Before Don Stapley’s Indictment, There Was the Land Deal

Behind the year's most shocking indictment — 118 criminal counts filed last month against Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley — is a bizarre tale of a land deal turned ugly, a $360 million jury verdict reduced to nothing, and a political fundraiser hosted by one of the Valley's most influential law firms.

This particular story-behind-the-story has been playing out for nearly a decade now. But some political insiders believe the tipping point for Stapley may have come in December 2007, when he made the near-fatal mistake of showing up in a courtroom to support an old high school friend.

It wasn't just any high school friend. It was Conley Wolfswinkel, the East Valley land baron who became a poster boy for avarice in the late-'80s savings-and-loan scandal. This time around, Wolfswinkel was being sued by a group of investors over his 2003 purchase of 13,000 acres in Buckeye.

Sheriff's deputies started investigating Don Stapley's financial disclosure forms just a few weeks after his connections with Conley Wolfswinkel were raised in a court hearing.
Sheriff's deputies started investigating Don Stapley's financial disclosure forms just a few weeks after his connections with Conley Wolfswinkel were raised in a court hearing.

Stapley may have thought he could just quietly sit in the courtroom, listen to the closing arguments, and lend his support.

He was wrong.

The jury returned a huge verdict against Wolfswinkel — but the judge on the case subsequently threw it out. Court records show that, at that point, Stapley's appearance triggered scrutiny from lawyers representing the investors. Stapley's business ties to Wolfs­winkel were raised with the county's presiding judge in a conference call; the investors' lawyers suggested Stapley's presence may have improperly influenced the judge.

Within two weeks of that phone call, County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio initiated their investigation of Stapley. Their probe focused on Stapley's ties to Wolfswinkel.

It might all seem like an amazing coincidence, except for one thing.

One of the land investors, a guy who's spent the past decade trying to stop Conley Wolfswinkel, is Andrew Thomas' attorney.


At this point, there's no way of knowing exactly how the county's investigation into Supervisor Stapley began. At their joint news conference to discuss the case last month, Sheriff Arpaio and County Attorney Thomas said only that they'd received a "tip," and that the investigation started in May.

Many insiders believe the source of that tip is Thomas' attorney, Leo Beus, a prominent guy in the Mormon community and partner in a firm that represents most of the big developers in town. But in a phone call with New Times, Beus flatly denied ever talking to Thomas about the case.

"I have no idea how Andrew Thomas got any information about it," he says. "I never, ever spoke to Andrew Thomas about this." Beus adds that he considers Stapley a friend.

"I have no desire to do him any harm at all," he says.

Dan Dowd, one of the attorneys representing Beus' investor group on the deal, says the same thing: "Our office never had discussions with the county attorney on any of this."

That certainly may be true. But the facts point to, at minimum, one hell of a coincidence.

Here's what the record shows, according to court files, county financial records, and campaign finance filings.

In 2007, Andrew Thomas hired Beus and his partner, Paul Gilbert, to represent him in a showdown with the State Bar of Arizona.

At the time, Thomas was facing 13 different Bar complaints. The Bar wasn't happy about how Thomas had sought to stop Judge Timothy Ryan from hearing all criminal cases because of Ryan's stance on immigration. Nor did the Bar appreciate comments Thomas had made to the media, criticizing the judiciary, or his appointment of a special prosecutor with clear conflicts of interest in the botched New Times investigation. (See "Andrew Thomas Fights to Seal Wilenchik's State Bar Secrets," June 26, 2008.)

Thomas was in the fight of his political life. And Beus proved to be just the right attorney to help Thomas win it.

Beus' selection initially surprised insiders. His firm is a powerful one — but it specializes in land-use issues.

No matter. Beus took on the task of defending Thomas with an intensity far beyond the usual role of a lawyer. He took the Bar to task in the media, in a special action to the state Supreme Court, and in conversation to anyone who would listen. With Dan Cracchiolo, his co-counsel on the matter, Beus even paid for a full-page ad in Arizona Attorney, the Bar's in-house magazine, claiming the Bar was on a witch hunt.

"We write this letter, not as Mr. Thomas' attorneys, and pay for this space at our own personal expense because we have something to say that all Arizona lawyers may want to hear," they wrote.

In direct response to Beus' complaints, the Bar agreed to remove its chief counsel from the case and appoint an independent investigator; sources tell New Times the case against Thomas has been foundering ever since. Score one for Leo Beus.

Over the past five years, Beus and his lawyers brought the same relentlessness to their fight against Conley Wolfswinkel — the legal battle that would eventually draw Supervisor Don Stapley to the courtroom as a spectator.

The issue is a land deal. Beus was part of a group of investors that owned 10,000 acres in the West Valley. In 1998, the managers of that group entered into contracts to purchase another 3,000 acres and then sell the whole parcel to a company called Breycliffe. The price: $5,000 an acre, plus 20 percent of the profit if Breycliffe was able to sell it to a developer.

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10 comments
Maricopa County Audit needed o
Maricopa County Audit needed o

How does the maricopa county sheriff's office not get audited in 12 years? Let's see a list of those culprits. Slash the PR budget in the MCSO and MCAO office's. They are using our taxpayer dollars to destroy US!! Wake up people!!

