Serving Up Stapley: Whys the Don Stapley Prosecution a Big Joke? Because the Accusers Are Far Shadier Than the Accused
Dirt on Don Stapley, a 15-year member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, began flowing in spring 2008 from County Attorney Andrew Thomas' office.
A paper trail of Maricopa County Sheriff's Office documents reveals the genesis of the case, though with potentially telling details omitted. Records state that the criminal investigation of Stapley began on May 14, 2008, with three of Thomas' liaisons holding a meeting at Sheriff Joe Arpaio's downtown offices.
Lisa Aubuchon, a deputy county attorney assigned to politically sensitive cases, and two investigators from County Attorney Andrew Thomas' office met with a couple of Arpaio's top men. The subject: a tip about possible crimes committed by Stapley, a popular East Valley politician and one of the most powerful men in the county. The group sat down in a suite on the 18th floor of the Wells Fargo building, where Arpaio maintains his headquarters.
By then, the Board of Supervisors and Thomas had been waging a Cold War for more than a couple of years. They'd been held back from suing each other only by a détente (a legal memorandum of understanding regarding the handling of lawsuits) signed in June 2006.
Thomas' tip to the Sheriff's Office about alleged criminal acts by Stapley — the only one of four Republican supervisors to have criticized Thomas publicly at the time — was like a match to a fuse. It would soon touch off an expensive, all-out war between Thomas and Arpaio on one side and the Board of Supervisors on the other.
Aubuchon's team told the sheriff's commanders about eight properties owned by Stapley that, she said, were improperly listed on several financial-disclosure forms he had filed with the county since 2004.
While that information is interesting and the alleged infractions appear to be illegal, it's also fascinating what Aubuchon didn't share with the Sheriff's Office.
Aubuchon didn't say where the tip came from, and the report doesn't state whether the deputies even asked about its origin. Aubuchon brought up another tip about Stapley to the Sheriff's Office a few months later — this one about supposed kickbacks from land he owned. The second tip came on February 12, not long after New Times published an article theorizing that the first one came from Thomas' private lawyer.
When Aubuchon again attributed her information to an anonymous source, records show, an MCSO sergeant had the gumption to ask who had tipped off Thomas.
Aubuchon refused to tell him.
Now, it's easy to see that in some criminal cases, an investigator with a prosecutor's office might want to stay as tight-lipped as possible — for instance, because the mob might kill someone if the information got out. In this situation, though, when there's one elected official dishing dirt on another, the hit to the informant wouldn't be physical. Just political. Or financial.
David Hendershott, Arpaio's chief deputy, tells New Times it's no big deal that Thomas' office did not share the identity of the tipster, or tipsters. He says it doesn't matter because Stapley crossed a line. He says the County Attorney's Office is a credible source for a tip and says "it's a heck of a stretch" to assume any shenanigans from Aubuchon's refusal to name her source. Besides, he says, it's hardly uncommon for a tipster to have an ax to grind.
"Everybody who calls in a tip hates the guy they're calling in the tip on," Hendershott says.
Yet this astonishing lack of transparency between the lead investigative agency and the prosecutor's office leaves room for speculation. Thomas obviously has something to hide in this politically charged case — even from his most important ally, Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
There are a couple of other things that Aubuchon didn't tell Arpaio's men during last year's meeting, according to the paper trail. She didn't mention that Thomas might have a conflict of interest — or at least the appearance of a conflict — in the case. As Stapley's attorneys would later show, the supervisor had sought advice from Thomas' office in 2006 concerning properties connected to Conley Wolfswinkel, a longtime friend and business associate of Stapley's and a convicted felon.
Perhaps most egregiously, Aubuchon didn't tell the sheriff's men that the financial disclosure forms of their boss, Arpaio, contained inaccuracies as well. As can be seen from public records, Arpaio failed in certain years to disclose some properties he owned — just as Stapley failed to disclose some of his properties in some years.
Sure, Aubuchon may not have known these things, just as she either had no knowledge (or thought her office could get away with ignoring — that the Board of Supervisors hadn't made the county's rules on filling out financial-disclosure forms official) a troublesome detail that would cause Thomas' first case against Stapley to come undone in September.
But the most likely possibility is that nobody in Thomas' office cared whether Stapley was the only official who had failed to fill out the forms correctly.
Because the point was to get Stapley.
