.
In a lengthy statement ahead of ABC15’s original report, Otis wrote she has “always tried to act with integrity” and she takes “full responsibility” for what happened.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.