Maricopa County Audit needed o
Maricopa County Audit needed o

How does the maricopa county sheriff's office not get audited in 12 years? Let's see a list of those culprits. Slash the PR budget in the MCSO and MCAO office's. They are using our taxpayer dollars to destroy US!! Wake up people!!

WarPig
WarPig

This is not the first time that Stapley has been investigated, and it was before Andrew Thomas was even in office. I think the Times might have a little "skin in the game" given their past with Thomas and Arpaio. While the Times' anti-Arpaio/Thomas stance might be justified, can they really write an unbiased article about what is going on with Stapely. Why not look into some of the land deals between Conley, via his puppets: Brandon, Ashton, Candice etc., and Stapely, instead of just saying they are old high school buddies.

david saint is disgusted at th
david saint is disgusted at th

while the rest of the country is moving forward, AZ is taking 100 steps back. While i know it would probably only take one person in a position higher than theirs to take these 2 clowns to court, i fear no one ever will and the reign of terror and fascism will only increase. I once hoped that incoming president Obama and staff might take a serious look at him, but with all thats going on in the country with financial meltdowns, etc, i think its going to take a long time before anyone does something about these 2. Its really a travesty, but in this day and age not something new. Lets face it, while the reality show probably will suck like a van buren hooker, its going to get him fans becuase they just dont know the real deal behind him..mostly because anytime someone here locally prints it or just speaks about it, they end up investigated or arrested on some charge they arent convicted of anyways..thats where the disgust comes into play..a sheriff and DA in NC both got in trouble for doing similar things (DA on the Duke case, and the sheriff for saying some borderline racial comments), and they got press for the negativity..yet arpaio and thomas have done much worse yet NOTHING...why????? if we can answer that question (and dont tell me the 400k a year PR team..they suck so bad they make hookers jealous by comparison) then maybe we'd figure out why its gone on for so long with out so much as a freakin audit of county money in 12 YEARS!!!

marvin
marvin

Again the only place you can turn to for the whole story and the truth is the PHoenix New Times.Thank you for this very informative article I am just wondering what it is going to take to get the Arpaio and Thomas followers to see the light,? Certainly figures that a bunch of crooked slimey lawyers would put money in his campaign, who else?

Coz
Coz

And to think that the majority of voters in Arizona approve of these 2 morons since they were just re-elected...

Sure doesn't say much for the mentality of Maricopa County residents.

Seems Arizona thrives, respects and looks up to Corrupt Politicians.

Pretty sad...

TimeToGoJoe
TimeToGoJoe

Integrity of a man is tested when he is confronted with double standards. Should Andrew Thomas ignore Arpaio's faulty financial disclosures when prosecuting Stapley for the same thing, it will completely and without question demonstrate that Mr. Thomas does not have the integrity required to be out county attorney. In this office, absolute integrity should be and must be a requirement. Apparently, all Thomas and Arpaio need to start an investigation is a "tip." Have they got a tip on Arpaio's financial disclosres yet? We know that Arpaio does not read the papers and believes they should be trashed. Maybe there is not knowledge about Arpaio's alleged faulty disclosures without an "official tip."

There are numerous examples of Mr. Thomas appearing to not have the required integrity to be county attorney. This article and many others in this and other publications demonstrate a lesson to all. If you are cross-ways with Thomas, you will be investigated and at best, it will cost you a lot of money.

observer
observer

This is unacceptable and totally inappropriate behavior for a County Attorney.

Excerpt from article: "The same week that sheriff's deputies pulled Stapley's disclosure forms, Beus and his partner, Paul Gilbert, threw a fundraiser for Andrew Thomas at Gilbert's home.

Sheriff's deputies started investigating Don Stapley's financial disclosure forms just a few weeks after his connections with Conley Wolfswinkel were raised in a court hearing.

Subject(s):Don Stapley, Conley Wolfswinkel --The people contributing the maximum amount to Thomas' campaign include Beus, Gilbert, a host of lawyers from the firm that handled their case against Wolfswinkel, and at least three other investors who were burned by Judge Burke's verdict."

And they think Illinois is corrupt?? Sarah, keep on digging. You are very courageous and to be commended. We thank you very much.

State of Fear AZ
State of Fear AZ

Sarah, outstanding investigative work. You and Phoenix New Times are doing a great public service keeping us informed and connecting the dots of the corruption in Arizona. Stapley should be given the presumption of innocence until the facts are presented. It looks like you presented the facts on Thomas' lawyer and his connections.

When are we going to see the Arizona Bar v Thomas? Abuse of power by an attorney who has no ethics should be punished, for violating the public trust and exploiting the people. The policies Thomas has created should be used against him, like zero tolerance, mandatory minimum sentencing - 10 years flat time first offense on a plea bargain, if he dares take his case to trial, he should get a million years like others who dare go to trial.

It's time to save the community from the County Attorney and Sheriff. They are out of control.

Coz
Coz

If it looks like shit, smells like shit and walks like shit, it must be Candy Dandy Thomas and Bozo Joe Arpaio.

What a couple of corrupt scumbags these 2 are.

 
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