Saying that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas illegally searched their offices and otherwise targeted them in an attempt to "retaliate against and humiliate" County Supervisor Don Stapley, East Valley developer Conley Wolfswinkel and his sons have filed a notice of claim with the county.
The notice, filed by former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, is the first step toward suing the county for $10 million in damages. The Wolfswinkels are alleging abuse of process, illegal search and seizure, defamation, false-light invasion of privacy, and violations of the Constitution.
The notice focuses on the January 2009 raid of the Wolfswinkel's development office, or, as Woods calls it, "a media event disguised as the execution of a search warrant."
As Woods notes, Thomas had issued a press release in December 2008, at the time his office first indicted Stapley. Literally, the second sentence of the release connected Stapley to Wolfswinkel. And, without any supporting evidence, the release "falsely accused Mr. Stapley of using his position as a Maricopa County Supervisor to benefit the Wolfswinkels," as Woods writes.
Thomas has never even attempted to make that assertion in court. In fact, the indictment was limited to Stapley's failure to fill out his financial disclosure forms properly -- something that had little (if anything) to do with Wolfswinkel.
And the press release wasn't even close to the end of it.
Weeks after the release, Sheriff Arpaio executed a search warrant on the Wolfswinkels' business -- with, as Woods writes, "reporters on the ground, helicopters overhead, and television cameras rolling." Sheriff's detectives searched the entire 12,000-office suite and spent 11 hours on the property, looking through documents that weren't remotely connected to Stapley. The search led to assertions in some media outlets, including the Chandler Tribune, that the search warrant was related to a bribery case.
No bribery charges have ever been brought against Stapley or the Wolfswinkels. And, in fact, attorneys for the Wolfswinkels were later able to show in court that the search warrant was based on erroneous information. A Superior Court judge would later find that the sheriff's detectives lacked "probable cause" to execute the warrant.
But the damage was done, and not just in the form of nasty headlines. The Wolfswinkels spent $199,710 on legal fees alone, Woods notes. A confidential deposition was released to media outlets. Conley Wolfswinkel's social security number was faxed all over town -- and even, for a time, made the Web site of ABC 15 News.
"Every aspect of business life was made more difficult as a result of the unlawful search and attendant publicity," Woods writes. "The Wolfswinkels have also suffered humiliation and severe emotional distress resulting from the publicity orchestrated around this search and Arpaio and Thomas's statements."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Conley Wolfswinkel, of course, has a few blots on his name. (Implicated in the Savings & Loan scandal of the 1980s, he was placed on probation in 1993 over allegations he floated bad checks.) But Thomas and Arpaio certainly erred into creating a media spectacle around the idea that he bribed Stapley or even that Stapley voted to give him special favors. They've never been able to prove a word of it.
Really, it makes us wonder why Thomas was so convinced that Stapley's paperwork errors were somehow a conduit to "get" the Wolfswinkels. What could have possibly gotten him started down that tangent? Why was he so sure he was onto something?
Only time -- and depositions -- will tell on this one. And, once again, we taxpayers could well end up on the hook for the sheriff and county attorney's sloppiness and short-sightedness.