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Arizona DOC Paralegal Fraud: Law Libraries Closed, Replaced by Scam Artists

One year ago this month, PLN reported that 34 Arizona prison law libraries were permanently closed and replaced with visiting paralegals under contract with the state. [See: "Experiment in Access: Law Libraries Eliminated in Arizona Prisons" PLN , Vol. 8 No. 10]. The "experiment in access'' recently exploded in the faces of its creators, rocking the Arizona DOC (ADOC) with charges of fraud, mismanagement and criminal negligence.

The August 12, 1998, edition of the Arizona Republic reported that "corrections officials confirm that the man to whom they granted a $396,000 paralegal contract last year has a criminal record and bogus educational credentials."

The scandal elicited an immediate response from ADOC Director Terry Stewert, who insisted that the case of contract paralegal Scott Sirota is an isolated incident that does not reflect on the integrity of the ADOC or its contract paralegal system.

Stewart's attempt to deflect criticism from the ADOC and focus blame on the contractor rings hollow, though, when you consider the embarrassing fact that the spark which ignited the scandal came from outside the Department. Were it not for the efforts of prison activist Donna Hamm of the prison rights group Middle Ground, Stewart and the ADOC might still be enjoying the "success" of their contract paralegal experiment. Instead, the first indication of impending disaster landed on the desk of Director Stewart in the form of a July 12, 1998, letter from Ms. Hamm.

"I recently reviewed the public records I purchased many months ago," Hamm wrote, "regarding the Contract Award to paralegal contract providers involved in the DOC's implementation of Department Order 902. It is unfortunate that, working with the tiny cadre of volunteers and limited budget available to my organization, I was able to review this information only recently."

What follows is the story of what Ms. Hamm and Middle Ground uncovered.

In early 1997, the ADOC put out an RFP (Request For Proposals) for private contractors to submit bids to provide paralegal services to Arizona's prisons. Six bidders responded with bids outlining which of Arizona's 14 prison complexes they would provide coverage for and what their hourly charge would be.

The highest bidder was $75 per hour. Another bidder was disqualified because she is a licensed attorney and the RFP specifies that only paralegals, and not practicing attorneys, are eligible to bid for the contract. In the end, three bids were accepted and the state was carved into three territories to be served by the trio of contractors.

On July 21, 1997, Contract No. C70448-001 was signed by Scott Sirota, 41, of Phoenix, Arizona. Sirota was awarded the largest territory, covering the nine prison complexes in the Southern half of the state. Sirota bid $25/hour to provide 288 hours/week of paralegal services to the Fort Grant, Safford, Douglas, Florence, Eyman, Tuscon, SACRC, MCCTF, and Yuma prisons, and a portion of the services to the Perryville prison. The total annual estimated cost was $374,400.

But Sirota's contract with the DOC authorizes him to charge the "All Inclusive Hourly Rate" of $35/hour (which includes "the labor rate, labor benefits, payroll burden, required insurance, Workers' Compensation fee, profit, overhead, legal defense costs and all other related cost factors"). Sirota's contract authorizes him to bill the ADOC a total not to exceed the "All Inclusive" annual amount of $520,000.

PLN has obtained a July 11, 1997 memo from David Stephenson, the ADOC monitor of the paralegal services program, to Director Stewert, recommending that contracts be awarded to Sirota and two others.

"The three listed prospective paralegal contractors have had a background clearance conducted," writes Stephenson. "Following your action on this recommendation, all subsequent prospective paralegals will be subjected to background clearance activities, to include review of the standard background information as well as an NCIC, ACIC, and CCH."

Sirota completed and submitted a "Background Questionnaire" on June 23, 1997. Under "Criminal History" Sirota listed only a 1987 "driving on a suspended license" misdemeanor. He answered "No" to: "Are you currently on probation or parole?"

But Sirota is on probation for attempted theft, according to court records obtained by Donna Hamm and shown to PLN . In 1997, he was charged with felony forgery and theft when he stole an insurance check and deposited it in his personal bank account.

