From the beginning, I've been skeptical about the charges against Don Stapley. The Maricopa County Supervisor faces 118 criminal counts for failing to disclose his business dealings — clear overkill for what essentially amounts to a paperwork error.

But now I'm not just skeptical. Now I'm absolutely convinced that Stapley is the victim of a serious vendetta, and that Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas must be removed from prosecuting this case.

There is no other way Don Stapley can see justice.

Now, longtime readers of this paper know that New Times has never been a big fan of Stapley — and that we really don't like Andrew Thomas, either. But this has nothing to do with anyone's feelings about either man. This is about what's right.

In late December, I began to hear rumors that County Attorney Thomas might be prosecuting Stapley at the behest of Thomas' private lawyer, Leo Beus. Beus is representing Thomas in his ongoing battle with the State Bar of Arizona and, by all accounts, has done a remarkably effective job.

But in addition to fighting for Thomas, Beus has also been locked in litigation with Conley Wolfswinkel, the East Valley land baron/convicted felon whose downfall came during the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s. He and Stapley are old high school friends and sometime business partners.

As I wrote in a column last month, Beus was dealt a staggering blow last year when Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Edward Burke overturned a $171 million jury verdict Beus and his partners had won against Wolfswinkel. At that point, the court record shows, Beus' attorneys began to question whether Stapley's appearance in the courtroom during closing arguments had swayed the judge to upend the will of the jury.

Within weeks of the attorneys' raising that question in court filings, the County Attorney's Office received a "tip" and began to investigate Stapley. And let me be clear: The record shows that the investigation started with Thomas' office, not with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, even though Arpaio's deputies were ultimately assigned to the investigation.

Why is that important? Thomas is the guy whose own lawyer, a guy he surely felt indebted to, was concerned about the Stapley/Wolfswinkel relationship.

And, as we now know, the investigation has in fact focused on Stapley's ties to Wolfswinkel, the very issue that Beus and his lawyers were exploring.

I talked to Beus about it all in late December, and he swore he'd had nothing to do with the investigation into Stapley. His attorneys told me the same thing.

But, when we talked, Beus happened to mention that he was suing Wolfswinkel in another case — this one on behalf of national homebuilder Lennar. (Suffice it to say that the litigation between Lennar and Wolfswinkel isn't directly related to the charges against Stapley; it has to do with water and new development.) At the time, I didn't think it was a big deal.

But last week, when I went to look at the file in the Lennar case, I nearly fell off my chair.

On January 12, Thomas' lead prosecutor on the Stapley case, Lisa Aubuchon, quietly filed a motion in the Lennar suit. All depositions in the case had been sealed because they contain proprietary business information — but Aubuchon asked that the judge unseal the deposition of Conley Wolfswinkel.

"There is a likelihood that the deposition touches upon Conley Wolfswinkel's business dealings with Donald T. Stapley Jr.," Aubuchon writes.

Oh, really? Stapley's name appears nowhere in the public record on this case. (Trust me, I looked.) The partnership of Wolfswinkel's that was doing business with Stapley isn't even a party to this litigation.

So why the hell would the County Attorney's Office believe there's a "likelihood" that the deposition deals with Stapley? There's simply no reason to suspect that's a part of this case — unless, of course, someone violated the court order sealing the deposition and told the county attorney to look there.

I'm not the only one who suspects something funny is afoot.

"One has to wonder how a third party, not involved with the litigation, would even be aware of a deposition subject to a confidentiality agreement," says Stuart Goodman, a spokesman for Wolfswinkel.

Yes, indeed. One has to wonder.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Beus, on behalf of his client, attempted to get the deposition unsealed last month.

When I contacted him for this column, Beus again adamantly denied playing any role in triggering the investigation. "I have never spoken to Andrew Thomas about investigating Don Stapley. I consider Don Stapley a friend. I would never do anything with Andrew Thomas or the County Attorney's Office to cause any harm to Don Stapley, nor did I know anything at all about any investigation until I read it in the newspaper."