The riveting question is, why would Thomas attack Stapley, a fellow conservative Republican? The county attorney certainly did nothing after New Times wrote about ally Joe Arpaio's problems with financial-disclosure forms, even after the newspaper notified his office that Arpaio was in the same situation as the supervisor.
There are several possible reasons:
• In early 2008, Thomas and Arpaio needed a high-profile target for the MACE (Maricopa Anti-Corruption Effort) task force they had begun the year before. The high-profile prosecution of former Republican county Schools Superintendent Sandra Dowling, which began just before MACE started, had fallen to pieces. State Attorney General Terry Goddard handled the case following an 11-month investigation by Arpaios office, but passed it off later to the U.S. Attorneys Office, which dropped all but one misdemeanor charge against Dowling.
• Thomas, who started his first term in 2005, was considering a run for governor or state attorney general. (After winning re-election in 2008, he's been officially exploring a run for AG). Hanging Stapley's scalp on his belt could benefit his political future by making him appear to be a corruption fighter.
• Thomas and Arpaio want to prosecute Mary Rose Wilcox, a Hispanic Democrat and their most vocal critic on the Board of Supervisors. Moving against this board member first would have looked like a blatant political hit, even to Republicans. They needed to put the squeeze on a high-profile Republican supervisor.
• Stapley spoke out against Thomas publicly. In 2007, he essentially called Thomas corrupt, telling a reporter with the Arizona Republic that the county attorney used the hiring of outside attorneys as a "political lever." Stapley slammed Thomas again in early 2008 when he complained to reporters about the county attorney's apparent misuse of funds in creating a crime-prevention pamphlet that looked more like campaign literature.
• Stapley openly questioned the war on illegal immigrants waged by Thomas and Arpaio. Stapley deemed the criminalization of undocumented immigrants wrongheaded and unholy in a June 6, 2006 article about the differing views of Mormons on immigration issues. Stapley said Thomas and Arpaio were "not necessarily headed in the right direction."
• After an East Valley Tribune series of stories last year slamming Arpaio, Stapley was the only Republican on the board to ask the Sheriff's Office about the reported problems. Stapley later told the Tribune that he was satisfied the MCSO's efforts against illegal immigration hadn't hampered its other work. But he added that he was opposed to Arpaio's tactics and was working to undermine them: "I don't want to debate [Arpaio] publicly. It doesn't help the relationship. I can do more, be more effective, behind the scenes."
• As an official with NACo, the National Association of Counties, Stapley pushed to advance the organization's goal of comprehensive immigration reform — code for amnesty among right-wingers.
• Though he backed Arpaio for many years, Stapley falls in the more moderate camp of local conservatives. He partnered with Democratic state Attorney General Terry Goddard to divert millions of dollars into slick ads for the Arizona Meth Project. Months before Thomas' allegations against Stapley were made public, an anonymous article in the Sonoran Alliance, a right-wing blog heavily supportive of Thomas, called Stapley a RINO (Republican in Name Only).
• Stapley was vulnerable to attack. He was known to be shady, having been investigated by the state Real Estate Commission a decade earlier. He has a business relationship with the wily Wolfswinkel. Thomas probably figured that even New Times would back him up on this one because the newspaper had skewered Stapley previously over his financial practices.
And then there's this reason, the one Arpaio and Thomas would have us believe:
• Thomas' office passed an ethically pure tip to the Sheriff's Office, a professional, unbiased law enforcement agency that doesn't have a history of investigating political enemies. Thomas has no personal beef with Stapley or the Board of Supervisors and is simply trying to uproot corruption.
Given Arpaio and Thomas' history, the latter reason is absurd. Their conflicts of interest and ethical breaches, along with their reputation as seekers of revenge against real and perceived enemies, are legendary.
To find out what Arpaio has against Stapley, New Times looked at hundreds of pages of documents and conducted interviews with local officials, their supporters, legal experts, and political insiders. Some sources would talk only on condition of anonymity. Stapley refused to comment for this article.
Ultimately, this case makes both the accused and the accusers look bad. But it's Thomas and Arpaio who come off looking worse — because of the frightening ways they appear to have abused their power.
The Sheriff's Office gave New Times access to Stapley's case files for this article, files that Stapley's lawyer, Paul Charlton, has not yet seen. Charlton calls the paper's access to the files "outrageous" because Stapley has not been formally charged with new allegations of fraud and theft contained in the file.
Arpaio wouldn't talk to New Times, but Hendershott unfailingly returned our every call.
His assistance might seem amazing, except that Hendershott mainly provided answers that would benefit the MCSO's case against Stapley.