Sirota entered into a plea agreement in which the charge was lowered to a misdemeanor of attempted theft. He was ordered to pay restitution and placed on probation for one year, beginning on February 11, 1997.

According to the Arizona Republic , Sirota was a defendant in 1985 federal lawsuit involving the sales of phony Cabbage Patch dolls.

In his bid application, Sirota listed a 1978 Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from Arizona State University (ASU). He also claimed to have "attended" the ASU College of Law in 1986. The ADOC apparently failed to verify these claims.

"A simple telephone check with the ASU Records Department," Ms. Hamm wrote in her 12 July letter to Director Stewart, "a telephone check consuming a total of approximately three minutes, revealed that Sirota attended ASU during the period from June of 1976 through December of 1977 -- and did not obtain any type of undergraduate degree. He left school and returned for the period from August through December of 1981. Again, no undergraduate degree was ever conferred. Additionally, Mr. Sirota was never admitted as a student to the ASU College of Law."

Sirota claimed on his bid application to have worked for the Arizona Attorney General's Office from June, 1978, through May, 1983. According to Ms. Hamm, the Attorney General's office said that claim cannot be verified because they don't keep employment records that long. Sirota also claimed to have been employed as "a legal assistant to majority counsel" of the U.S. Congressional House Select Committee on Assassinations, from May, 1978, through June, 1979. According to Hamm, "there is no record of him having worked for any congressional committee... Again, the information was not verifiable."

Stewart confirmed to the Arizona Republic that the ADOC initiated an internal probe of Sirota after Donna Hamm came forward with the information about Sirota. Stewart said that the monitor of the prison paralegal contracts, David Stephenson, resigned after questions about Sirota's background surfaced. He placed the blame squarely on Stephenson for failing to do adequate background checks.

"They weren't monitored," Stewart said. "The contract monitor whose responsibility it was to do that did not do it. It's that simple."

Stewart said the probe has turned into a criminal investigation and vowed to pursue criminal charges against Sirota; under state law it is a felony to obtain more than $100,000 in benefits through fraudulent means.

But Sirota's little white lies on his application are but the tip of an increasingly sleazy iceberg. Among the paralegals hired by Sirota to provide "legal services" to approximately l9,000 Arizona prisoners is his brother, Mark Sirota, 38, a former Mesa, Arizona, police sergeant fired in 1992 after being accused of having sex with a citizen while in his patrol car on duty and falsifying documents to obtain $700 from a tuition reimbursement program. As a patrol officer, Mark Sirota was suspended for five days after he was found peeping into a woman's bedroom with binoculars.

Also employed as a paralegal by Scott Sirota is his ex-wife, Kimberly Farragher. According to Hamm, neither Sirota's brother nor ex-wife has any formal paralegal training, as required by the RFP for ADOC Contract Paralegals.

A source inside the ADOC who spoke on condition of anonymity told Donna Hamm that Sirota has falsified time slips submitted to the ADOC. PLN has obtained a copy of Sirota's paralegals' hours billed for a two week period from September 1-15, 1997. He claims 680 hours (412 hours billed at $25/hour and 268 at $35/hour) for a total of $19,680. If this two-week billing cycle is representative of the entire year of the contract, then Sirota and his gang would have billed the ADOC for a total of $512,000 ($137,600 over the submitted bid, but a mere $8,000 less than the maximum "All Inclusive" amount authorized under his contract with the ADOC).

But the problem is apparently not limited to Sirota and his merry band of scamsters. After exposing Sirota as a fraud and scam artist, Donna Hamm of Middle Ground turned her investigative attention to the second of the three paralegal contractors, Laurianne R. Litzau, 35, of Phoenix, Arizona.