Nor, Beus says, did he tip off Thomas to the subject of the Wolfswinkel deposition in the Lennar case. The contents of the deposition, he notes, are hardly a state secret: "There was a whole room full of lawyers when that deposition took place." (Thomas' office didn't respond to a request seeking comment.)

Ultimately, thought, it's not Wolfswinkel's deposition that I'm concerned about. His lawyers have already offered to unseal the parts involving Stapley, so long as the county attorney agrees to a protective order to keep the information under wraps. (So far, the county attorney has refused — no doubt visions of yet another press conference are dancing in Thomas' head.)

No, my concern is about justice.

It's clear to me that Thomas isn't pursuing Don Stapley because Stapley is somehow a menace to the community. Or because he can show any actual corruption on the county supervisor's part.

He's pursuing Stapley because, in my opinion, it benefits his private attorney. And because he likes to appear tough on crime. And because he can.

The thing is, he shouldn't.

As I first revealed in a blog post earlier this month, a deputy county attorney working under Thomas actually gave legal advice to Stapley two years ago regarding his dealings with Wolfswinkel.

Here's what happened: A Wolfswinkel company, Vanderbilt Farms, had an item on the supervisors' agenda in December 2006. Stapley was concerned about a conflict of interest because of his land dealings with a different Wolfswinkel entity, so he described those dealings to Deputy County Attorney Victoria Mangiapane. She actually helped him prepare a letter detailing his conflict of interest, one that Stapley then filed with the clerk of the Board of Supervisors.

At that point, the letter became a public record. That's clear proof that Stapley wasn't trying to hide his relationship with Wolfswinkel. Yes, he omitted their land dealings from his annual disclosure forms, but he disclosed them to the county attorney and in a public document. The county's disclosure forms are extremely complicated. How much you want to bet Stapley just got sloppy?

And even more than removing the "motive" Thomas has attempted to ascribe to Stapley, the meeting with Mangiapane should force Thomas to recuse himself in this case. His office simply cannot prosecute Stapley for a matter that it advised him on.

Thomas surely can see that. And if he can't, we should all question what's clouded his judgment. Pardon me for being a cynic, but loyalty to a guy who's thus far managed to save his law license simply doesn't cut it.

MEET THE NEW BOSS

Speaking of cynicism . . .

Nine years ago, Phoenix District 6 Councilman Sal DiCiccio resigned his seat to run for Congress. He lost. Then he ran for Secretary of State. He lost again.

Last week, DiCiccio finally won public office: District 6 councilman. DiCiccio's replacement from 2000, Greg Stanton, has resigned to take a job with the Attorney General's Office, and DiCiccio mounted a spirited campaign to persuade the city council to appoint him to the seat he once abandoned.

DiCiccio wasn't anybody's idea of a shoe-in. A bit of a gadfly back in his days at City Hall, he irritated then-Mayor Skip Rimsza to the point that Rimsza wrote a blistering op-ed piece denouncing him during his congressional run. And I don't think it was just Rimsza; when former Councilwoman Peggy Bilsten endorsed him last week, she began by saying, "I'm sure you're shocked to hear this . . ." DiCiccio rubbed a lot of City Hall types the wrong way.

So what won him the nod? Insiders tell me there were simply two reasons: the powerful Phoenix firefighters union, and pressure from that group's former president-turned-lobbyist, Billy Shields. Shields' wife, Lora Villasenor, used to be DiCiccio's top aide — and both husband and wife wanted DiCiccio back in office, big-time.

Now, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. DiCiccio has the support of the neighbors who actually follow municipal politics, and he certainly knows the job. And being a pain in the neck isn't always a bad thing.

What's alarming, though, is how DiCiccio feels about Mexico.

Two years ago, DiCiccio wrote an op-ed piece published in both the Arizona Republic and the East Valley Tribune. He began:

"The current debate on immigration reform leaves out the most important issue: the importation of a corrupt culture. South of the border, you have a governmental system that allows and sometimes encourages bribery of local officials. It is no wonder that more heinous crimes follow.

"It is only a matter of time before a wave of violence will be coming our way. The gun battles with police; the beheadings of journalists, the kidnappings of families — these are a line in the desert away from our country and state.

