Joe Arpaio, Andrew Thomas and the Hunt for Judge Gary Donahoe
There are 1,084 process servers licensed in Arizona, and only one of them has ever been prosecuted for threatening the county's longtime presiding criminal court judge with bodily harm.
Yet in December, when Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas — angered by a series of adverse rulings — decided to take on Judge Gary Donahoe, it apparently wasn't enough to file a racketeering lawsuit against him, alleging that he was part of a criminal enterprise.
It wasn't enough, either, to file three felony charges against Donahoe, despite a complete lack of evidence.
And to deliver the legal papers to Donahoe, they couldn't simply use sheriff's deputies. They had to hire Jack Cox — surely the only licensed process server in the entire country who once told his probation officer that his life's goal was to destroy Donahoe.
Old-timers may remember Cox as the owner of the Great Alaskan Bush Company, a notorious Grand Avenue nudie bar. They may remember that Cox was charged with possessing narcotics — newspaper accounts at the time say that Cox tasked the bar's employees with purchasing coke on his behalf. They may also recall a cover story that my colleague Paul Rubin wrote in 1997, which detailed how a probate court-appointed fiduciary was arrested for stealing tens of thousands of dollars from her clients, including Jack Cox's mother.
But they probably don't know that, a decade before he became a process server, Cox was charged with five misdemeanors — for threatening violence against Donahoe.
At that time, Donahoe was the probate court commissioner in charge of Cox's case, and despite all evidence to the contrary, Cox became convinced that Donahoe was in cahoots with the fiduciary and looting his mother's estate.
In March 1997, Cox left a flurry of nasty messages on Donahoe's answering machine. The Sheriff's Office concluded that at least four of them used "obscene, loud, or profane language" and another threatened violence.
Even after being charged in connection with the phone calls, Cox was defiant. He told his probation officer that Donahoe was a "corrupt, evil slime" and "a disgrace to the judicial system." He announced that his life's goal was to "acquire great wealth and buy a judge to have Gary Donahoe declared insane and incompetent" and to "take all of his dignity, assets, and freedom."
Cox's probation officer concluded, "He has little or no remorse for his actions and virtually no respect for the court system."
Donahoe declined to ask the judge on the case for jail time after Cox pleaded guilty to one of the counts — but he did note, for the record, that Cox was "delusional." You think?
But times change. Being delusional and having no respect for the court system might've netted you a misdemeanor charge in 1997. Last winter, it was far more likely to put you in cahoots with the county attorney.
Donahoe's lawyer, Michael Manning, tells me that Donahoe was walking into the courthouse December 2 when he brushed past the man who'd threatened him.
"I just served you with a lawsuit," Jack Cox told him.
Cox says all this is one giant coincidence. The sheriff surely had no idea who he was or his history with Donahoe, he says. (Anyway, he insists, he has no hard feelings toward Donahoe; he now respects the court and understands that Donahoe was duped by the stealing fiduciary just as badly as he was.)
Finally, Cox notes that his company was hired — not Cox specifically.
But the company is registered in Cox's name. And, interestingly, Cox won't say who hired him or where he was given the papers.
"You might want to talk to them about them," he says of Arpaio and Thomas. (A sheriff's spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.)
To Michael Manning, Cox's presence cannot be a coincidence. And neither, he says, was the sheriff's decision to make Donahoe's personal information public, right down to his Social Security number.
When New Times published Sheriff Arpaio's home address online, Arpaio demanded that the newspaper be prosecuted for causing a threat to his security — and Thomas appointed a bulldog special prosecutor to do just that.
But when Arpaio and Thomas targeted Donahoe last December, "security" didn't even merit lip service. Never mind that Donahoe has sent hundreds, if not thousands, of violent criminals to prison during his decade on the bench. When Arpaio and Thomas charged Donahoe with three felonies for essentially ruling against them in court, they gleefully splashed his home address all over their Web sites — and, for would-be ID thieves, they helpfully included his Social Security number, too.
It's wildly hypocritical, over-the-top malicious — and classic Arpaio and Thomas.
"These people," Manning says, "miss no way to intimidate."
It's been six months since Andrew Thomas filed bogus criminal charges against Donahoe.
Today, things are fairly quiet in Maricopa County. Thomas is running for Arizona attorney general — and is eager to talk about illegal immigration, not his disastrous six years as county attorney. Meanwhile, now that he no longer has a friend in the County Attorney's Office, Sheriff Arpaio is playing defense, trying desperately to stop the Board of Supervisors from accessing his office's financial records.
Today, both men have every reason to pretend that the events of last December never really happened — and, even if they did, they weren't that awful.
Do not be fooled. These things did happen, they were that awful, and county taxpayers will be paying the price for a very long time.
Last year, drunk on the conspiracy theory that all county officials were corrupt and that county judges were shielding them, Arpaio and Thomas went nuts. They charged Supervisors Don Stapley and Mary Rose Wilcox with cases so weak that a wiser prosecutor is on the record saying that she saw no evidence of a crime. They executed a grossly overreaching search warrant on developer Conley Wolfswinkel, rifling through his offices for 11 hours as television cameras recorded the event.
