By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley sits at the table with his attorney, his chief of staff and a reporter. He is asked some troubling questions.
Why is Stapley listing his 7,251-square-foot Arcadia residence for $2.5 million at the same time he is seeking lower property taxes by telling the Maricopa County Assessor's Office that the mansion on 2.5 acres near Camelback Mountain is worth only $863,000?
Why should the county lower his property taxes to a level last reached in 1993 -- even though the home was completely remodeled last year by a team of more than 30 of the Valley's top interior designers?
How does the prominent Republican politician explain the downward trend in assessed value for his property when he knows very well that residential real estate prices -- particularly those in the Arcadia area -- have soared in the past few years?
Don Stapley is a licensed real estate broker; he knows how to determine the value of property. He's also former chairman of the county Board of Assessment; he knows how property taxes are set based on the value of land and buildings.
He is a member of the Board of Supervisors. As one of the county's highest elected officials, Stapley is expected to set an example for other citizens to follow -- the same high standards he espouses during ethics seminars he has sponsored for county employees.
How does Stapley answer these questions?
He feigns ignorance and blames someone else.
It's a pattern Stapley has followed for a decade, frequently stretching legal and ethical boundaries as a real estate broker.
His wheeling and dealing have triggered two Department of Real Estate investigations and created an uproar in neighboring Pinal County, where county officials accused Stapley of helping to create an illegal residential subdivision that could mar the landscape.
Stapley's 1997 purchase of the Arcadia estate came under unusual circumstances. In acquiring the house, he was also able to unload 15 rural acres -- and make a $120,000 profit -- that had been the target of a state probe into illegal lot-splitting.
But nowhere is Stapley's dubious behavior more pronounced than his handling of his 2001 property-tax appeal.
During a tape-recorded interview last week in his 10th-story county office, Stapley says his longtime property-tax consultant, Todd Parker, was working behind his back when Parker filed a tax appeal on the Arcadia property in March.
The appeal sought to lower the county's assessed value on Stapley's home for the 2001 tax year from $1.15 million to $862,875. The reduction would have saved Stapley about $1,500 in property taxes.
"Todd Parker filed the appeal without consulting me," Stapley says. "I became aware of it recently and asked him to drop the appeal."
Stapley says Parker "automatically" filed the appeal because the county was increasing the value of his property by 17 percent for the 2001 tax year.
"I was busy and we didn't talk about it," Stapley says.
Stapley says he learned about the appeal only after New Times filed a public records request seeking property-tax data on his residence, a request that didn't identify Stapley by name -- only by property identification number.
"I didn't realize that there was an appeal, and when you did your public records request, they [assessor's officers] sent a copy of your request up to me as a courtesy; so I checked some records and realized that it was a mistake, that it shouldn't be done," he says.
Stapley says Parker didn't know that Stapley had invested about $400,000 in upgrades in the home last year as part of the American Society of Interior Designers' showcase home program.
"He was unaware I had made the improvements to the home and I didn't desire to appeal the property tax," Stapley says.
Documents and interviews with Parker tell a far different story.
County records show that Stapley gave Parker written authorization on February 24 to file the property-tax appeal.
"We can't file any appeals without our taxpayers' authorization," Parker explains several hours after Stapley had accused Parker of erroneously filing the tax appeal.
It was only after Stapley signed the authorization that Parker says he proceeded to prepare the property-tax appeal, which was filed with the county on March 25.
New Times filed its public records request on May 9. Parker says he received a letter from Stapley on May 18 authorizing Parker to rescind the appeal, which he did on the same day.
After interviewing Parker, New Timescontacted Stapley again for further comment. He did not respond. However, Stapley's chief of staff, Gibson T. McKay, contacted Stapley, who was driving to Moab, Utah, for the Memorial Day weekend.
"He [Stapley] said he went over there [Parker's office] and signed a bunch of stuff and didn't recall signing that one in particular, that appeal issue you were talking about," McKay says.
Not true, Parker says.
"He [Stapley] has not been in my office in a year and a half," Parker says.
Furthermore, Parker says, the tax appeal authorization form was not part of "a bunch of stuff," as McKay contends. Parker says he mailed the authorization form to Stapley, who signed the two-page document and faxed it back. It was the only tax appeal authorization Parker sent to Stapley this year, he says.