"When people lose faith in their own economic and political system, the only natural response is to flee. This should not be a surprise. I don't blame anyone wanting to leave that corruption.

"Unfortunately, with the good will come the bad. And the bad is pretty awful."

Under questioning last week from Councilman Michael Nowakowski, whose mother was of Mexican descent, DiCiccio said he was "offended" that anyone would suggest he's anti-Mexican.

Oh, really? He impugned an entire culture as corrupt and suggested that allowing its citizens to immigrate will bring a "wave of violence," and then he's offended when Nowakowski actually takes his words at face value? DiCiccio's column doesn't even bother with the usual pretense that, if we allow for an orderly legal process, there's a place in this country for an influx of Mexican immigrants. To DiCiccio, their illegal status is less a problem as their very Mexican-ness — that importation of a "corrupt culture."

To the city council, DiCiccio explained that he himself is the child of Italian immigrants. Well, then, surely he's aware that people used to say the exact same thing about Italians. Or maybe not: The dude is a longtime supporter of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, which hardly speaks to much intellectual curiosity.

Mayor Phil Gordon cast the deciding vote for DiCiccio, which really breaks my heart. He knows what a corrupt person Arpaio is. He knows that Mexicans aren't all criminals. Yet he still caved.

On the phone Wednesday, Gordon reminded me that DiCiccio wasn't his first choice for the job. He first supported his former chief of staff, Deb Gullett, until she dropped out. Then he supported lawyer Sal Rivera, who came one vote short.

Gordon said he wasn't aware of the op-ed piece until he was actually at the meeting. And, he told me, DiCiccio "is strongly supportive of [Police Chief] Jack Harris. That to me is very important, to protect everyone's civil rights."

The mayor has a point; the police union would love to dump Harris, in part over his disdain for Arpaio-like immigrant roundups. If DiCiccio has pledged his support to Harris, that's one point in his favor.

But it's only one point. And to me, it's not enough to make up for one really ugly opinion.

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8 comments
JP
JP

"In what officials caution is now a dangerous and even deadly crime wave, Phoenix, Arizona has become the kidnapping capital of America, with more incidents than any other city in the world outside of Mexico City and over 370 cases last year alone."ABC News, February 11, 2009

Clearly, Sal Diciccio should be praised for his prescient comments of two years, not condemned.

Taxpayer ripped off
Taxpayer ripped off

correction:

it's long overdue to get thomas out of power. thomas has abused the law and taxpayers long enough, with his personal and political agenda and the destruction of anyone who might step is his way. the county attorney should not be a political position and this is an example for the need to get a professional career county attorney who does their work behind the scenes. the taxpayers want his advertising and pr money back. get rid of thomas websites building his name while destroying others. if he wants the az bar reformed (which means reform of the legal system -- we all agree we don't need corrupt lawyers) he also needs to have a logo of the sheriff's office to appear also. the sheriff's office is long overdue for reform. while at it add the ADOC logo -- it needs major reform -- get rid of the lobbyists and profiteers in all these scams of the taxpayers and vulnerable people.Comment by Taxpayer ripped off by thomas / arpaio / pearce

Taxpayer ripped off by thomas
Taxpayer ripped off by thomas

it's long overdue to thomas out of power. he has abused the law and taxpayers long enough, with his personal political agenda and the destruction of anyone who might step is his way. the county attorney should not be a political position and this is an example for the need to get a professional career county attorney who does their work behind the scenes. the taxpayer want his advertising and pr money back. get rid of thomas websites building his name while destroying others. if he wants the az bar reformed, he also needs to have a logo of the sheriff's office there also. the sheriff's office is long overdue for reform. while at it add the ADOC logo and it needs reform -- get rid of the lobbyists and profiteers in all these scams of the taxpayers and vulnerable people.

harold
harold

not only kick him off the stapley case but out of office. Him and his side kick joker need the boot.

J DUB
J DUB

I'm liking that DiCiccio guy more and more. I didn't see anything innacurate in his comments. MUCH of Maricopa county's crime is do to our southern brethren. Let's quit pretending that all illegals are just swell, kind hearted people looking for a better life. Bull. As Americans we'd be much, much safer with secure borders. It's refreshing to see/hear someone state publicly the tough truths we are facing.

