A couple of weeks ago, we heard about a demand letter received by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office from a local lawyer, Leonard Aragon, concerning the attempted prosecution of County Supervisor Don Stapley.
Aragon insisted in his November 2 missive that County Attorney Andrew Thomas repay the money spent on lawyers Thomas wanted to hire as special prosecutors to go after Stapley. (Stapley, in case you haven't heard, has been accused of defrauding campaign contributors and failing to disclose on official forms some property he bought from his old buddy, Conley Wolfswinkel, a convicted felon).
Two of the three lawyers Thomas wants are Joseph diGenova and his wife, Victoria Toensing, a high-profile, outrageously expensive tag-team from Washington D.C. The Board of Supervisors has blocked Thomas from officially hiring the pair, but Thomas has already spent some cash on the couple, flown to Phoenix in October for a vacuous news conference.
Part of the demand by Aragon takes the form of a public-records request: The lawyer wants all documents related to office's procurement of special prosecutors in recent years.
When we phoned Aragon, he told us that he was making his demands on behalf of a citizen, Harold Gilbert. We had no idea who that was. But in a sign that things were getting weird (or normal, by current county standards), we soon learned that "Harold" was actually Pat Gilbert, the lawyer for the Marc Center in Mesa, an outfit that helps people with intellectual disabilities. That's the same Marc Center that has had the longtime support of County Supervisor Stapley and Conley Wolfswinkel.
Aragon also referenced the name "Harold M. Gilbert Jr." in another letter he sent to the state Attorney General's office about the same subject. According to an article by the East Valley Tribune's Gary Grado, the letter asks the state to sue the offices of Thomas and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for failing to follow procurement rules on the money spent on the special prosecutors and a bus.
Here's where it gets really interesting, though.
When contacted by the Tribune, Gilbert reportedly said he was acting as nobody's pawn -- especially Stapley's. Gilbert told Grado on November 5 that:
...he was not ready to discuss what he is doing.
Gilbert and Stapley are no strangers, though.
Stapley has a lifelong affiliation with the Marc Center, and the county donated land to the center in 2006, records show. But Gilbert said he is not working as a surrogate for Stapley.
"It's on my own," said Gilbert, who was also placed on a county commission in September that advises the board on the use of federal grants designated for redevelopment.
Gilbert tells New Times, however, that Chuck Coughlin -- who runs HighGround, the PR firm being used by Governor Jan Brewer's political campaign -- is behind his actions. They had been discussing the problems with Thomas' office when Coughlin suggested that Gilbert send the demand letter, he says. When we press him about the potential political waves, Gilbert adds that he may have to rethink his involvement.
Both Coughlin and Governor Brewer, as we related this morning, are subjects of investigations by the Sheriff's Office.
We reached Coughlin this morning by phone.
"My source of inspiration," he says, "is the use of our political system for political gain" by Thomas and Arpaio.
Thomas uses his law enforcement powers like a bludgeon, throwing the full weight of the law behind petty accusations to make himself look tough and thwart political foes, according to Coughlin. And
And he "has some experience with this," he says.
In 2004, during HighGround's push for Proposition 400, a transportation-related ballot initiative opposed by many conservatives because it raised taxes, Thomas' office launched an investigation of Coughlin's group for failing to disclose one of its donors, Coughlin says. Yet "it was just a clerical mistake," he says. The disclosure had been made, but it was made one business day too late, according to campaign finance rules.
Thomas felt he had a conflict-of-interest in the case, Coughlin says, "because I've never supported him." The investigation of HighGround was assigned to a special prosecutor, Dennis Wilenchik, Thomas' former boss and the guy who would go on to embarrass Thomas in his 2007 tussle with New Times.
A year after getting the case, long after voters approved Proposition 400, Wilenchik issued a notice of violation in the case -- and the way Wilechik saw it, HighGround owed the county $250,000, according to Coughlin.
Coughlin says HighGround later settled the case for $5,000 "just to get rid of it."
Coughlin says he realizes that being connected to the demand letters by Gilbert may put him or even Governor Brewer at risk of being targeted by Thomas or Arpaio.
"Sometimes your conscience compels you to act," he says.
Or, um, compels him to get Gilbert to act?
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"Pat looked at this -- and ultimately that's Pat's call," Coughlin says.
Maybe. But it sounds like it might have been Pat's call and Coughlin's call and Stapley's call and maybe even Wolfswinkel's call. Oh, and to make this even more complicated, throw in Rob Carey.
Gilbert told us that before sending the demand letter suggested by Coughlin, he also discussed it with Carey, the former chief of staff for former state Attorney General Grant Woods, who is now Wolfswinkel's attorney.
Flow chart, anyone?