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Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas Get Pilloried by Don Stapley

Don Stapley's ordeal helped inspire a meeting last week where activists called for new county policies to rein in Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Michael Ratcliff

A conservative, we all know, is a liberal who's been mugged. So what's a conservative who's been wrongly arrested?

My answer: Don Stapley.

Until recently, the longtime county supervisor had a reputation as a middle-of-the-road Arizona Republican — a Mormon with serious roots in the community (Stapley Drive got its name from his great-grandfather) and mainstream views. He dabbled in development and got along with the business community. He used his bully pulpit to take on such obvious villains as crystal meth and breast cancer. His son and daughter-in-law both worked for the Sheriff's Office.

Then came the indictment, charging Stapley with 118 criminal counts for what were essentially paperwork errors. And, after their dismissal, there was an arrest, without an indictment or even a prosecutor's involvement. There was an announcement that Stapley's assistant was under investigation, for the shocking "crime" of notarizing some paperwork on behalf of his private business. There was, finally, a second indictment.

And of course there were lawyer fees, big fat lawyer fees: more than $1 million at last count.

The upshot, I think, is that Stapley's been radicalized.

Don't get me wrong: He's not about to join Students for a Democratic Society or fight for socialized medicine. But I do think that his arrest has made him keenly aware of the power of unchecked law enforcement. (I don't think it's a coincidence that Stapley's son has quit the Sheriff's Office and now works for the public defender.)

And just as I believe the world would benefit from a few more liberals getting mugged, it's been refreshing to me to see this politically connected conservative's response to some very bad things: He's now using his office to help publicize Sheriff Joe Arpaio's abuses.

Last week, in fact, Stapley and fellow supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox held a forum at the supervisors' auditorium on Jefferson Street. The two politicians made brief opening remarks, then almost immediately turned the floor over to an activist group that's made its name calling for Arpaio's head.

The Maricopa Citizens for Safety and Accountability, led by attorney Randy Parraz, has been raising hell about Arpaio for two years, both on the streets and at meetings of the board of supervisors. The latter location has proved especially problematic: Sheriff's deputies have repeatedly arrested group members who've spoken out, and the county attorney has prosecuted them for disorderly conduct. (In every case, they've been acquitted.)

That contentious history is one reason last week's meeting was so remarkable. Because Stapley and Wilcox invited the group to a "private meeting" — wink wink — the sheriff's deputies providing security had no choice but to stand by and listen to activists rail against them. As the television cameras recorded, a series of presenters detailed the problems with Arpaio: his mismanagement, his abuse of power, his poor law enforcement techniques.

It was all the more powerful because the speakers, for the most part, were in Arpaio's target demographic. Chad Snow is a clean-cut Mormon attorney who voted for the sheriff four times before seeing the light. Tommy Collins is a retired lieutenant commander of a Colorado police department who, upon moving to Arizona, "made the mistake of voting for Joe Arpaio" in the 2004 Republican primary. His words.

Now both men have become crusaders.

"I'm also a fiscal conservative," Snow told the supervisors, "and as a fiscal conservative, I'm outraged."

Collins was just as pointed. "Where is Adrian Cruz today?" he demanded, referring to the child rapist who slipped out of the sheriff's custody one year ago and has yet to be apprehended.

Those are fighting words. Yet with Stapley and Wilcox on the dais, listening and even nodding, there was nothing the sheriff's men could do.

And then Stapley spoke.

The headline that's come out of the meeting is that Stapley called Arpaio and his sidekick, County Attorney Andrew Thomas, "evil." As usual, the headline is a bit of an oversimplification: Stapley did say that, but his remarks in context are even more worthy of quotation.

Stapley talked about how he and a colleague — presumably another county supervisor — had a little chuckle over a headline in the Arizona Republic referring to the fact that Arpaio and Thomas had been forced to drop their racketeering lawsuit accusing the supervisors of being part of a criminal enterprise. Although Stapley didn't specify, I think the story must have been a March 17 editorial claiming "County Drama Concludes with a Whimper."

But the drama isn't over, as Stapley and his colleague are well aware. Yes, Arpaio and Thomas had to drop the inane lawsuit. And, yes, even their desperate attempt to save face has been exposed as a lie, and a clumsy one at that.

We now know Arpaio and Thomas did not dismiss the suit because they've finally gotten the U.S. Department of Justice to take up the investigations, as they claimed at a press conference two weeks ago. The Justice Department, we now know, only agreed to review the accusations in the way they'd review any accusations from a citizen. The director of the agency's Public Integrity Section actually sent Arpaio and Thomas' lawyer a blistering letter, condemning their dog-and-pony show and reminding him that it's Arpaio and Thomas whom the feds are actively investigating.

So Arpaio and Thomas' wings have been clipped. But the pair is still in power, as Stapley knows all too well.

"Someone asked my colleague, 'When is it going to end?'" he recalled to the assembled activists. "And my colleague's response was, 'It's going to be over when it's over.'"

That wasn't a pat answer, even though it may sound like one on first read. The "it" in that sentence has real meaning, Stapley said. "The 'it' is the abuses, the misuse of funds, the illegal actions of our elected sheriff and county attorney."

Only when Arpaio and Thomas are stopped, Stapley implied, will the "drama" stop.

And that's when he dropped the "evil" line, almost as an afterthought. Referring to Thomas and Arpaio, he said, "Together, they become even more evil in their actions and intentions."

Sitting in the auditorium, I couldn't help thinking that Stapley sounded less like a Mesa Republican and more like, well, a columnist at New Times. That may not win him any votes in Cave Creek, but it was great to hear.

For years, everyone in this town was afraid of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Well, not everyone — there were always a few crazy types who were brave enough (and, again, crazy enough) to take him on. But anyone who had anything to lose knew better: They all saw what happened to Dan Saban. Saban was a cop respected by his peers through decades of service, only to end up as the punch line to a dirty joke after taking on Arpaio. No, thanks.

And it wasn't just an unwillingness to challenge Arpaio at the ballot box. It was an unwillingness to speak out.

Four years ago, when I was working on a story about Arpaio's abuses of power, I called a prominent Democratic politician, someone I knew had information about one of his overreaching warrants. Would she tell me what'd happened?

"I can't do that," the woman responded. "You can't expect me to put myself out there when I might get arrested!"

But then guys like Randy Parraz started getting arrested — and they weren't ashamed of it. They knew they'd done nothing wrong. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon spoke out, basically daring the sheriff to investigate him, and the sheriff just looked stupid when he tried. County officials refused to be intimidated by Arpaio's "criminal investigation" into the court tower construction project. Instead of hiding, they told their stories to any reporter with a notebook. When judicial aides were visited in their homes by sheriff's deputies, they immediately went public.

People in Maricopa County are beginning to realize that the truth will set them free. Finally. And thanks to the overreaching indictment against Stapley, many politicians are finally realizing that this could happen to them.

The end may be coming. A host of county officials — beginning with Stapley, and likely including both Wilcox and Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe — will be filing lawsuits against Arpaio and Thomas. The discovery, suffice it to say, could be interesting.

Then there are the feds. I'm increasingly convinced that the investigation into Arpaio and Thomas is both active and incredibly serious. And these days, plenty of insiders are willing to tell the FBI everything they know.

"It" isn't over. But it's getting good. It ought to get even better.


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