In late July, Mesa city councilmember Jim Stapley sued fellow councilmember Joan Payne. Stapley claimed that Payne had slandered him by calling him a "pervert in polyester" on a local radio talk show. Stapley also sought an injunction in Maricopa County Superior Court preventing Payne from talking about him over the airwaves. The judge hasn't ruled on it yet.
The suit is the most recent jab in a three-year, highly publicized city-hall brawl that began after Payne accused Stapley of inappropriately touching her during a ride in a police helicopter in 1994.
This almost comical mano a mano being played out in Mesa city hall is troubling for a couple of reasons. First, the Honorable Joan Payne and the Honorable Jim Stapley are public officials entrusted with running the city. But, instead, they're spending their time obsessing about their niggling spat. Second, their fight has dredged up allegations that suggest that Jim Stapley really is the creep Joan Payne says he is.
These days, Stapley is fighting for his political survival, and he can't survive unless he silences Joan Payne.
Truth is, Jim Stapley's lawsuit is a desperate act by a guy who wants to shut up Payne before she lets the world know she's not the only woman who thinks Jim Stapley is a dirty old horndog.
Long before Payne began complaining about Stapley's sexual harassment, stories and allegations of his lasciviousness have swirled around the conservative Mormon community, but he's managed to duck any serious consequences.
The scion of a powerful and prominent Mormon pioneer family (Stapley Road is named after his clan), Stapley has found a satisfying career as a Mesa city councilmember, and he's not going to let Joan Payne ruin it now by painting him as a sort of Latter-day Mr. Roper on hiatus from the TV sitcom Three's Company.
Of course, his political career is on the skids anyway, even without Payne's input, but he won't acknowledge it. Earlier this year, Stapley was censured by the Mesa City Council for attempting to bully a city prosecutor into dismissing charges against one of his Mormon pals. When the prosecutor refused to cooperate, Stapley tried to have him fired. Stapley has always denied wrongdoing. He didn't make a mistake calling the prosecutor, he says, and he certainly didn't sexually harass Payne.
Curiously, Joan Payne and Jim Stapley were the best of pals when they were elected to the city council in May 1994. They seemed to agree politically, and both garnered support from Mormon and conservative Republican voters.
Then, gradually, councilmember Payne started changing. Dramatically. For reasons even Payne can't explain, she went from being a buttoned-down Phyllis Schlafly devotee to having a smiley-sun-moon face tattooed on her lower calf and multiple ear piercings. And she now has a seemingly unquenchable need to be noticed.
She drives those straight city councilmembers crazy with her attention-getting political antics, such as the time she paired up with Kat Gallant, who is famous for cutting men's hair in her underwear, to fight Mesa's rigid smoking ban. Anyone who has felt unwelcome living in conservative Mesa would find her a kick.
And she has clearly gotten under Jim Stapley's skin.
She's called him a pervert on the radio, and she ratted on him to city officials for pawing her during a helicopter ride, for sending her pornography and for inappropriately commenting on her sexy clothes.
His response has been to dismiss her as a bimbo with unbalanced estrogen levels.
But a funny thing has happened. Once Payne began fingering Stapley as a lech extraordinaire, strangers began calling her, alleging Stapley had, in one way or another, preyed on other women.
Joan Payne began building a dossier on Stapley, and she threatened to use it against him if he didn't leave her alone.
Which explains the lawsuit. With an election nearing, Stapley probably doesn't want that dossier to be made public.
For instance, one thing Payne has been saying is that Stapley has been reprimanded more than once for behaving inappropriately with secretaries in city hall. She says one secretary complained that he repeatedly looked down her blouse when she sat at her desk.
When no secretaries are around to grab, Stapley will grab at anything, apparently. Mesa politico Mike Graves alleges that Stapley has inappropriately pinched Graves' inner thigh at political gatherings. Graves said he's put an end to the inner-thigh pinching by "watching my back." Stapley says he's always kept his hands to himself.
And allegations about other sexual improprieties have centered on Stapley for years in the Mormon community.
In a case that has been amply documented, Stapley and the Mormon Church were sued for negligence and recklessness in counseling a sexual-molestation victim who was impregnated by a Mormon bishop named Arlo Atkin. At the time, Stapley was the girl's bishop, or spiritual adviser. Even though Atkin, a married father of five, admitted in court that he had frequent sex with the teenager entrusted to his care and also admitted he impregnated her, she later dropped the lawsuit. Stapley announced publicly it was a "ridiculous" suit and said he didn't think Arlo Atkin would do such a thing.
Critics say Stapley has for years been protected by the Mormon Church. But he can't necessarily count on that kind of protection in public office.
And Payne is out to demonstrate that fact.
If Joan Payne is telling the truth, if Stapley really did touch and speak to her inappropriately, then Jim Stapley picked the wrong victim this time.
Payne was raped in March 1986, back when she was just another young Mormon housewife living on a quiet Mesa street.