New Times has struggled for years to get public records from Arpaio's office, resorting to three lawsuits to force the agency to comply with state public-records laws. The newspaper is still engaged in a civil rights lawsuit with the Sheriff's Office stemming from the October 2007 arrests, on trumped-up charges, of New Times executives Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin.
The chief deputy, who's the brains behind Arpaio's operation, figured that when New Times looked at the case file, evidence of Stapley's wrongdoing would be compelling.
Given what was shown in the case file, he was right.
Arpaio's forces moved with a vengeance once Andrew Thomas' representatives had tipped them off. With these particular lawmen (Thomas and Arpaio) behind the case — and with an angered Board of Supervisors taking Stapley's side — the investigation and attempted prosecution quickly became a farce.
As mentioned, Thomas and the Board of Supervisors had previously agreed to play nice. The official détente expired on December 1, 2008. The next day, Stapley was indicted on 118 misdemeanor and felony counts related to his disclosure forms. In a joint news conference that evening, Thomas and Arpaio accused Stapley of lying to creditors, perjuring himself on official documents, and hiding land deals with Wolfswinkel. And they hinted that a broader inquiry would turn up evidence that Stapley had used his office for financial benefit.
Thomas wanted Stapley arrested and booked into jail, but a judge nixed the idea, saying it was unnecessary.
The other four board members saw the indictment as a call to arms and held a special meeting three days later to talk about their concerns. Thomas, who had shown disdain for the supervisors for years, didn't show up. Led by Chairman Andrew Kunasek, the board — sans Stapley, who recused himself — grilled Thomas' special assistant, Barnett Lotstein, about the apparent conflict of interest in having Thomas be both the board's lawyer and its grand inquisitor.
Lotstein told the board how, in the 1980s, the state Supreme Court had approved an investigation by former Attorney General Bob Corbin into possible crimes by former Governor Evan Mecham. In other words, the board was wrong: There was no conflict.
"Chairman Kunasek stated this response did not alleviate his concerns that the Board of Supervisors was under siege by the County Attorney's Office," according to minutes of the meeting.
Thomas blazed ahead as the board mulled its options. But his stars were not aligned.
Presiding Superior Court Judge Barbara Mundell — herself under investigation by the Sheriff's Office for supposed antics related to a new, planned court building — appointed retired Judge Kenneth Fields to handle the criminal case, though Fields had criticized Thomas in the press. Thomas balked and tried unsuccessfully to have Fields replaced.
Then, just before Christmas of last year, the supervisors fired Thomas as their attorney and hired Thomas Irvine, another target of the court-tower investigation, to represent them. Thomas sued. The board took the offensive even further, stripping him of his duty to handle the county's lawsuits and creating its own civil-litigation department.
Again, Thomas balked. But months later, the board's move was deemed legal by a Superior Court that Thomas believes is biased against him. It's not surprising that he thinks this, of course, because battling the judiciary has been part of his shtick since taking office.
Yet if the courts are the enemy, they are also the battlefield. As the months wore on, more than a million dollars in legal fees were spent on six lawsuits between the Board of Supervisors on one side and Thomas and Arpaio on the other. With their taxpayer-hired lawyers, the foes fought over money, control of a computer system, and access to county records.
In a records request, Arpaio sought information on Judge Mundell and nearly three-dozen county employees, including all five county supervisors. Many of the employees were questioned at home by deputies. Some told New Times they lost sleep over the investigations, wondering whether a midnight raid of their homes was next.
Paranoid county leaders authorized $14,000 in public funds to have their offices swept twice for electronic-listening devices they suspected Arpaio's people of planting (no bugs were found).
Meanwhile, in the hunt for more dirt on Stapley, detectives fanned out across the Valley in what seemed equal parts investigation, fishing expedition, and gossip-spreading campaign.
They poked around at the state Land Department for evidence of kickbacks on property Stapley owned. (They found none.) They interviewed current and former city council members in Mesa, Chandler, Apache Junction, and Gilbert, asking whether anyone had heard that Stapley was involved in a bribery scheme related to the planned extension of the Loop 202 freeway. (Council members said they hadn't heard a thing.) They hired an accounting expert to figure out whether Stapley's business deals were legit. (The expert only raised more questions.) They tried to question every donor to a legal defense fund set up by Stapley's friends.
Deputies also served subpoenas for information on Stapley's bank accounts and loan history. They raided Stapley's county office and the office of Conley Wolfswinkel.
