Before Don Stapley’s Indictment, There Was the Land Deal

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Over the past five years, Beus and his lawyers brought the same relentlessness to their fight against Conley Wolfswinkel — the legal battle that would eventually draw Supervisor Don Stapley to the courtroom as a spectator.

The issue is a land deal. Beus was part of a group of investors that owned 10,000 acres in the West Valley. In 1998, the managers of that group entered into contracts to purchase another 3,000 acres and then sell the whole parcel to a company called Breycliffe. The price: $5,000 an acre, plus 20 percent of the profit if Breycliffe was able to sell it to a developer.

Attorney Dowd, who represents Beus and the investors, calls the deal "remarkably one-sided." The managers, he said, weren't representing the best interests of the group. (Dowd believes Beus and his friends could have gotten as much as $23,000 per acre.)

According to court records, the investors' ire only increased when Breycliffe handed off its interest in the acreage to a company controlled by Conley Wolfswinkel. If they were worried before that they'd been swindled, well, now that a man they considered a near-professional swindler had the property, they were sure of it. The investors filed a lawsuit against their group's managers — and Wolfswinkel.

The litigation has been hopelessly complex: partners turning on partners, a total of three separate lawsuits, and at least one appellate court decision. (Needless to say, the fight is ongoing.)

The key detail for purposes of this story is what happened in late 2007: Beus and his partners' lawsuit against Wolfswinkel went to trial. The jury returned a staggering $360 million verdict — $171 million of it against Wolfswinkel.

Then came the stunning reversal.

Three months after the jury verdict, in February 2008, the judge who presided over the trial threw out the jury's decision. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Edward Burke ruled that evidence of Wolfswinkel's past legal troubles should never have been permitted — and that testimony about previous litigation involving the acreage in question should have been.

Ultimately, Judge Burke didn't just cancel the judgment against Wolfswinkel. He actually overruled the jury and said that Wolfswinkel's side had flat-out won the case. Then he ordered Beus and his group of investors to pay some $34,000 in court fees.

The investors were livid. From court records, it's clear that they believed the fix was in.

A case like this can do that. When so much is at stake, and litigation drags on for so long, the parties involved can easily be driven to obsession, even paranoia. It's easy to see how the investors and their lawyers might have reached the brink on this one: They'd finally won the lottery, only to have a judge snatch their winnings away and declare them the loser. Anyone, at that point, might have begun to see a conspiracy.

And the facts in this one were a bit odd. Attorney Dowd says he and his partners learned about Judge Burke's reversal when they got a call from a reporter at the Arizona Republic. Burke's decision hadn't even been officially entered into the record, but somehow, Dowd says, Wolfswinkel's public relations guy knew all about it.

The investors began to wonder about Judge Burke — and the county supervisor who'd shown up to observe him.

In March 2008, the investors filed a motion, seeking to have Burke kicked off the case. "[T]his extreme relief is wholly warranted, indeed mandated, by the extreme circumstances presented — circumstances that compel the inescapable conclusion that Judge Burke was not impartial or, at minimum, his 'impartiality might reasonably be questioned,'" wrote attorney Dowd.

The decision about Burke would rest in the hands of the presiding judge of the court's civil division, Mark Aceto. Aceto agreed to hold an oral hearing. On May 1, Dowd filed a list of prospective witnesses for the hearing. Don Stapley was on the list.

In a telephone conference on May 2, Dowd's associate, Ronald Cohen, explained to Judge Aceto why Stapley was on the witness list.

"We listed Mr. Stapley because . . . we understand [he] made an unannounced attendance at the closing argument of our case," Cohen said. "Mr. Stapley, as far as we know, had nothing to do with our case, but we are reliably advised that much of his savings is invested in Wolfswinkel's projects."

Cohen then claimed that half of Judge Burke's salary was decided by Stapley and his colleagues at the Board of Supervisors. (That's actually inaccurate: The county does pay half the salary of county judges, but compensation is set by a state agency.) "We have always been curious why he suddenly showed up at closing argument in the case, given as Your Honor knows that half of the decision on judicial compensation is made by the court on which he serves . . ." Cohen said.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske