Our safety could depend on it.


Last week, I sat in a courtroom and watched the fallout from the latest prosecutorial shenanigans in the joint sheriff/county attorney investigation of Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley.

Paula Walker, Brian Shunick, and Sue Burris
Victor J. Palagano III
Paula Walker, Brian Shunick, and Sue Burris

Stapley is facing 118 criminal counts for failing to disclose his land dealings properly. But the hearing I attended had nothing to do with a land deal. Nope, this hearing focused on the handling of a deposition seized by sheriff's deputies under a search warrant — a deposition that was supposed to be under protective seal. Instead, the sheriff handed it over to a reporter.

We were in the courtroom of County Superior Court Judge Larry Grant. He isn't the judge on the Stapley case; instead, he's been adjudicating a complex, water-related lawsuit between East Valley developer Conley Wolfswinkel and national homebuilder Lennar.

The state is not a party to the lawsuit, which has been dragging on since 2005. But in January, the County Attorney's Office inserted itself into the civil suit — claiming that there was "a likelihood" that Wolfswinkel's deposition in the case "touches upon" his relationship with County Supervisor Don Stapley.

Now, it's interesting enough that the County Attorney's Office has decided to insert itself into a civil lawsuit. And, naturally, the fact that the prosecutors are now on the same side as Thomas' private attorney, Leo Beus, has conspiracy theorists abuzz. (As we've reported, there's been speculation in the Valley that Thomas took on this prosecution at the behest of Beus, who's been battling Wolfswinkel for years, both on behalf of Lennar and in some other, more personal litigation. See "The Wolfswinkel Connection," January 1, 2009.)

What makes it even more fascinating is the county attorney's bumbling.

Wolfswinkel's deposition was supposed to be under a protective order, one agreed to by both sides in the lawsuit. Late last year, Beus asked Judge Grant to release the deposition from the protective order.

But while Judge Grant was still weighing Beus' motion, Deputy County Attorney Lisa Aubuchon jumped into the case, echoing Beus' request that the judge unseal the deposition. She argued that prosecutors needed it to prosecute Stapley.

Before the judge could rule on either motion, sheriff's deputies raided Wolfswinkel's office. Court records show they obtained a copy of the deposition — one that they knew was sealed.

At a hearing on February 10, Aubuchon told Judge Grant that the County Attorney's Office was aware of the seal. Because of the protective order, Aubuchon said she hadn't reviewed the deposition "and will not do so until a ruling has been issued," according to court records.

But something changed.

On February 28, the East Valley Tribune published a story based on the contents of the Wolfswinkel deposition. As reporter Mark Flatten acknowledged in the article, he obtained the deposition from the Sheriff's Office via a public-records request.

Now, it's highly unusual for any law enforcement agency to turn over key evidence while an investigation is ongoing. It's even more staggering here because, of course, prosecutor Aubuchon had told Judge Grant just two weeks before that she wouldn't even be reading the deposition before his ruling. Apparently she had a rather rapid change of heart.

Aubuchon claimed she did nothing controversial.

"There was no order in place," she argued to Grant. Because the deposition's protective order was agreed to by the parties in the litigation, and not her office, prosecutors could do what they wanted with their copy once they got it through a search warrant.

Judge Grant wasn't buying it. "When there's a protective order in place, what do you think that means?" he said. "Come on."

The judge said he didn't care how the state obtained the deposition: "You don't disseminate it when there's a protective order in place!"

The judge then told the County Attorney's Office to file a motion explaining why it shouldn't receive sanctions, as requested by Wolfswinkel's attorneys.

"It seems clear to me there are reasons we issue protective orders in cases," Grant sniffed.

The strange addendum to this hearing, though, is the deposition itself. The Tribune's Flatten is an unusually skillful reporter — yet even he found little of interest in the deposition. His big revelation was that Supervisor Stapley had discussed the purchase of a utility with Wolfswinkel, but Wolfswinkel ultimately didn't close the deal. So what?

The Stapley investigation has been altogether bizarre. You've got a politician indicted on 118 criminal counts for filling out his paperwork improperly — in an indictment made public several months before anybody bothered to execute a search warrant on that politician's office. Who knows what they would have found had they been more interested in digging for clues than in issuing press releases?

Meanwhile, the law enforcement team on the case has searched Wolfswinkel's offices, has faxed his Social Security number to media outlets all over town, and now is turning over his sealed deposition to the news media before they're even supposed to be reading it.

I keep hoping there's a method to this madness — that the sheriff and county attorney have some reason for these antics other than grandstanding and endless turf wars. But after the bumbling on the deposition issue, I'm beginning to doubt it.

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My Voice Nation Help

The issue was improperly handled by airline supervisors. This did not necessitate a report to the FAA. Ultimately, the pilots did de-ice which was the right thing to do. Had the Chief Pilot been involved the entire issue could have been properly handled "in-house". The actions of the flight crew and supervisors not only put the company in a bad light, but results in the company backing the pilot -- no mystery there. That said, if the contract called for the company to cover the flight attendants' legal costs the company should fulfill the contract. The flight attendants need to file suit against the airline for breach of contract. However, they may as well say goodbye to their career progression. (just being real) Although it may seem big, the airline industry is actually small. Once your name is "mud" its nearly impossible to recover.

Gary Casperson
Gary Casperson

You mean this tool pilot alleged he was distressed yet continued to fly? The FAA should immediately investigate this moron and pull his license. Our profession needs less Gannons and more Sully's. This guy must be the most self-obsessed weasel in the whole world to do what he did. Good luck to the flight attendants and good work by their lawyers.

Chris Long
Chris Long

Hey, you don't think USAir is going to take the hit for a reckless pilot AND pay for the attendants to defend the suit, do you ?

That's the veritable lose-lose...

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