Based on new information deputies say they discovered in the raids and through the subpoenas, another criminal investigation on Stapley was launched — this one involving allegations of tax fraud, unscrupulous business deals, and theft of money Stapley had raised while campaigning to be an elected officer of the National Association of Counties. To keep it all organized, the new investigation was called "Stapley Two," while the financial-disclosure case was now referred to as "Stapley One."
Charlton, Stapley's lawyer, filed a motion in February to dismiss "Stapley One" because Stapley disclosed his connection with Wolfswinkel in a 2006 conflict-of-interest letter to the supervisors — and because Thomas' office had helped Stapley prepare the letter. Another pending motion accused Thomas of "selective enforcement" and cited the problems with Arpaio's own disclosure forms.
In the first week of April, before the judge could rule on the motions, Thomas transferred the case to the Yavapai County Attorney's Office. He claimed he was offering an "olive branch" to the county.
But the breaking point for Thomas must have been the court decision on March 31 by Judge Gary Donahoe in a related case. Weeks earlier, the supervisors had sued Thomas over the court-tower investigation, arguing that the County Attorney's Office had been consulted on many occasions as the $347 million tower was planned.
Donahoe ruled in the board's favor and kicked Thomas off the case, stating that Thomas' desired role as both lawyer and adversary had the "appearance of evil."
After Thomas moved the court-tower and Stapley cases to Yavapai, the court determined Thomas' alleged bias against Stapley was irrelevant because he was no longer the prosecutor.
But it doesn't seem irrelevant at all.
Thomas' office had launched the investigation with an anonymous tip, after all. The damage was done, in that the initial — and petty — paperwork violations were pursued for prosecutions and had spawned a larger probe that was, perhaps, starting to bear fruit.
Nevertheless, Yavapai assigned the case to a special prosecutor, former Navajo County Attorney Mel Bowers.
Thomas claimed his hands were clean, now that he no longer had even the appearance of a conflict. And Stapley looked like toast; all the paperwork violations appeared clear-cut. But Stapley did not skimp when it came to hiring a defense attorney.
He hired Tom Henze and Charlton, the former U.S. Attorney for Arizona. It wasnt long before the team discovered a sandy legal foundation under the Stapley prosecution. Henze filed a motion claiming that county supervisors never put into practice a state law forcing counties to require elected officials to complete financial-disclosure forms.
In response to the motion, Judge Fields tossed 51 of the 117 remaining charges against Stapley in August. (One of the 118 already had been dropped.)
With the law now in question, the special prosecutor dropped the remaining charges on Friday, September 18, to focus on launching an appeal of Fields' August decision.
That Monday, Arpaio's deputies followed Stapley from his Mesa home to the county parking garage at Third Avenue and Jefferson Street. When Stapley stepped out of his white Honda Civic, he was arrested.
"I'm sure all the cameras will be there," Stapley told the deputies, according to records. "I know how you guys work."
"I hope not," a deputy replied. He was either lying or naïve.
They handcuffed Stapley, took him to jail, perp-walked him in front of the news media, and accused him of 100 new criminal counts. Most were felonies: fraud, theft, and misusing his public office.
It was a rapid reversal of fortune for Stapley, though the whole MCSO operation was bizarre.
There was no legitimate need to arrest Stapley. The political icon of the East Valley could hardly be expected to run off to Brazil. Even weirder, it turned out that Yavapai County prosecutors had been reviewing the "Stapley Two" charges but hadn't made a decision on whether to pursue the case. They and Maricopa county prosecutors denied prior knowledge that Arpaio would arrest Stapley.
A judge had blocked Thomas from having Stapley booked into jail in the first go-around. With this second push for prosecution, Arpaio and Hendershott took matters into their own hands, with Thomas supposedly out of the loop. No judge had knowledge of what was about to transpire, so no judge could get in the way.
Of course, the arrest mocked the notion of checks and balances in the legal system. The typical course of action, according to experts, would've been for the MCSO to discuss the plan for arrest with both the prosecutor's office and the judge in Stapley's first criminal case.
The supervisor was booked, fingerprinted, and photographed — but no prosecutor picked up the case. After 48 hours, it was dropped from the court system. If a prosecutor's office decides to file charges, Stapley will either be rearrested or served with a court summons.
In fact, he should have been served with a summons in September, says former U.S. Attorney for Arizona Mel McDonald. That's what would happen in "99.99 percent of cases" like Stapley's, McDonald says.
