Maricopa County Craziness

Don Stapley Wins Victory in 2008 Criminal Case; Appeals Court Rules Supervisor had No Financial Disclosure Requirement

The Arizona Court of Appeals has agreed that Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley did not violate any financial disclosure law, ending a tainted criminal case against him.

The ruling today is another major blow to former County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who could be disbarred in an upcoming discipline hearing related to his legal attacks on county leaders. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who teamed up with Thomas to go after Stapley, also ends up with egg on his face for this one.

Like the Superior Court judge below them, appellate judges found that the county intended to adopt financial-disclosure requirements for its elected officials, but didn't do it properly. (See opinion below.) That meant neither Stapley or anyone else could be prosecuted for violating those requirements.

Stapley is "so please[d] and grateful" for the decision, says his executive assistant, Susan Schuerman, who's also a one-time target of the reckless lawmen who's among those suing the county.

The case began with the surprise indictment of Don Stapley in November 2008 on 118 misdemeanor and felony counts of failure to disclose. Almost immediately, the charging of Stapley was perceived by his fellow supervisors and other county leaders as an attack by Thomas and Arpaio -- and one that required a strong defense.

Thomas also served as a lawyer for Stapley on the Board of Supervisors, but no one could convince him or his underling, Deputy County Attorney Lisa Aubuchon, that Thomas had a clear conflict of interest in the case. That's apparently because getting Stapley was part of a larger, arguably corrupt scheme to target the sheriff and county attorney's political enemies on the board.

As we now know, thanks to the state Supreme Court's investigation into Thomas' actions, Stapley never should have been charged with the 53 misdemeanor counts in the indictment because they were past a one-year statute of limitations.

Thomas' office began investigating Stapley for the alleged disclosure violations in the first half of 2007. Thomas, in a recent response to allegations by the State Bar, admitted that he knew that's when the investigation began. Yet Thomas' office didn't let the grand jury know the statute of limitations had expired on the misdemeanor counts. We can't wait to hear how he tries to talk his way out of that one in front of the State Bar's disciplinary hearing officer.

The appellate court didn't examine that issue, which was revealed through new evidence, and had been operating on the assumption that the charges were valid.

As followers of what we call "county craziness" may recall, the indictment of Stapley caused the Board of Supervisors to fire Thomas as the county's civil lawyer and set up its own civil litigation department.

Thomas turned over the Stapley case to Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, claiming he wanted to make peace with the supes. He was lying: The real reason he turned over the case was that he'd been warned by the State Bar that there were "clear" conflict issues.

Polk gave the case to special prosecutor Mel Bowers. But Judge Kenneth Fields shot it down with a ruling that the disclosure requirements weren't really requirements. Bowers moved to dismiss all the charges, but launched an appeal on the misdemeanor counts.

Although Polk's office appeared to be pursuing the Stapley case, the Yavapai prosecutor with a strong interest in the Holocaust became disillusioned with the outrageous legal games  played by Thomas, Arpaio, and Arpaio's right-hand-man, Chief Deputy David Hendershott. After telling Thomas and Arpaio that a second case against Stapley wasn't ready for prime-time, Arpaio (or was it Hendershott?) ordered the arrest of Stapley -- apparently to make sure Stapley's booking was covered on the nightly news. That prompted Polk to fire off a letter to the Arizona Republic, comparing their actions to "totalitarianism."

Stapley's victories in the disclosure case are great for him, and may help him win a multi-million claim against the county. But he still won on a technicality -- Stapley did, in fact, fail to disclose many of his business dealings, even while other county elected officials tried to adhere to the unofficial requirements. (Arpaio didn't try too hard: His disclosure statements, like Stapley's, had discrepancies.) 

Stapley's also potentially on the hook in what's known as the Stapley Two criminal investigation, still under review by Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores. Our November 2009 feature article, Serving Up Stapley, details the Stapley Two case while focusing on the highly troubling, questionable legal manuevers by Thomas and Arpaio.

Flores decided in January that a case against Wilcox, developed by Thomas and Arpaio, didn't merit charges. Wilcox already had been vindicated in early 2010 by a Tucson judge who ruled that Thomas had a conflict of interest in even bringing the charges against her. That ruling caused Thomas to drop charges against Wilcox, Stapley, and Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe. Thomas then sent Flores the Wilcox and Stapley cases.

In a stunning bit of bad sportsmanship, Thomas' lackey, Lisa Aubuchon, tried to send Flores the case against Gary Donahoe -- despite a grand jury's having already determined the case was crap. (The grand jury also rejected a cow-pie of a case against Supervisor Andy Kunasek that had been cooked up by Hendershott.)

We're missing lots of details in this write-up, to be sure: It would take a novella, at this point, to relate the whole, sordid story. And the fodder for the final chapters has yet to unfold:

* Stapley and the rest of the victims of the alleged reckless prosecution could end up soaking taxpayers for tens of millions. Thomas, Hendershott, and Aubuchon also have multi-million-dollar claims pending.

* The Board of Supervisors is in negotiations with the new county attorney, Bill Montgomery, to return civil litigation to the County Attorney's Office.

* Hendershott's been on administrative leave since the damning "Munnell Memo" accused him of various crimes and improper behavior. A pending report on the investigation into the allegations by Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu's office is way overdue.

* Thomas and Aubuchon will face a disciplinary hearing in which they might be disbarred. We're predicting disbarment. But Thomas, a relatively young, ambitious politician who narrowly lost the state Attorney General's race to Tom Horne, may pop up like a scary jack-in-the-box in some future election.

This all has to end someday, doesn't it?

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.