TommyC1
TommyC1

Sarah, you are quickly becoming a journalistic hero!

"the importation of a corrupt culture. South of the border, you have a governmental system that allows and sometimes encourages bribery of local officials."

It's interesting that the newest member of Phoenix city council would have written this, even just two or so years ago. I would expect that if Mr. DiCiccio has been paying attention in Arizona over at least the past five years he has seen a culture of corruption right here in Maricopa County, such as the way the 'Shurf' behaves, along with his twin sister, Andrew Thomas, County Attorney.

The Stapley investigation and charges seem to clearly stem from a vendetta by arpaio and thomas. History shows that anyone known to have crossed arpaio will pay in some way eventually. I don't care for Mr. Stapley, in fact I fully supported his opposition, Joel Sinclaire, in the last election. However, I also can't condone this action by arpaio and thomas. Yes, I agree, thomas needs to be removed from the prosecution process and any further proceedings in the case need to be moved out of Maricopa County.

A bit off topic, but am I the only one noticing a strange silence over the past couple days from the 'Shurf' after the escape of a violent, convicted child rapist from Maricopa Court facilities? Not a picture, a sound bite, or a phrase has been uttered by arpaio this entire time. Is he out of country, perhaps Honduras, on a training mission and doesn't know about this? Or is his 'illegal sweeps' team planning their next raid on corn vendors and he simply doesn't have the time to talk about catching escaped baby rapers?

In the mean time, MCSO lackeys are facing the press, just as they did last year when A HORRIBLE murder occurred in MCSO jail facilities and was ignored by a Detention Officer who was charged with watching video monitors of inmate activity.

arpaio had his face in the camera on the 14th (Valentine's Day) when MCSO did the deadbeat parent roundup and said something about the "decent thing to do". How would arpaio know about doing anything decent?

Has anyone seen arpaio? Does anyone care?

TommyC1
TommyC1

Sarah, you are quickly becoming a journalistic hero!

"the importation of a corrupt culture. South of the border, you have a governmental system that allows and sometimes encourages bribery of local officials."

It's interesting that the newest member of Phoenix city council would have written this, even just two or so years ago. I would expect that if Mr. DiCiccio has been paying attention in Arizona over at least the past five years he has seen a culture of corruption right here in Maricopa County, such as the way the 'Shurf' behaves, along with his twin sister, Andrew Thomas, County Attorney.

The Stapley investigation and charges seem to clearly stem from a vendetta by arpaio and thomas. History shows that anyone known to have crossed arpaio will pay in some way eventually. I don't care for Mr. Stapley, in fact I fully supported his opposition, Joel Sinclaire, in the last election. However, I also can't condone this action by arpaio and thomas. Yes, I agree, thomas needs to be removed from the prosecution process and any further proceedings in the case need to be moved out of Maricopa County.

A bit off topic, but am I the only one noticing a strange silence over the past couple days from the 'Shurf' after the escape of a violent, convicted child rapist from Maricopa Court facilities? Not a picture, a sound bite, or a phrase has been uttered by arpaio this entire time. Is he out of country, perhaps Honduras, on a training mission and doesn't know about this? Or is his 'illegal sweeps' team planning their next raid on corn vendors and he simply doesn't have the time to talk about catching escaped baby rapers?

In the mean time, MCSO lackeys are facing the press, just as they did last year when A HORRIBLE murder occurred in MCSO jail facilities and was ignored by a Detention Officer who was charged with watching video monitors of inmate activity.

arpaio had his face in the camera on the 14th (Valentine's Day) when MCSO did the deadbeat parent roundup and said something about the "decent thing to do". How would arpaio know about doing anything decent?

Has anyone seen arpaio? Does anyone care?

truthseeker
truthseeker

Sarah, good job! You are courageous and doing a much needed public service exposing the abuse of power which never ends in the Maricopa County Attorney's office with Thomas leading the way, and his enablers who keep him propped up. Thomas has a conflict of interest when he goes after his own client, the MCBOS. MCBOS should retain their own legal counsel.

 
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