The former federal attorney now in private practice didn't want to speculate on why Arpaio's office was so heavy-handed with Stapley but says he "didn't like" what the sheriff did.
For his part, Hendershott claims there was no "urgency" to arrest Stapley. Rather, he says, his men finished up work on the case on September 11, and it was decided to make the arrest 10 days later.
The timing of the collar — almost immediately after Yavapai County dropped the older charges — makes Hendershott's explanation tough to swallow.
Don Stapley is descended from the Valley's earliest Mormon pioneers; his family is why Mesa has a major street called Stapley Drive. The graduate of Westwood High School and Utah's Brigham Young University has been active in community affairs since he was a teenager.
Last November, Stapley was elected to a fourth term on the Board of Supervisors and still appears to have strong support — particularly among fellow Mormons — despite the ongoing investigation by Thomas and Arpaio.
Stapley is a pillar of the community, but he is no role model. His personal financial dealings during his tenure on the Board of Supervisors raise plenty of questions.
Most troubling are the lucrative and ethically dubious deals he set up with companies run by the family of his friend Conley Wolfswinkel. After a 1993 conviction for land fraud, Wolfswinkel was sentenced to perform community service instead of serve prison time. He's not allowed to practice real estate, so he acts as a consultant for the family business, which owns 70,000 acres of land between Phoenix and Tucson.
Even Stapley's former bookkeeper believed that doing any kind of business with Wolfwinkel was a bad idea, a Sheriff's Office interview transcript shows.
"Why do you wanna get in a partnership with Wolfswinkel?" Joan Stoops is said to have told deputies she asked Stapley in 2002. "That's not too good for your reputation, I would think. He said, 'Joanie, this is a good deal.'"
Stoops was talking about a land deal with Wolfswinkel-connected companies in which Stapley swapped land he owned in Mesa for two Pinal County properties totaling 150 acres. In a bizarre arrangement, Wolfswinkel paid Stapley up to $26,000 a month just for the option to be the first to buy back the properties someday.
Stapley had fashioned himself into something of a mid-size real estate player in the 2000s, owning $6.3 million in business holdings and property, as of 2006. But he fudged big-time when it came to proper accounting procedures, routinely blending his business and personal accounts, the Sheriff's Office records allege. In one instance, business expenses listed on his 2005 tax form showed up as income on an application for a $5 million loan.
That led to two of the 100 alleged crimes in the Sheriff's Office's latest accusation — cheating on his taxes and fraud.
Prosecutable or not, Stapley's brand of money management smacks of impropriety. As a story by former New Times writer John Dougherty shows, Stapley's penchant for digging himself into hokey real estate transactions goes back many years.
Dougherty's article reported, in part, that the state Real Estate Commission busted Stapley for failing to disclose he had once been a partner in a land deal that had gone bankrupt. He agreed to attend six hours of real estate classes and pay $1,000 to keep his real estate broker's license. Stapley appears to have hurt himself again on the same matter: He didn't acknowledge that same 1991 bankruptcy when he applied a for $4.8 million loan in 2006.
It's unseemly — at best — when a county supervisor collects hundreds of thousands of dollars from a convicted felon in an unusual land deal and seems to hoodwink the IRS and banks with faulty paperwork.
But if Stapley's payments from Wolfswinkel's companies began in 2002, before the first legal documents affirming the deal were drawn up, they would look like secret payoffs to a powerful county official. Depending on the timing of the payments, the Sheriff's Office argues, the deal could have been a bribe.
Stapley's bookkeeper, in her January interview, seemed certain the deal was struck in 2002.
But in April, Stoops recanted her statement, saying it had been 2003. Stapley's personal and business bank accounts back the later version. Bank records provided to New Times by the Sheriff's Office show a substantial revenue source starting in September 2003, with deposits of $19,485 monthly. In late 2007, the monthly payments had grown to $25,881.
Arpaio's office nurtured the bribery angle for months, but it was dealt a serious blow by Stoops' change of recollection. (The setback was probably another reason the Stapley case went to Yavapai County, since Thomas offered his "olive branch" a few days later.)
Still, the Sheriff's Office had another major avenue to explore: Stapley's campaign for second vice president of the National Association of Counties, a lobbying organization and policy think tank based in Washington, D.C.
The supervisor had paid visits to dozens of businesspeople, starting in late 2004. Looking for big donations, Stapley showed up in offices around the Valley with a slick brochure and fundraising letter.