A well-dressed stranger knocked on Payne's front door, gently asked to use the phone. Payne let him in. When the man pushed a gun into Payne's side, she was so terrified she urinated in her jeans.
The man hit her, raped her in the bathroom and then ran away.
Joan Payne was an early victim of the so-called "Real Estate Rapist" who terrorized Valley women back in 1986.
In 1988, Randy Wedding was sentenced to life in prison for the rapes.
It took years for Payne to recover from the assault, and, although she says she's recovered, she seems not to be fully mended. She tells me that after the rape, she vowed never to be a victim again, and she sure as hell won't be Jim Stapley's victim.
For years Payne has flitted from obsession to obsession; maybe it's an effort to heal and define herself.
After the rape, she dabbled in Mormon Church activities. She futilely sued several video shops after learning that Wedding had watched pornographic videos shortly before attacking her. She became the Arizona president of Eagle Forum, Phyllis Schlafly's ultraconservative women's group. And in 1994, running as a Mormon housewife on a typical Mesa conservative-Republican-with-a-Libertarian-edge ticket, Joan Payne was elected to the Mesa City Council.
She was then and remains today the only woman on the council.
On the night of Joan Payne's inauguration, Stapley made an inappropriate comment about her "low-cut" blouses.
Payne thought it was a peculiar remark, but she was not immediately offended. She even agreed to share an office with Stapley during a space crunch, but, she says, was bewildered to hear from Ellen Pence, the city spokesperson, that Stapley had been in trouble before for behaving inappropriately to women on the city staff. Stapley denies it, although Payne's story is confirmed by a high-placed city official. (Pence would not comment for attribution for this story.)
In July 1994, Payne, as a new councilmember, was invited to take a night ride on a police helicopter. Imagine Payne's surprise when Stapley showed up to ride with her. He had not been invited. The two strapped themselves into adjacent seats.
After the helicopter took off, Payne says, Stapley put his hand on her outer leg and laid "his entire torso" over her lap, ostensibly to look out the window closest to her.
Payne, the rape victim, panicked and froze.
When Stapley sat up again, Payne says, his hand lingered on her knee. She managed to get her composure back enough to ask the helicopter pilot to bank the bird so that "Councilman Stapley will get his hand off my knee."
Stapley finally removed his hand.
That same week, Payne related the helicopter incident to a police officer who had investigated her rape and to a fire department official. They both say the story Payne told them is the same story she's telling now.
A few days later, Payne received a pornographic newspaper from Stapley slipped in with her routine council documents.
Payne went to see a lawyer, and quickly learned she could not afford to finance a suit against Stapley for sexual harassment.
In December 1994, she clashed with Stapley and others over an effort to ban people with gun permits from carrying guns into city hall. Stapley was on the antigun side; Payne was on the pro-gun side. Stapley groused theatrically he feared Payne would shoot him if guns weren't banned from city hall. In the end, Payne won.
The gun fracas was a marker of sorts.
Payne claims that's when Stapley's sexual harassment turned into verbal abuse.
Stapley told city staffers Payne had PMS and was "behaving strangely."
Angrily, she spilled the beans to city officials about the helicopter incident six months before, the low-cut-blouse remark, the pornography in the mail. She asked the city manager to tell Stapley to leave her alone.
Stapley contended in a memo to city officials that Payne was simply firing back for his opposition on the gun issue. In the helicopter, Payne grabbed his knee, he wrote. He also allowed he'd sent Payne material that might be described as pornographic--but only because he wanted to let Payne know what was being left on car windshields in city-hall parking lots. (Payne says the pornography was from a Bachelor's Beat newspaper.) And he admitted he'd publicly accused Payne of having PMS.
"At this point," Stapley wrote in the memo, "I don't know what her problem is."
For months, only Payne, Stapley and a handful of city officials knew she had reported the sexual harassment to authorities.
Joan Payne says she would have let the matter drop if Stapley would have left her alone. But the two continued having bitter fights in and out of the council chambers, and in April 1996, Payne told a newspaper reporter that Stapley had sexually harassed her. Of course, she wanted to ruin her archrival and tormentor, but her plan backfired. Instead of destroying Stapley, she was ridiculed in the press. She began to miss council meetings. She stayed at home in bed and cried instead.
Then she rallied. Her passion for vengeance overwhelmed her.
Over the phone, she warned Stapley if he didn't leave her alone, she would make her dossier public.
Jim Stapley recorded her phone conversations.
Then Joan Payne went on a local radio station and called Stapley a "pervert in polyester" and "Mesa's answer to Bob Packwood."
"He's not a nice, old gentleman," Payne said. "He's a dirty old gentleman, and the public should know that."
I don't like Joan Payne's needy, in-your-face attitude. And I sure as hell don't like her politics.
But I think she is telling the truth about Horndog Jim.
And he seems to think so, too. That's why he decided to sue her.
Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at email@example.com
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.