Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas this afternoon struggled to explain his decision to charge the county's presiding criminal court judge, Gary Donahoe, with three felony counts --bribery, obstructing a criminal investigation, and hindering prosecution.
But Thomas couldn't offer any evidence to the assembled media scrum that Donahoe actually had accepted a bribe of any sort. Instead, he and Sheriff Joe Arpaio (who stood next to Thomas at the lectern) offered the same vague allegations they have made for nearly a year regarding the county's planned court tower, currently under construction.
In fact, the county attorney said no evidence exists that the veteran judge personally has received anything in the way of a personal financial benefit during the flap over the $347 million construction project.
Arizona has a "very broad" definition of bribery, Thomas said in response to requests for specificity.
Thomas seems to be alleging that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, the county's Superior Court bench, and their "shared" outside counsel, Tom Irvine and Ed Novak of Polsinelli Shughart, are an unholy "triad" working to block his and Arpaio's legitimate investigation into the tower's construction.
But today's announcement that Donahoe now faces felony charges -- when the only evidence of "wrongdoing" on the judge's part is a series of rulings that Thomas and Arpaio vehemently disagree with -- is unprecedented even in Maricopa County.
Donahoe also is the same judge who ordered detention officer Adam Stoddard to jail last week for swiping a defense attorney's notes -- drawing Sheriff Joe's ire.
Even the Valley's usually compliant press corps seemed incredulous with the announcement of criminal charges against the highly respected Donahoe, who is retiring from the bench in the near future.
But Thomas insisted that he wasn't pursuing a criminal case against Donahoe as a preemptive strike hours before the judge was set to hold a hearing that could have ended with Thomas being barred from prosecuting any county supervisor.
He later told the gaggle, "If I'm not explaining this well, I hope you'll help me."
"In fairness," Thomas said, after enduring increasingly pointed questions, "I admit this is a hard thing to believe."
He was referring to his allegation that a judge would accept "something of value" (the bribery count) in exchange for his decisions. But because the charges at first blush seem so over the top, some reporters initially thought that Thomas meant it was hard to believe the County Attorney's Office would take such a drastic step against the judge.
But Thomas suggested that Donahoe had been obstructing justice "until about two hours ago," referring to when the judge canceled a hearing scheduled for this afternoon on matters related to the County Attorney's ongoing criminal investigations.
"The hearing this afternoon was part of an ongoing criminal act," Thomas said.
The hearing was scheduled in response to a notice filed by the supervisors' attorney, Tom Irvine. Irvine apparently was planning to argue that the hiring of special prosecutors from Washington, D.C. was illegal, since the supervisors had not authorized it.
Thomas said the hearing before Donahoe would have forced his prosecutors to publicly reveal grand jury secrets, which is against the law.
Yesterday two county supervisors, Mary Rose Wilcox and Don Stapley, were revealed to be facing criminal indictments. It is unclear whether the D.C. prosecutors somehow participated in bringing evidence to the grand jury in those cases.
Also, last week, Thomas' office filed a "racketeering" lawsuit in federal court, which bizarrely accused the supervisors, their lawyers, and the judges of being a criminal enterprise under RICO laws.
Because of that pending suit, Thomas said, Donahoe should have recused himself from considering Irvine's legal argument in court today.
"That's how lawless this behavior was," the County Attorney said. "Nobody is above the law."
But to many in attendance, it seemed as if Thomas and Arpaio simply don't like the way they keep losing in Donahoe's court:
Judge Donahoe removed the County Attorney's Office from investigating the court tower construction, he rejected the notion of holding indicted superivisor Don Stapley in contempt of court for alleged wrongdoing, and he jailed detention officer Adam Stoddard on a contempt of court charge.
So first Thomas filed a RICO lawsuit alleging that Donahoe and other superior court judges are part of some vague and convoluted conspiracy, working together to see that the new court tower (with all those big offices and marble floors) is built and the sheriff's office/county attorney's office investigation is thwarted.
Then they charge the big kahuna himself, Judge Donahoe, with criminal counts.
That's one way to rid themselves of a judge they don't like, and perhaps find another jurist more sympathetic to their point of view.
But Donahoe wasn't willing to recuse himself just yet, perhaps because the RICO allegations are so silly and vague. Until he was implicated in this morning's direct complaint, he had planned to go ahead with the hearing anyway.
So they charge him with three felonies???
"We are going to get to the bottom of this, and we are not going to be obstructed anymore," Thomas breathlessly told the press conference.
Is that a threat? Sure is.
Here's how a somber Arpaio explained his side of things: "Sometimes, you have to do what you have to do."
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Yeah, you gotta.
Thomas and Arpaio told reporters that Judge Donahoe is required to make his initial appearance January 11. At that point -- unless reason somehow begins to prevail in this county, or unless some higher authority steps in -- he'll need to enter a plea to the charges in front of him and submit to booking.
Thomas noted that his prosecutors will seek to move the case forward at a preliminary hearing after the initial appearance, not through a grand-jury indictment. The preliminary hearing is a public proceeding, while grand-jury proceedings are closed.
By the time we reached the end of this press conference and read through the convoluted paperwork proffered by Thomas' prosecutors, we only had one question: Where are the feds?