NACo elects officers who travel around the country and the world to spread the group's messages. Typically, a nominated candidate begins by running for the position of second vice president. Once entrenched, the officer advances automatically through the ranks, reaching the positions of president and "immediate past president," Stapley's current NACo title.
Stapley hit up entities such as the Arizona Homebuilders Association and Cox Communications that might someday need the friendly ear of a county supervisor. In some cases, MCSO detectives say, donors admitted that is exactly why they gave money to Stapley.
Deputies say William Levine, owner of the Pistol Pete's Pizza franchise, told them in an interview that he wasn't familiar with NACo. He thought Stapley was seeking a county position of some sort. They say Levine, who owns a chunk of the old General Motors Proving Ground on county land, told them he gave $10,000 because, among other reasons, Stapley is a friend.
The money poured in, according to the MCSO report. By December 2005, the supervisor had collected $135,000 for his "Stapley for NACo" bank account. Then, deputies say, he proceeded to spend the money over the next three years. By the end of 2008, they say, Stapley had drained the account and still had more than $1,000 owing on a "Stapley for NACo" credit card.
Yet Stapley never faced an opponent for his NACo position.
The Sheriff's Office estimates that about a third of the money was spent on personal items. Airfare and other travel expenses were assumed to be for NACo functions, but that left many questionable transactions involving the campaign money, according to the MCSO records, including:
More than $16,000 spent for electronics and furniture; thousands of dollars spent at local stores, from Nordstrom to an antique shop; funds spent for pet grooming, car washes, and groceries; a bill of $1,300 to Tony Martingilio, a hair-replacement specialist; and bills totaling about $400 for spa treatments.
The Sheriff's Office wants Stapley charged with 48 counts of misusing public office, 45 counts of theft, and one count of fraud in the NACo fundraising scheme. Add that to the alleged tax and loan-fraud felonies, plus four other supposed felonies related to Stapley's county supervisor campaign forms, and you get to the 100 recommended charges.
None of the charges have been made formal by a prosecutor's office, and a conviction of Stapley won't be a cakewalk.
It's a safe bet that his high-powered legal team will argue that every purchase made with the NACo campaign money related somehow to his position as a NACo officer.
Also complicating the prosecution effort: The NACo "victims" don't necessarily feel like victims.
Detectives tried to contact 41 of the donors. Some wouldn't answer questions. Twenty-three reportedly said their money shouldn't have been used for personal expenses. But interview transcripts show the detectives steered the conversations toward desired conclusions, sometimes cooking up phony scenarios to make their points.
When Connie Wilhelm, president of the Homebuilders Association, was asked what she would think if she knew some of her $25,000 contribution was spent on personal things, she said it would depend on what was being called "personal." She added that the Homebuilders Association she heads did not dictate to Stapley how to spend the money it contributed.
"Right," answers a detective , according to the interview transcript. "Um, but by buying your daughter a $25,000 — and I'm just using that number because that's the donation — Ford Mustang [as] a graduation gift?"
Wilhem finally concedes the scenario would not be acceptable. Stapley never bought his daughter a car with contributed money.
When detectives interviewed Rusty Bowers, a longtime Stapley friend who made a $5,000 donation on behalf of the Arizona Rock Products Association, they threw out the idea that Stapley had bought a TV set for a friend with some of the money. No clear evidence of such a purchase was recorded in the Sheriff's Office records.
Though Bowers replied during the interview that he wouldn't be "content" if the money were used like that, he tells New Times he does not feel "victimized" in the slightest.
"I felt I was being led [by sheriff's investigators] to feel that [Stapley] was up to mischief," Bowers says.
Local attorney Brian Kaven gave the strongest negative statement to detectives, saying he would be "very, very, very unhappy" if he knew his donation had been used for personal expenses.
But, like some of the other people interviewed, Kaven was skeptical of the investigation itself. Thomas had transferred the Stapley case to Yavapai County, so why, Kaven asked the deputies, was Maricopa County even still working it?
"That means there's still that 'conflict of interest' between the Sheriff's Office and maybe our County Attorney and the Board Supervisors," Kaven said to the deputies. "Oh, boy."
A few weeks before Stapley's arrest, County Elections Director Karen Osborne sent the County Attorney's Office a letter about possible campaign-finance violations she wanted Thomas to take action on. Call this a tip, too.
