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Don Stapley’s Biggest Crime Was Failing to Hide His Real Estate Dealings as Well as Sheriff Joe Arpaio Did

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The world's pettiest law enforcement duo is at it again. Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas have socked Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley with 118 felony counts for — gasp! — failing to fill out paperwork properly.

I'm not exaggerating. The 39-page indictment issued against Stapley last week is full of serious-sounding allegations: perjury, forgery, false swearing. But here's what it comes down to. Stapley listed his real estate investment company on financial disclosure forms with the county. But, for fourteen years, he failed to list the company's holdings.

That's it.


Don Stapley

There is no suggestion in the indictment that Stapley used his position to enhance the value of the property. Nor does it appear that he actively sought to hide his assets. Stapley repeatedly listed his partial ownership of a company called Arroyo Pacific — and that company, records show, was the owner of the majority of properties in question. Any doofus with minimal knowledge of the county recorder's office could easily track the company's holdings.

Which, of course, is not the case when it comes to the real estate dealings of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Seven years ago, as my former colleague John Dougherty first reported, Arpaio obtained a court order to purge his real estate records from county files. Arizona law allows judges, cops, and prosecutors to petition the court to keep their home addresses and telephone numbers out of county records.

But Arpaio used the law to hide records of his commercial dealings, too. You want to know how much he paid for a pair of strip malls, or who loaned him the money to do it? Good luck. Dougherty was only able to report a few minimum details of the sheriff's activities — for example, that Arpaio plunked down $440,000 in cash for a piece of property in Fountain Hills — because a few files had accidentally escaped deletion.

As loyal readers will remember, it was Dougherty's push to learn more about the properties in question that triggered the sheriff's attempt to prosecute him, and this newspaper. (We had the temerity to point out that the sheriff's address was all over various county records, so why the secrecy regarding the commercial stuff?)

So. Arpaio brazenly manipulated the law to hide his own investments. "These aren't things that are bought by county money," his flack later told KTAR, trying to justify the secrecy. "This is personal, personal money."

But when Stapley failed to disclosure his "personal, personal" business dealings on a county form, Arpaio and Thomas nailed him with 118 felonies?

This has gone beyond irony.

This is insanity.

On some level, Stapley has only himself to blame. Financial disclosure forms are mandatory for a reason: We, the public, need a way to keep tabs on our politicians' potential conflicts. Full and complete disclosure of all assets, whether owned by a guy like Stapley or a business under his control, is the best way to facilitate that.

But, as Robert Robb pointed out in the Arizona Republic on Sunday, the Legislature has enacted a very specific penalty for public officials who don't fill out the forms, or (like Stapley) do so incompletely.

It's a first-degree misdemeanor.

After looking closely at the indictment, Stapley's forms and other public records, that sounds just about right in this case. As best I can tell, Stapley's failures are a case of sloppiness more than willful concealment.

Take, for example, a limited liability company called Mariposa Pacific LLC. Arpaio and Thomas socked Stapley with 13 felonies for failing to report his interest in the company on financial disclosure forms from 2001 to 2004.

But it's not like Stapley was trying to hide it. In a personal disclosure statement he filed with the county recorder in 2000, he listed Mariposa Pacific. He just failed to include it in a slightly different set of forms filed with the clerk of the board of supervisors.

Or take another limited liability company, Galleria III. Stapley is charged with four felony counts for failing to disclose his membership in the company in 1997. But Stapley clearly wasn't attempting to hide the company's existence — just months before, he and his partners had discussed their new venture, and its plans to rehab the Scottsdale Galleria, in a puff piece that ran in the Phoenix Business Journal.

At their press conference last week, Arpaio and Thomas suggested that Stapley was hiding his real estate dealings because he didn't want to be associated with Conley Wolfswinkel. Wolfswinkel, it's fair to say, is a lousy bedfellow for any ambitious politician: Convicted of bank fraud in 1993 in the wake of the savings & loan scandal, his name is invariably preceded by "the notorious" in newspaper stories, even today.

But Thomas' suggestion that Stapley was trying to hide his association with Wolfswinkel simply doesn't hold water.

The Wolfswinkels are part of the same old East Valley crowd as the Stapleys. They are not persona non grata, as much as we journalists may wish it.

Just look at that story in the Phoenix Business Journal. It clearly discusses the fact that Stapley and Conley Wolfswinkel were partners in the Scottsdale Galleria venture.

