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.
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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.
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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.