Thomas was informed that one or more people had made contributions in the name of another — a felony or felonies. Corporations had donated money in an attempt to influence the 2008 election, and the money may have been illegally earmarked to go toward a specific candidate, she alleged. She noted that nothing about the case barred a criminal prosecution. The state Attorney General's Office had begun its own investigation into the case "and may have access to additional materials," Osborne wrote.
Unlike with Stapley, Thomas did not have Lisa Aubuchon take the tip to the Sheriff's Office. Thomas hasn't even referred Osborne's case to the AG, which would be the obvious and easy thing to do, since Osborne had told him about the AG's investigation.
Thomas isn't interested because the case involves the highest levels of the Sheriff's Office and state Republican Party. Top MCSO commanders — including Hendershott — and a few wealthy donors raised money in a secret slush fund starting in 2006 for the apparent benefit of Sheriff Arpaio. Then, weeks before the 2008 election, $105,000 from the fund was given to the Republican Party under the mysterious acronym "SCA," which the public later learned stands for "Sheriff's Command Association." The state GOP eventually returned the illegal contribution to the SCA's frontman, MCSO Captain Joel Fox. But by that time, the party had used the money to fund TV ads that smeared Arpaio and Thomas' political opponents.
New Times has asked Thomas' office repeatedly what it intends to do about Osborne's notice. The answer is always: The case is "under review."
In other words, Thomas is stalling one possible public corruption case involving himself and his political ally while pulling out all the stops in a public corruption case involving a political enemy.
On the sheriff's side, the double standard is worse: Hendershott, one of the county's self-made anti-corruption cops, is directly implicated in the alleged financial-disclosure-related crimes because he was a key SCA donor. Neither he nor Arpaio will comment about the group and its dealings.
By itself, the SCA case demonstrates that Thomas and Arpaio have no business leading a moral crusade against a fellow politician. And the SCA matter is just one of example of their unscrupulous activities.
Had the tables been turned in the Stapley case, and the investigators were investigated with the same rigor, Arpaio also would be facing charges.
The Stapley case began with a hard look at financial-disclosure forms, which led to subpoenas that uprooted more apparently damning documents. As New Times revealed, the sheriff has committed similar infractions to Stapley's.
For instance, Arpaio bought a condo in Fountain Hills in 2000 for $77,000. But he didn't list it on his disclosure form for that year — he listed it a year and a half later. He sold a Phoenix rental property in 1996 for $68,000 that never showed up on a disclosure form. And he bought two commercial properties for $250,000 that he did not disclose.
A motion filed by Stapley's lawyer, Charlton, included a few other examples dating back to 1992, such as Arpaio's alleged failure to list his family trust on his 1994 disclosure form. Not all of Arpaio's investment properties can be cross-referenced with his disclosure forms, though, because the sheriff blocks public access to information about them based on a law that was designed to hide the home addresses of police officers.
Arpaio's disclosure-form discrepancies pose a huge conflict of interest. Simply put, there's nothing fair about one politician with legal problems having the power (and using it) to investigate another politician with the same problems.
Thomas' legitimacy is further compromised by his office's refusal to divulge where the tips about Stapley came from. It turned out that the information about Stapley's properties relayed in the first tip to the MCSO was suspiciously similar to that uncovered last year during a court case against Stapley's longtime friend and business ally Conley Wolfswinkel.
Thomas' private lawyer, Leo Beus, and lawyers working with Beus had claimed in court filings that Stapley had blown the Wolfswinkel case for them — robbing them of a $171 million judgment — because Stapley had influenced the judge by randomly showing up in court one day. Not long after the verdict, Aubuchon passed along Thomas' tip to the Sheriff's Office. Beus has denied that he tipped Thomas' office to alleged wrongdoing by Stapley, but the coincidence begs for more scrutiny.
In the end, the Stapley case looks like the latest in a long string of vendettas by Arpaio and Thomas.
They teamed up to smear AG Terry Goddard, keeping an investigative file open on him for more than two years, even though a possible bribery charge against him appears baseless. They attacked New Times after repeated criticisms by the newspaper and had its chief executives arrested and jailed on trumped-up charges ("Who's Sorry Now?" October 24, 2007).