Anybody who wanted to connect the aging ex-con to Stapley didn't need to put in a public records request for Stapley's disclosure form.

They only had to put the two names into Google.

Beyond those easy examples, the indictment is simply loaded with overkill. Stapley's Arroyo Pacific company owned a few commercial lots in downtown Mesa even before he ran for supervisor. He failed to disclose them for all ten years they were under his company's control — a decision that netted him 40 felony counts. Forty!

The indictment even dings Stapley with a pair of felonies for failing to disclose that he'd joined the county's deferred compensation plan.

So, yes, Stapley was sloppy. But sloppiness isn't the only reason he's in this jam. The bigger problem, I think, is that Stapley helped create a monster.

For years, he and the other Maricopa County supervisors have allowed Joe Arpaio to run amok. Even though every limited audit of Arpaio's operations has found serious problems, the supes have never called for a full audit of the sheriff's office. They don't seem to care that Arpaio's overpaid henchmen are cavorting on company time in Honduras — and that every reason proffered for the trip has been effectively disproven. Or that I reported last year that the sheriff has been using jail enhancement funds — which, under state law, are supposed to be used to better jail conditions — on stuff like news clipping services and Photoshop classes for his employees, despite a report from the state auditor general years ago specifically telling Arpaio such expenses are verboten (see "Money Shot," December 27, 2007). Not a single supervisor bothered to follow up.

And that's kids' stuff compared to the shenanigans at Arpaio's jails. We're now at $43 million and counting in insurance payouts and settlements. The supervisors don't even bother pretending that they care. Go figure: When U.S. District Judge Neil Wake found recently that Arpaio's jails don't meet constitutional standards, the supervisors' staffers actually tried to spin the verdict as a victory for Arpaio. (Never mind that the supervisors have decided to appeal.)

Meanwhile, the sheriff's highly-publicized "investigations" keep leading nowhere. I'm talking about Russell Jones, the state representative from Yuma who was charged with nine felonies for signing as the "circulator" on his campaign petitions when he wasn't physically present to witness their signatures. The petitions in question had already been thrown out under a civil suit. And the Arizona Supreme Court had already ruled, as part of the civil suit, that Jones' actions did not rise to the level of petition forgery.

Still, Thomas and Arpaio spent months investigating the case — and managed to find a way to charge the Yuma-based legislator in Maricopa County. Wouldn't you think this county has enough real criminals to catch?

The Jones fiasco was the first case brought by Thomas and Arpaio's much-vaunted anti-corruption task force. A superior court judge, wisely, tossed out the entire indictment.

And then there's former Maricopa County School Superintendent Sandra Dowling. This one we can't blame on Thomas; Attorney General Terry Goddard was originally at the helm, only to pass the case off to the U.S. Attorney when Arpaio started investigating him.

But it was Arpaio-style tactics all the way. A highly publicized investigation resulted in a 27-count indictment — only to end with prosecutors dropping every single charge when Dowling agreed to plead to a single misdemeanor. The misdemeanor, a charge that she hired her daughter ten years ago, wasn't even in the original indictment. Dowling's attorney, Craig Mehrens, tells me that he had to volunteer the information just to find some charge that she could plead guilty to.

"The U.S. Attorney said, 'We've got to have something,'" Mehrens recalls. "I couldn't see anything in all the charges the sheriff had. So I said, 'I'll tell you something you don't even know she did ten years ago.' We had to waive the statute of limitations!"

This newspaper has never been a fan of Dowling. She was a sanctimonious publicity whore who used homeless children to make a name for herself — even as she failed to give them a decent education. But she isn't a crook.

And, frankly, I feel kind of the same way about Don Stapley. He's never once been willing to take my call; like Arpaio, he was the subject of some pretty intense reporting by my old colleague, John Dougherty. I don't think he's ever forgiven us.

Indeed, Stapley is the guy who carried the water for Arpaio and Thomas when the duo sought to have Thomas' old boss, Dennis Wilenchik, appointed special prosecutor to investigate New Times. That action ended with this newspaper's owners, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, hauled off in handcuffs. Stapley, clearly, is no fan of ours.

But that doesn't matter, not now. What matters is that people in this county are routinely being charged with a fleet of felonies when a misdemeanor or two would do. What matters is that Arpaio and Thomas are out of control.

And what I'm betting is that Don Stapley finally realizes it, too.

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