Litzau was awarded ADOC Contract No. C70448-002 to provide an estimated $52,000 worth of paralegal services to the approximately 4,100 prisoners in Central Arizona's Perryville, Phoenix/Aspen, ACW, Globe, and ASP-Phoenix prisons. Litzau listed an "AA Paralegal" diploma/degree from Phoenix Community College on her ADOC Background Questionnaire. But Middle Ground's investigation revealed this claim to be untrue.

"Ms. Litzau attended Phoenix Community College," says Hamm, "from Spring of 1988 through the Spring of 1997, acquiring 45 credit hours. However, no diploma/certificate or degree has been conferred."

Litzau and Sirota may not have completed their college studies or obtained degrees, but they apparently studied the RFP closely enough to know they'd have to lie about their qualifications in order to satisfy the RFP's General Specifications/Requirements/Minimum Qualifications ("A Diploma/Certificate/Degree in paralegal studies").

The third contract was awarded to Charles Brandel, of Northern Arizona Paralegal Services. Brandel, who was the lowest bidder, was awarded a contract to provide 40 hours/week to the state's two Northernmost prisons: $15/hour for 32 hours/week at the Winslow prison, and $16.50/hour for 8 hours/week at the Apache prison, for a total estimated cost of $31,824/year.

According to Hamm, "Charles Brandel THOROUGHLY checked out with respect to claimed experience and professional degrees. I did the checking, DOC did not."

According to Hamm, the contracts for Litzau and Sirota were both renewed for FY 98/99. PLN has been unable to independently corroborate this, but has obtained an internal ADOC memo from Mike Kowren, Purchasing Manager to Assistant Director Carl Nink. The memo, dated April 23, 1998, notes that: "Our annual requirement Bid No. C70448 for Paralegal Services with the Office of Scott Sirota, Laurianne Litzau, Northern Arizona Paralegal Services will expire on July 21, 1998." The memo has a yes/no checkbox to indicate whether the contract should be extended. It also states: "Your total estimated annual expenditure for this contract is $800,000."

There is a check in the "Yes" box, indicating that the contract should be renewed. A space on the memo provided for "Comments'' is blank. The approval is signed by the David Stephenson, the ADOC contract monitor who resigned soon after the scandal broke.

When asked about this memo by an Arizona Republic reporter, Stewart denied that the FY 98/99 contract cost $800,000. He said the figure cited in the 23 April memo is just an "estimate" and the true cost will be much lower, but he didn't specify an amount.

"The DOC claimed that one of the reasons for getting rid of the law libraries," says Hamm, "was the 'extreme' cost of maintaining them. The annual expense for maintaining the law libraries (updates, staffing, security, etc.) was just over $500,000. If you take into account their estimated cost of $800,000 for this coming fiscal year, and add it to the liability they've now exposed themselves to as result of the potential harm caused by Scott Sirota and/or Laurianne Litzau, you can see that Arizona's inmates, as usual, are getting the shaft."

This is particularly true considering that the paralegal contract (like the law libraries before) is paid for not with tax revenues but with monies from what Arizona calls its "Special Services Fund," which is also known as the Activities and Recreation Fund. The revenues for this fund are derived from the profits from: prison commissary purchases, the collect telephone call system, and vending machine sales in prison visiting rooms. This fund, then, is a form of "imprisonment tax" imposed on prisoners and their families.

"There is no level playing field for Arizona's prison inmates," says Ms. Hamm. "While the state has the use of hundreds of qualified attorneys, assistants, secretaries, interns, along with computerized legal research sources, Arizona prisoners are left to their empty law book shelves and the virtually unsupervised actions of the scam artists who passed themselves off as paralegals purporting to 'assist' inmates with access to the courts."

Attorney Nicholas Hentoff of Phoenix says the fraud stemming from this incident could make the ADOC liable to a class-action lawsuit for the misuse of prisoner funds that pay for the paralegals.

"By allowing this kind of malfeasance to take place, Terry Stewart is being criminally negligent at best,'' said Hentoff.

Arizona Republic , Documents supplied by Middle Ground

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