PHOENIX — The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has placed the lead prosecutor for a collection of protest cases on administrative leave amid an outside investigation into how a group of demonstrators was charged as a criminal street gang.
MCAO confirmed Wednesday that April Sponsel was placed on administrative leave. A spokesperson said no other employees were affected.
The news of Sponsel’s leave was first reported by the Arizona Republic.
Sponsel was assigned to multiple protest cases that been the focus of ABC15’s ongoing “Politically Charged” investigation.
The "Politically Charged" investigation exposed one case that was especially problematic: a group of protesters arrested on Oct.17 was charged as a criminal street gang based on exaggerations and lies.
ABC15 obtained records and police radio calls that show Sponsel was actively advising officers before the arrests were finalized. The audio further raised concerns about inappropriate coordination between Phoenix police and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel has distanced herself from the gang charges, claiming she was out of the loop due to a traumatic brain injury last year. However, the arrests and charges were finalized before Adel was hospitalized.
Adel dismissed the gang charge case a week after ABC15’s investigation launched, but the charges were dismissed without prejudice, which means new charges could be refiled.
The county attorney then ordered an outside investigation to be conducted by a retired Maricopa County Superior Court judge, Roland Steinle.
Sponsel is a veteran member of MCAO and is assigned to the First Responders Bureau, a specialized unit created by Adel in late 2019.
She’s also a former gang unit prosecutor.
News of Sponsel’s placement on leave was a surprise to defense attorneys and MCAO insiders who told ABC15 she was working as recently as Tuesday.
Sponsel worked closely on the protest cases with Deputy County Attorney Nick Michaud leaving some defense attorneys also questioned why he hasn’t been placed on leave too.
Michaud filed gang allegations against protesters in a separate case only to withdraw them shortly after ABC15’s reports.
MCAO claiming those gang allegations were filed “inadvertently” and a “clerical error.”
ABC15 also discovered that Michaud and Phoenix police officers presented a grand jury with demonstrably false information in the criminal case against prominent activist Bruce Franks Jr.
Michaud’s brother is a Phoenix police sergeant.
Sgt. Doug Michaud, who previously worked in the gang unit, responded to at least one protest in which his brother is prosecuting defendants.
In an email, a spokesperson said MCAO doesn't see a conflict. "Sergeant Doug Michaud is not a witness in the cases. He is not a victim. He was not involved in arresting any of the defendants. Therefore, there is no conflict in this situation."
This report is part of an ongoing series of ABC15 investigative reports called “Politically Charged.” The series can be found at ABC15.com/protests. Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.