They tarred everybody — Stapley, Wilcox, county administrators, and county judges — with an "ineptly drafted rant" (to quote Michael Manning), purporting to be a racketeering lawsuit.
Most famously, they charged Donahoe with bribery, even though, they admit, he never took anything of value from anyone.
Now that Arpaio and Thomas' cases have been revealed as complete fabrication, all their targets are suing. In the past two months, Stapley, Wilcox, Wolfswinkel, Donahoe, and two superior court judges have filed notices of claim against the county.
You only have to read these notices of claim to realize that the injuries are real. Stapley's spent $1 million on lawyers. Wilcox has seen business drop at her restaurant, she's had loan applications denied, and at least one major award she was set to receive for public service has been rescinded. Wolfswinkel has suffered serious business setbacks; his attorney, Grant Woods, notes that the law provides treble damages for every deal Wolfswinkel lost thanks to the sheriff's slander.
None of them has anything on Donahoe.
When Thomas and Arpaio first announced criminal charges against the county's presiding judge, we all imagined they must have something: some witness who'd seen a cash-stuffed envelope, some evidence of a deal being cut.
They had nothing but their own nutty delusions, their insistence that the only reason someone would rule against them is if he'd been paid off.
After Thomas left the County Attorney's Office, New Times' Ray Stern asked his longtime flack, Barnett Lotstein, whether Thomas had more evidence in his case against Donahoe.
Lotstein sniffed that Thomas doesn't try cases in the media. It was the most disingenuous thing that's ever come out of Lotstein's perpetually disingenuous mouth.
When it came to defendants like Stapley, Wilcox, and Donahoe, Thomas only tried cases in the media. The point of the exercise wasn't to win convictions in court — God knows Thomas never managed to do that. The point was the press conference: the suggestion that they had a case, that these people were corrupt.
They couldn't prove it, of course. But they could make us wonder.
Three years ago, Arpaio and Thomas held a press conference to announce that they were investigating Attorney General Terry Goddard, questioning whether Goddard went lightly on a criminal defendant in exchange for a payment to his office's civil division.
No one ever alleged that Goddard personally profited one dime from the decision. No one has ever shown that Goddard was even personally involved.
But they could plant the seed. They could make us wonder.
Last week, Thomas finally admitted in an interview with the Arizona Republic's Michael Kiefer what reasonable people have known for years: They never had anything on Goddard. "I did not think it would be fair and appropriate for a cloud to be hanging over him, when to my knowledge there is no evidence implicating him," Kiefer quoted Thomas as saying.
Thomas, for once, is right: It would not be "fair" and "appropriate" for a cloud to be hanging over Goddard. But it's kind of ironic that Thomas feels that way today considering just how hard he and Arpaio worked to seed the cloud in question.
Barnett Lotstein can claim that they don't try their cases in the media. Ha ha ha. In Goddard's case, Arpaio and Thomas didn't just hold a press conference to announce they were investigating him. They actually gave reporters a recording of the key piece of evidence.
Then they kept the investigation "open" for three years. Three! Arpaio issued at least two press releases accusing Goddard of stonewalling —and held a press conference repeating the claim. Meanwhile, the pair subpoenaed more than 12 million pages of records. Goddard's lawyers managed to get that reduced to 70,000 or so, but still.
And now Thomas tells us there was no evidence implicating Goddard? How fair and appropriate of him.
Clearly, the investigation into Goddard was never really about getting to the bottom of what happened at the Attorney General's Office. It was about intimidating Goddard.
Likewise, the prosecution of Donahoe was never about Donahoe's accepting a bribe. (Since, of course, he didn't.) It was about intimidating Donahoe. Hence the press conference, the Social Security number leak, the angry process server.
The goal wasn't to get at the truth. The goal was to torture the judge who dared oppose Thomas and Arpaio — and scare others into submission, too.
There's no better evidence of this than the search warrant Arpaio executed on Conley Wolfswinkel.
The sheriff and county attorney claimed that they had reasonable cause to believe Wolfswinkel was bribing Stapley. Based on that suspicion, they got a search warrant for Wolfswinkel's office.
But Wolfswinkel's attorneys were able to prove that the search warrant was based on false information. Six months after its execution, they successfully persuaded a judge (coincidentally, Judge Donahoe) to controvert the warrant and return Wolfswinkel's property.
And Wolfswinkel learned something fascinating upon the property's return. "They discovered that basically none of it had been looked at," says his attorney, Grant Woods. Copies of Wolfswinkel's hard drive, for example, hadn't even been opened.
"What does that tell you?" Woods asks, incredulous.
It tells me that the contents of the hard drive were never the point. They already achieved the goal: a media circus.
Today, Wolfswinkel is offering to settle with Maricopa County for $10 million. Mary Rose Wilcox is asking for $4.75 million. Don Stapley wants $5 million.
And as for Gary Donahoe?
"Judge Donahoe's reputation has been irreversibly tarnished," Manning writes in his notice of claim. "He has been charged with three felony counts and regardless of how baseless those charges were and despite the fact they have now been abandoned, the judge will be forever tainted by those charges."
He's asking for $4.75 million. I hope he gets every penny.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.