The list of enemies Arpaio has ordered his investigators to target is extensive:
Dan Saban, who ran for sheriff against Arpaio in 2004 and 2008; Dan Pochoda, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union; Superior Court Presiding Judge Barbara Mundell; County Manager David Smith; County Supervisor Wilcox; former Arpaio campaign opponent Tom Bearup; Bearup's former campaign aide Jim Cozzolino; Republican activist Lee Watkins; Nick Tarr, an actor hired by a public-relations group to advocate against a ballot proposition that was supported by Arpaio; the city of Mesa, following repeated criticism by the city's former police chief, George Gascón; Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, who spoke out against Arpaio's immigration sweeps; and Democratic legislative candidate Jackie Thrasher. ("Enemies List," November 27, 2007, and "Below the Belt," September 19, 2007).
As New Times reported recently, the Sheriff's Office is even investigating Governor Jan Brewer for possible misdeeds stemming from her time on the Board of Supervisors, from 1996 to 2002.
The politically motivated assault on Dan Saban was particularly egregious. After Saban kicked off his 2004 campaign, his mentally compromised stepmother, Ruby Norman, contacted Hendershott and claimed Saban had raped her three decades ago, when he was 15 years old. Suspiciously, Hendershott erased a tape he had made of the phone interview. Hendershott assigned members of the Sheriff's Office "threat squad" to drive to her home and take down her story. There was no evidence that the allegation was true, and even if it were, the statute of limitations on it had expired many years earlier.
Still, the written report of the deputies' interview with Norman was handed off to a reporter from Channel 15 (KNXV-TV), who had been told about the claim even before the deputies arrived at Norman's house. The Channel 15 report broadsided Saban's campaign and contributed to him losing the race.
The allegations would surface again in 2008 — this time in the form of the mud-slinging, prime-time TV ad paid for by the Sheriff's Command Association. Viewers found the SCA ad so tasteless that TV stations pulled it the next day. But, as before, the damage to Saban's second run for county sheriff was severe. Arpaio won a fifth term — ensuring that Hendershott, Joel Fox, and other high-ranking commanders would keep their jobs.
The hypocrisy in the Stapley case is most evident in Thomas and Arpaio's continued attempts to control the prosecution effort. When Yavapai County moved too slowly on the new allegations, Thomas took the case back and tried to assign it to two expensive, high-profile lawyers from Washington, Joseph diGenova and his wife, Victoria Toensing.
Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk tells New Times she made it clear to Thomas that her office was more than willing to handle the second case, as long as Maricopa paid the bill for a special prosecutor, as it had in the first Stapley case.
It was Thomas' call to pull the case from Yavapai, Polk insists.
A source close to the investigation says Hendershott pressured Thomas to take back the case.
The Sheriff's Office "felt [it was] taking it in the shorts in the media" after the first case fell apart, the source tells New Times.
Once the case was back in Maricopa County, it immediately got bogged down in the ongoing county chaos. In a clever move, the Board of Supervisors — under a recommendation from County Manager David Smith — refused to even consider hiring the special prosecutors from D.C. The planned hires didn't conform to the "county-procurement process," county lawyers argued. And besides, they pointed out, the law requires special prosecutors to live in the state.
An outraged Thomas now threatens to prosecute the new case in his own office. Barnett Lotstein tells New Times that no conflict of interest exists, as Thomas has claimed all along.
That position sounds no more credible now than it did last December.
At press time for this article, Stapley still hadn't been formally charged with the new allegations, and his victory in the older case is on appeal.
The attempted takedown of Stapley keeps producing new headlines. And other investigations by Thomas and Arpaio look to be heating up. Wilcox is sure to be the next target on the Board of Supervisors. The Sheriff's Office is also continuing its behemoth investigation into what it claims is fraud in the planned construction of the court tower.
At the same time, Arpaio is facing some heat from federal investigations. Channel 5 news (KPHO-TV) reported this month that the FBI was probing Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office for allegedly using police powers to conduct political vendettas. New Times received word recently that the FBI was making inquiries into the latest news about the MCSO investigation of Governor Brewer.
As for the Stapley investigation, Pete Rios, a Pinal County Supervisor and former Democratic state legislator, says, "The appearance of what's going on in Maricopa County is that Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the county attorney have not gotten their way with the Board of Supervisors. As a result, it appears they are trying to make it as hard as possible on the board — especially [on] Don Stapley and Mary Rose Wilcox."
Yes, Stapley appears to have violated certain financial regulations. But the case against him started with paperwork infractions that he and Arpaio appear guilty of committing. In addition — with their history of power plays, political vendettas, conflicts of interest, and shocking heavy-handedness — Arpaio and Andrew Thomas' underhanded reputations precede them.
Even a shady county supervisor can't make these lawmen look righteous.
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