Tim Steller

Arizona Daily Star columnist Tim Steller

When eight Pima County justices of the peace gathered in June 2017, Lisa Royal’s appointment to be court administrator seemed a foregone conclusion.

Royal had been court administrator before, so she knew the job, and she had scored top among the half-dozen applicants, judges told me. She also was supported by Justice of the Peace Keith Bee, long a powerful force in the consolidated justice courts complex in downtown Tucson that Royal would administer if hired.

But there was a crop of newly elected justices of the peace last year, and one of them, Vince Roberts, raised a concern that had been circulating quietly in the court: Corporate filings showed that Bee and Royal had formally become partners in the bus-transportation business Bee’s family had operated for years. It looked like a conflict of interest to Roberts.

So when the eight Tucson-based justices of the peace gathered, Roberts asked Bee, who was on the hiring committee, why he hadn’t revealed their business relationship. Judges I interviewed were surprised by Bee’s response.

Justice of the Peace Maria Felix told me last week, “I remember Judge Bee saying he had forgotten about their business association, which was a bit shocking to me, because how can you forget a partner?”

Their doubts proved to be just a brief stumbling block for Royal on her path to returning to the court administrator job she now holds again, at a salary of $120,000 per year, more than the justices of the peace make.

But the decision looks dicier in retrospect, after Bee’s Sept. 5 indictment on four federal felonies related to his operation of the family bus-transportation business: Three counts of filing a false tax return and one count of corruptly impeding the enforcement of tax laws. Federal authorities accused Bee of repeatedly disguising spending for personal use — buying sports cars and renovating homes in Arizona and Washington — as business expenses. He has pleaded not guilty.

In an email exchange and an in-person interview, Royal confirmed to me that she was subpoenaed and testified before the grand jury that eventually indicted Bee. She has not been accused of or implicated in the crimes Bee is accused of committing.

However, Bee’s sudden indictment and resignation has uncorked bottled-up concerns that many people connected to the court have held for years about the power that the Bee-Royal partnership held there. Eight of Pima County’s 10 justice courts are housed in the consolidated courts building downtown, and Royal administers only those courts. The others are in Ajo and Green Valley and are administered separately.

Former Justice of the Peace Paul Simon, who retired in 2016, told me that for years Bee and Royal seemed to have an alliance that others could not penetrate.

“When I was at the court, and when Royal was the court administrator and Bee was in the leadership, there were those who were on the inside of who was running things, and there were those who were on the outside,” Simon said. “It appeared to someone on the outside, like me, that that relationship between those two was especially tight, unusually close for that sort of relationship, a presiding judge and a court administrator.”

Royal, who has worked in Pima County courts since about 1990, began her first stint as Justice Court administrator in 2005. It’s a well-paid job but was not an easy ride: For many years, judges have fought among themselves and with whoever the court administrator was at the time. To this day, it is not a politically easy place to hold a high-ranking job.

Over time, after her hire, Royal ran into friction administering the Justice Court. By 2012, her at-will position was in danger, Felix told me. An administrator must have the support of the majority of the eight consolidated-court judges, or can be fired.

“She wasn’t in good graces with some of the judges here,” Felix told me.

Then, in January 2012, on a Friday that lives in infamy among the judges working in Justice Court at the time, Royal received a lifeline. Late that afternoon, Bee sent out an email saying that Royal had retired as court administrator but was being rehired as an outside consultant to do the same job.

“Before we knew it, there was a contract, where she was a contract court administrator instead of an employee,” Felix said. “So, she couldn’t be fired. Judge Bee was in charge of the contract.”

Simon said the whole shakeout was a shock: “We were told after the fact that Royal had retired before and had immediately been rehired through some third-party entity we had never heard of. This had all been done by and through Keith Bee. We were simply being told this was accomplished and was done.”

Royal told me Friday that the presiding judge of Pima County Superior Court, Sally Simmons, arranged the new contract more than Bee did and that it was beneficial to the county because she paid for her own benefits.

But Doug Kooi, the deputy court administrator at the time, objected so strenuously to the outside contract that he would not sign the invoices sent to the court by the company that handled Royal’s outside contract.

“Every month a bill would come to the courthouse,” Kooi told me. “I would get it and hand it to Judge Bee to sign off on.”

“When I called her out on the contract, that ended any friendliness between us,” Kooi said.

That conflict indirectly led to Royal regaining the court administrator position last year.

Also in 2012, according to Royal’s account, she became involved with Bee’s outside business, Bee Line Bus Transportation. Bee had complained of embezzlement by an employee, and she helped him establish an all-new transportation corporation, Royal Student Transportation Services, that could help him leave the problems of the old business behind. She said she received no money for it.

“I was the managing partner for Royal Transportation in Phoenix,” Royal said via email. “To that end I helped him hire a business manager and drafted some administrative policies to help him run the business more effectively. I also reviewed a few contracts between Royal Transportation and the schools related to bus services. I believe I started working with him in 2012.”

Coincidentally, it was in those tax years — 2011, 2012, and 2013 — that Bee is charged with submitting false tax returns.

In 2013, with Bee’s support, Lisa Royal became justice of the peace for the newly vacated position in Green Valley. County Supervisor Ray Carroll endorsed her, and the county board appointed her, allowing Royal to become JP in Green Valley.

Justices of the peace are not required to be attorneys, and many in Pima County, including Bee, Roberts and Royal, are not.

Explaining the move to Green Valley, Royal told me, “I’d been a court administrator for 30 years. While I was interested in a justice of the peace position, it would be harder to get one of those in Tucson.”

She served for four years but grew bored with the low caseload, Royal said. In the meantime, Kooi took over as administrator at the justice courts and received strong reviews, as he established a new court information system and helped direct the move to the new court building.

But he told me that after the new justices of the peace were elected in January 2017, Adam Watters became presiding judge while Royal was named associate presiding judge. He could see he would likely not be able to keep his job, due to the past conflict with Royal.

“When Bee worked his thing to bring her back as the associate presiding judge, I knew it was time for me to go,” Kooi said. “They would start working toward getting me out. I was OK with that, but I was most concerned that the staff might be harmed, because the staff was very loyal to me, personally.”

The deputy who took over after Kooi left, Micci Tilton, was a candidate for the top job of court administrator. But then Royal also applied to leave the justice of the peace job in Green Valley and take back the job she’d had in Tucson. Royal told me there were two main reasons: She wanted to be nearer her aging parents again, and she was bored.

Green Valley, she said, “was a nice change of pace — for a while.”

All this time, from 2012 to 2017, Bee and Royal were in business together, at least on paper. Royal and Bee said she never made any money from the bus business, but she and Bee both declared, in their financial disclosure statements, that they had a controlling interest in Royal Student Transportation.

Bee was on the hiring committee that scored applicants and ranked Royal highest. But once Roberts questioned the propriety of that, Watters, the presiding judge, suspended the decision-making to check with Pima County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kyle Bryson and others to be sure they were making the right decision. Bryson and fellow Superior Court officials reviewed the applications and agreed Royal remained the top applicant.

Bee recused himself from voting on the hiring, and Royal got the job by a 5-2 vote. Roberts told me he voted against her, but since it was a secret ballot he doesn’t know who else did.

“There was a conflict of interest, in my opinion, a clear conflict of interest,” Roberts said. “What should have happened is the process should have been restarted.”

Royal retains the support of presiding Judge Watters, who was just re-elected in a bruising campaign. But perhaps now that Bee is gone, the power dynamics of the court have changed and a re-examination will happen.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter