Never mind that county officials turned to Irvine because Thomas' office refused to help them.

There's Thomas' version, and then there's the truth. When it comes to the court tower project, the two may well be completely different stories.

When they're speaking freely, county officials will admit that the situation rankles them. Thanks to a certain reckless disregard for accuracy, Thomas' innuendos have taken root in the public imagination — and county officials have found themselves under a cloud of suspicion. Even the painstakingly objective Arizona Republic has taken to placing the phrase "the controversial" before most references to the court tower project.

And yet, contrary to Thomas' claims, County Manager David Smith says no one has presented him with a specific allegation of wrongdoing on the project (other than that Thomas and Arpaio want the money for their budget).

"I have been looking for anything wrong with this project," Smith says. "What I find is just the usual situation of different points of view as the project unfolds, which is typical of any major capital project."

By failing to provide specifics, he says, Thomas and Arpaio have basically forced the county to prove a negative.

"It seems to me," Smith says, "that they took a flier on the notion that something this big has to have something wrong with it."


Sandi Wilson, the county's deputy manager, is sheepish about admitting it today, but she once had a good relationship with Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In her 15 years at the county, Wilson even managed friendly relations with Arpaio's chief deputy, the much-feared David Hendershott.

"I didn't really understand who he was," says Wilson, who adds that she was instinctively pro-law enforcement. "My uncle is a cop," she says.

And Hendershott could be surprisingly seductive: "He'd tell me, 'The sheriff and I will make sure you're the next county manager.' He's a very manipulative kind of man."

In the fall of 2008, a few months before the Stapley indictment, Wilson got a sudden glimpse of the chief deputy's darker side. Hendershott was intent on picking a fight over control of the county's computer system. Wilson didn't like what she saw.

Then came the budget battle. Though county administrators did their best to spare the sheriff's detention fund, which finances jail operations, they felt differently when it came to Arpaio's general fund expenditures, which cover salaries and administrative costs.

Like every other department, county officials decreed, Arpaio would have to make 12 percent cuts to those expenses.

Chief Deputy Hendershott's response? He went over the entire county budget with a fine-tooth comb, Wilson recalls. He wanted to know about various funds. What about this expenditure? What about that? Why didn't they cut risk management? (County officials had to explain that the pool of money in question helps to pay for all the lawsuits directed at the sheriff's operations.)

Then he latched onto the court tower.

"Why can't you use this money?" she said he asked. "Why can't you use this to balance the budget?"

The county had been socking away money for years to pay for the $347 million project, Wilson says. The court tower was badly needed: Space at the sprawling, utilitarian court complex on Jefferson Street is at such a premium that the county recently remodeled the basement to add four courtrooms. The basement! In the mornings, on the elevators and in the courtrooms that handle high-volume, low-level criminal cases, the place can be an overcrowded nightmare. It became increasingly clear that additional space was needed.

County administrators also knew they could save serious money — an estimated $190 million — by paying cash for the project instead of using bonds. That's why they'd been so intent on saving even as the state of Arizona and local municipalities spent their surpluses during the flush years of the 2000s.

And there was another problem with Hendershott's argument, a more philosophical one. The county would never use money it'd squirreled away for a special expense to balance the budget, Wilson says. That kind of balancing technique simply isn't sustainable.

The sheriff's men didn't seem to get it.

"They were desperate," Wilson says. "They didn't want their budgets cut."

By late 2008, what had become a slightly contentious relationship turned nasty. On the morning of December 2, Wilson got a terse call from Hendershott: "Don Stapley's going to be indicted on 100 felony counts." Click.

Wilson was flabbergasted, she says. Don Stapley? She'd worked with the supervisor for years and always thought of him as the office's "statesman," she says, not to mention friendly with the sheriff. Now Arpaio and Thomas were charging him with crimes?

"It completely changed the atmosphere," Wilson says.

Wilson wasn't sure what to believe. She felt a little better when she got a call from Hendershott later that week. "It's not about you, it's not about [County Manager] David Smith, it's not about the other board members," Wilson says Hendershott told her. "It's just about Don Stapley."

If Stapley screwed up, Hendershott asked, didn't he have an obligation to do something about it? Wilson had to admit, that sounded about right.

That next week, the board of supervisors — minus Stapley, who recused himself — met with Thomas' right hand, Barnett Lotstein. (Thomas himself refused to show.) The supervisors tried to understand how the county attorney could be both their attorney and their prosecutor. Lotstein kept insisting it wasn't a problem, but the supervisors were skeptical.

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14 comments
Mike Powell
Mike Powell

I have always thought that the use of marijuana was illegal in Arizona, however it seems that our City/County officials have been partaking liberally. Seriously, how does one graduate from Law school ( I assume Mr. Thomas did so ) and not know that you can't have it both ways? Also, rgtqwhere is the evidence of wrongdoing? Isn't application of the law based on facts and evidence, or is it just the whim of a disgruntled attorney?

FromAfar
FromAfar

correction to above: Ben you sent a mixed message. Note, I was speaking about the court tower. Thomas and Arpaio abuse of power has overcrowded the courts, the jails and the prisons -- therefore a Court Tower is needed. It's a result of the mass incarceration of Arizona's people by Thomas, Arpaio and Sen. Russell Pearce who writes the bills for them.

Abuse of power reigns terror over the state and the Troika needs to be sent to the prisons they created -- now all privatized. Follow the money....

FromAfar
FromAfar

Ben from Wind Gap -- You nailed it!!

Ben
Ben

Apparently there is a need for more court space because of the illegal immigration influx coupled with the rising event of home grown crime which will get worse as the economy gets worse. Therefore it doesn�t make sense to cut the sheriff and other enforcement budgets unless you are trying to slowdown the enforcement of the laws that is keeping the immigration and other law enforcement problems from sprawling into a problem that will consume even more of the budget along, property values, school cost and general quality of life.

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

clarification: They prey on the ignorant masses to get re-elected, while taking down those who challenge them, the intelligent and brightest in Maricopa County.

Arizona needs to add Civics classes in the school and learn about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and how to protect themselves from abuse of power by a government that is out of control.

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

Outstanding investigative reporting! Sarah, you certainly captured the essence of what corruption looks like in Maricopa County. They prey on the ignorant masses.

j.WINSTON
j.WINSTON

Arpiao and Thomas are jokes..but they are dangerous jokes as they can wield the judicial system like a weapon...when will the public figures in our county and state get the courage to expose them for what they are follow-up with legal proceedings for all their scandals...why is everyone so scared. We are a major city not a back water town where the judge and the prosecutor and the sheriff are all half brothers.Hopefully Thomas will run in the primaries and lose and that way we will get him out of office early. And hopefully Arpaio wil finally be found guilty on at least one of the numerous abuses he has perpetrated only the citizens of Maricopa..I agree with one of the other comments..it is Twilight Zone or rather Reason Free Zone

(S)He's a very manipulative ma
(S)He's a very manipulative ma

a)Wilson about Hendershottb)Sheila Polk and Don Stapley about Arpaioc)Supervisors,Tom Irvine about Thomasd)Judge Donhue and Ed Novak about Ms. Aubuchoune) all of the above.The correct answer is e) all of the above. Hendershott, Arpaio, Thomas, and Lisa Aubuchoun (who acts like a man)are all manipulative as hell. VOTERS wake up. Thomas wants to bring this nonsense to the entire state.

Pete Snow
Pete Snow

Alexander doesn't have time to do her job, she is too busy blogging about the Tower over on the Sonoran Alliance Blog.

Spartacus
Spartacus

Every Time I drive up to Phoenix from Cochise County I expect to see Rod Serling standing along I-10 in a dark suit, looking slightly sinister and mischevious,with cigarette smoke swirling around him. (all in black and white, of course)Mr. Serling, if he were alive today, could doubtless offer a witty and sardonic discourse on Maricopa County that enable wannabe dictators to trample on the constitution and intimidate all who disagree with them, he might say, "You are now entering the valley of the delusional, where political sorcerers practice the black arts of race-baiting and character assassination. It's a Bizarre, Never-Never Land of snake oil politics and strutting demogauges, otherwise known as...THE TWILIGHT ZONE...

Mike Wells
Mike Wells

Whoo Hoo!!

I'm comin' back Arizona!! I'll be the next Maricopa County Attorney, since you obviously don't need to know the law to get the job.

Either that, or Thomas is playing everybody for the fool here. Here seriously didn't think that having his office both prosecute and defend THE SAME CASE would be a conflict of interest? Seriously? And then he thinks he can bring up a judge on charges, citing conflict of interest because that same judge 'might someday have an office in the new court building'? You have GOT to be kidding me.

Add in all the lying they've been caught doing in court and I can't understand why this case is even being allowed to continue.

Arpaio and Thomas are two of the reasons that I'm glad I got out of Arizona, but the politicians here in Utah are pretty nutty, too, so it's not really a total win in my book.

Lisa
Lisa

Who is this scumbag Bernstein? Aren't journalists supposed to have some kind of standards?

Marcy
Marcy

The sad thing about this entire sordid affair is that it has exposed just how delusional a large segment of Maricopa County voters are.

They'd vote for a rabid serial killer if the serial killer promised to arrest a few illegal immigrants.

They utterly fail to understand what history has taught us, tyrants come into power not by guns but with the full blessing of a deluded populace.

 
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