Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley faces 118 criminal counts for supposedly failing to disclose his land holdings to the public -- in particular, his association with convicted felon Conley Wolfswinkel.
But according to an explosive new filing from Stapley's attorneys, Stapley didn't just disclose those dealings to a deputy county attorney in 2006. He also filed a "conflict of interest" letter with the clerk of the Board of Supervisors, a letter drafted with the help of that deputy county attorney.
Why is that so important?
For one thing, at the time it was filed with the clerk in December 2006, the letter became a public record -- effectively destroying County Attorney Andrew Thomas' argument that Stapley sought to conceal his relationship with Wolfswinkel.
For another, legal observers believe it could make it incredibly difficult for Thomas' office to continue prosecuting Stapley.
As Stapley's attorneys argue, "Because the County Attorney's Office provided Mr. Stapley with legal advice regarding the subject matter of the prosecution, that office cannot now take a position adverse to Mr. Stapley on the same matter." D'oh!
As Stapley's lawyers, Tom Henze and Paul Charlton, detail in a motion filed late last week, an entity owned by the Wolfswinkel family, Vanderbilt Farms, had business pending before the board of supervisors in December 2006. At the time, Stapley was also doing business with the Wolfswinkels on an unrelated real estate deal in Pinal County.
On December 19, Stapley consulted with Deputy County Attorney Victoria Mangiapane, explaining his business relationship with the Wolfswinkels and asking for advice on how to handle it. With the help of Mangiapane's office, Stapley then filed a letter with the clerk of the board of supervisors that very day, disclosing his business dealings and declaring that he'll refrain from voting on the matter.
So much for Thomas' suggestion that Stapley was hiding his connections with Wolfswinkel.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Anna Baca is expected to rule soon on a motion from Stapley's lawyers to remove the County Attorney's Office as prosecutor in the case. Stapley's lawyers have argued that Thomas is biased, that he's made improper statements to the media, and that, on Thomas' watch, the Sheriff's Office has questioned Stapley supporters who formed a fund for his defense.
Henze and Charlton (himself the former U.S. Attorney) make a pretty compelling case that Thomas is out of control. Calling him "the Michael Nifong of Maricopa County" (after the disgraced and now disbarred prosecutor in the Duke rape case), the lawyers argue that Thomas has "abandoned his role as a minister of justice and acted with improper bias and prejudice ..."
In their filing, Henze and Charlton cite a column from this newspaper, which outlines how an ally of Thomas may have had good reason to persuade the prosecutor to go after Stapley and the Wolfswinkel clan. They ask that the court to order Thomas' office to "disclose the source of the information regarding Mr. Stapley, and the date it was disclosed."
We really hope the court takes that request seriously. As we wrote in our column on the subject, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Thomas have said only that they received a "tip" to look into Stapley and his disclosure forms. But that tip came right around the time Thomas' private attorney was fighting a civil lawsuit against Wolfswinkel -- a lawsuit that probed Wolfswinkel's connections to Stapley.
Since our column was published, Thomas and Arpaio have used the Stapley investigation as a reason to search Wolfswinkel's offices. And, as Henze and Charlton point out, it was no ordinary search. They never asked for a sealed affidavit, as is normal during an ongoing investigation.
In fact, the Sheriff's Office released the affidavit to the media before the warrant was even returned. And, Henze and Charlton claim, the Sheriff's Office also "called the media to the search site." That's unheard of in any sort of legitimate criminal investigation.
So basically we've got a politician facing years in prison because he never disclosed his association with a convicted felon -- except he did, in fact, disclose that association in both public records and to the County Attorney's Office.
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And we've got the County Attorney's Office saying it can go ahead and prosecute this politician -- even though the politician had an attorney-client relationship with the County Attorney's Office and, in fact, asked for legal advice on this very issue two years earlier.
Finally, we've got a search warrant handed out to the media as if were a press release and a search that was more about press coverage than finding any real smoking gun.
Really, you can see why Stapley's lawyers are raising the specter of Mike Nifong, can't you?