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Chief deputy quit amid conflicts with Pima County's top prosecutor

The Pima County Attorney’s Office’s former second-in-command described her tumultuous relationship with the county's top prosecutor in an email when she resigned, detailing allegations about treatment she claims was directly related to her race, and dozens of other grievances.

Tamara Mulembo, the office's first Black chief deputy, resigned in early October after 10 months in the post but stayed on until the end of 2021 as part of her separation agreement with the office. That agreement also included an anti-disparagement clause.

Mulembo wrote in the newly released Oct. 7 email: "Other senior leadership team got to be publicly recognized for their substantive work. I got trotted out during Black History month and spoon fed a narrative playing up stereotypes about my blackness, which I rejected," she wrote. She did not elaborate on that complaint. 

The email also referenced an incident of sexual harassment by a coworker, with Mulembo saying Pima County Attorney Laura Conover gave her "the third degree" about her handling of the situation. It's unclear if Mulembo was the subject of the harassment or handling the situation as part of her job duties.

Conover did not directly address any of the allegations in a written statement her office sent Tuesday to the Arizona Daily Star in response to Mulembo's claims, but she did dispute Mulembo's assessment of the office.

Conover said during a March appearance on KVOI (1030-AM) program The Bill Buckmaster Show that Mulembo left on good terms.

"I can't say it was a huge surprise (that Mulembo left). I was sad, but I couldn't be surprised that she got poached and got recruited," Conover said then. "Attorneys, of course, always go out with letters that clarify that nothing wrong was afoot and that we parted on good terms."

The email suggests otherwise.

Mulembo wrote that Conover subjected to her microaggressions, undermined her authority, prevented Mulembo from doing her job, publicly diminished her contributions, denigrated her during meetings, rejected suggestions, questioned decisions and more.

The Star received a copy of the email and Mulembo's separation agreement from David Berkman, who was the office's chief criminal deputy under Conover's predecessor Barbara LaWall. Berkman submitted a public records request for the email in November and forwarded the correspondence to the Star after he received it last week.

Conover told the Star in an email Tuesday that people identified in Mulembo's letter "disagree with her assessment" of the office and that her administration provides multiple avenues of support for employees.

"Employees know that my door is always open if they have concerns, as are the doors of our entire leadership team. Everyone at the office has heard me say, frequently, that our goal is to give each other the grace to learn, to grow, and to develop," Conover said in the email.

The office has implemented other processes to try to address employee welfare, including COVID vaccine access, support for employees who got sick, and long-overdue pay raises, she said in the email.

"Still, doing this emotionally taxing work in times that everyone recognizes as challenging is causing the criminal justice system to lose good dedicated public servants in all sectors nationwide from law offices to law enforcement agencies," Conover said. "I appreciate the meaningful contributions Tamara made to the growth and significant change in the Pima County Attorney’s Office and wish her continued success on her new professional path."

Mulembo's attorney, Merle Turchik, did not respond to the Star's request for comment.

Berkman has been requesting public records from the County Attorney's Office since his departure in January 2021, the month Conover took charge. A Democrat, Conover was elected to the post in November 2020.

Dozens of grievances

In the Oct. 7 email, Mulembo said she had read her list of concerns to Conover during an Oct. 1 virtual meeting.

"You asked me to bring issues to you and not ruminate on them," Mulembo said in the email. "I have brought issues to you. I will remind you of them now."

The email listed 36 complaints against Conover, including:

  • "I was interfered with when disciplining the attorneys who violated COVID policy and caused us to have to shut down the office."
  • "I had to manage your anger when I refused to target (an employee) for a discussion about an outfit that was dress code compliant."
  • "You subject me to gaslighting, deflection, blame shifting when I attempt to raise issues with you, then (you) call me angry."
  • "You asked me to sign (a review of a case in which an officer was involved in a shooting) that I had not substantively reviewed to avoid political fallout because the shooting victim was a Black woman and because I am a Black woman. When I addressed this with you, you accused me of twisting your words."
  • "I have never been sworn in, even though we managed to find a badge for (an employee) who does not have a job description."

Mulembo detailed a situation in which she said Conover berated her for failing to keep her informed, even though she was telling her things she had learned earlier that day.

"Then, when I tried to keep you informed by contemporaneously sending you information during work hours that is important over the email (which you are at liberty to step away from), you accused me of deliberately trying to ruin your son's birthday party," Mulembo said in the email.

Mulembo said in the email that she offered a set of terms in the Oct. 1 meeting but that Conover declined and instead asked Mulembo to pursue mediation. Mulembo detailed the terms she offered: staying on until the end of the year to identify and onboard her replacement; continuing to work on her projects; working remotely, with the exception of one meeting; three months' severance pay and continued health insurance coverage during those three months; and a mutual anti-disparagement clause.

The day before Mulembo sent the email, Conover canceled a regularly scheduled meeting between the two and instead called a meeting of senior leadership, with the exception of Mulembo, the letter said.

"You told the group I was leaving because I can't handle the workload. This is false. You know it is false," Mulembo said in the email. "If you persist in circulating falsehoods about my job performance or otherwise denigrating me, I will be forced to defend myself."

In an April 2021 interview with the Star, Mulembo called her job at the County Attorney's Office “the stuff that dreams are made of.” 

A spokesman for the office told the Star in October that Mulembo was leaving for nonprofit work.

Contact Star reporter Caitlin Schmidt at 573-4191 or cschmidt@tucson.com. On Twitter: @caitlincschmidt

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