Bar disciplinary judge’s appointee made anonymous website to target complainant

A m e r i c a n  P o s t – G a z e t t e

Distributed by C O M M O N S E N S E , in Arizona

Saturday,  March 14th, 2015

Evidence continues to mount against State Bar disciplinary judge O’Neil

O’Neil’s “ethics” buddy Mark Salem retaliated against Mark Dixon with a disgusting smear website for going public about O’Neil’s corruption 

Arizona Republic
Critic of Arizona courts claims libel, defamation in suit
by Dennis Wagner
March 10, 2015

A Pinal County man who lodged numerous ethics complaints against Arizona’s top disciplinary judge claims in court filings that an associate of the judge waged a libelous smear campaign against him on the Internet.

In a Maricopa County Superior Court lawsuit, and in a complaint submitted to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, Mark Dixon of Casa Grande said he was branded as a liar and a cross-dresser on an Internet site operated by Mark Salem, a past member of an Arizona Supreme Court committee on judicial oversight.

Salem, as a Supreme Court appointee, has in the past helped adjudicate numerous State Bar complaints with Arizona Presiding Disciplinary Judge William “Bill” O’Neil, who oversees lawyer ethics and discipline for the Arizona Supreme Court. Salem resigned Aug. 12, 2014, as a disciplinary panelist, six weeks after Dixon’s lawsuit was filed.

Dixon contends Salem launched the website as retribution after Dixon publicly sought to have O’Neil disciplined or removed from power. In April, The Arizona Republic published a detailed account of that controversy.

Dixon and others have alleged in court papers and hearings that O’Neil engaged in unethical and unlawful behavior involving abuse of power, conflicts of interest and real-estate transactions.

Salem, a former Scottsdale police officer, is co-owner of Salem Boys Auto. He hosts talk-radio shows on auto repairs and for years has been a guest columnist for newspapers including The Republic. He and his attorney declined comment for this story.

To date, Dixon’s allegations regarding O’Neil have been dismissed, or discarded without publicly disclosed investigation, by the Supreme Court and other agencies. Nevertheless, Dixon contends his efforts to expose wrongdoing made him a target on Salem’s now-defunct website known as pinaljustice.com.

In a Dec. 23 disclosure, Salem attorney Matthew Kleifield denied all the defamation claims but acknowledged his client created an Internet site to rebut Dixon’s public allegations against O’Neil. Kleifield contended Salem’s criticisms were not libelous because they were true or drew reasonable inferences from Dixon’s own words. He also disputed whether Dixon suffered any damages.

In 2010, Salem, O’Neil and others were appointed by then-Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch to a state Supreme Court Committee on Improving Judicial Oversight and Processing of Probate Court Matters. In recent years, Salem also has served as a “public” member on at least eight panels convened by O’Neil to hear disciplinary cases against Arizona lawyers.

O’Neil did not respond to requests for comment.

Divorce dispute

Dixon began investigating O’Neil, a longtime acquaintance, in 2009 after being detained by Pinal County sheriff’s deputies in connection with a divorce dispute over ownership of a dog.

In a lawsuit and other public documents, Dixon alleged that O’Neil sided with Dixon’s ex-wife in the canine controversy, and used his power as a then-Pinal County Superior Court judge to influence deputies.

As the feud escalated, Dixon filed complaints against O’Neil with the Commission on Judicial Conduct, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, the FBI and other agencies. All were dismissed.

O’Neil was appointed as the state’s first and only presiding disciplinary judge in 2010. Under a new Arizona system, he became the only judge in the state responsible for deciding whether Arizona lawyers have violated ethical rules, and meting out sanctions against those found culpable.

According to domain history records, Salem is the registrant, administrator and billing contact for pinaljustice.com.

Pinaljustice.com was shut down in late November, according to the records, but print-outs made before that date were submitted as exhibits in Dixon’s suit. Postings include Dixon’s phone number, home address and messages such as: “Mark is said to be (a) big, fat, stupid, ugly, recently divorced 52-yr-old a–hole.” Some postings attempt to refute Dixon’s allegations about O’Neil.

Dixon said he filed a new complaint against O’Neil with the Commission on Judicial Conduct. He provided The Republic a signed copy dated Sept. 30, 2014. It alleged the judge “directly or indirectly engaged in an act of retaliation by conspiring with Mark E. Salem,” but he offered no evidence to support that assertion. The commission does not comment on pending cases, but an agency dismissal published online Nov. 19 says the commission decided O’Neil did not violate ethics or the judicial code.

Last week, Dixon’s attorney in the civil complaint against Salem filed a request to withdraw from that case.

Earlier allegations

The prior complaints from Dixon, and motions filed by attorneys who had sought to remove O’Neil from disciplinary cases, alleged that the judge:

— Ghost-wrote court filings on behalf of Dixon before they became alienated, including a complaint lodged against another Superior Court judge in Pinal County.

— Took part in an allegedly unlawful short-sale of a Casa Grande house owned by O’Neil’s mother-in-law. Records show O’Neil’s close friend and business partner, Brian Brenfleck, purchased the residence for $75,000 at a time when records showed mortgages totaling over $600,000. After the short sale eliminated mortgage debts, records show, O’Neil paid $25,000 to Brenfleck for a half interest. O’Neil’s mother-in-law remained as the home’s occupant.

— Presided over Arizona lawyer discipline hearings with a co-panelist, the late Robert Gallo, who was a family friend, without informing defendants of the relationship.

During an interview with The Republic last year, O’Neil denied ghost-writing legal documents for Dixon. He said transactions involving his mother-in-law’s house were not fraudulent. He acknowledged serving on ethics panels alongside Gallo without advising defendants about the friendship, but said there was no impropriety.

Dixon and others also alleged that O’Neil engaged in conflicts and bias while playing multiple roles in the disbarment of Andrew Thomas, the former Maricopa County Attorney.

Thomas and assistant Lisa Aubuchon were accused of prosecutorial misconduct in the 2010 filing of criminal conspiracy charges against Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe and other county officials. Donahoe and the other county officials ultimately were exonerated.

O’Neil presided over the high-profile ethics trial of Thomas and Aubuchon in 2012. Aubuchon asked O’Neil to withdraw due to an alleged conflict of interest, but he refused and ultimately wrote the 247-page judgment against her and Thomas.

The Arizona Supreme Court rejected Aubuchon’s appeal.

Dixon, a former construction contractor with a 1997 conviction for fraud, contends the state’s legal establishment has repeatedly covered up wrongdoing while trying to discredit him. He said Salem’s Internet site was the latest and most vile example. Besides describing Dixon as a “habitual liar,” it refers to him as “a woman in drag,” a “turd” and other slurs.

Dixon said he e-mailed a copy of his latest Judicial Conduct complaint to Supreme Court Chief Justice Scott Bales with a message that says, “You as the Chief Justice can shrug your responsibility of the Judicial Complaint but the responsibility for the Supreme Court appointee Mark Salem is definitely yours. It is beyond any level of acceptance that these events were ever allowed to occur. What is more disturbing though is that Mark Salem represents the level of integrity of the Supreme Court.”

Heather Murphy, a Supreme Court spokeswoman, said justices cannot comment on lawsuits or other pending legal matters that may come before them in the future.

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