Educating Don

When Don Stapley comes to a corner, he cuts it. When he sees a string, he pulls it.

A Maricopa County supervisor since 1994, Stapley has never seen a rule that can't be bent, a law that can't be skirted, a standard that can't be doubled, an interest that can't be conflicted.

He's an avatar of avarice. The denouements of Fife Symington and Tony West and Jeff Groscost have elevated Stapley's dubious stature. He's now the sleaziest politician striding Arizona's political landscape. When Eminem asks the real Slim Shady to please stand up, Don Stapley should leap to his feet.

Stapley is a licensed real estate broker. He has made a lot of money in a profession which retains a patina of Manifest Destiny. In Arizona, lax regulation and frontier atavism make the trade a carnival of corruption, an ethical abyss. Stapley is a master of this domain.

Politicos like Stapley don't gird against lapses or aspire to a higher plane. Even the appearance of righteousness is fleeting. When temptation comes, they dig right in.

For Stapley, one of those temptations is a seat in Congress.

In 1995, Stapley served as a self-proclaimed "straw man" in a Pinal County land deal that goosed even the lethargic Arizona Department of Real Estate to action. It was an illegal lot-splitting scheme, the bane of county governments because they often leave buyers without road or utility improvements. The man who masterminded the transaction told investigators that Stapley was brought in as part of a plan to do "a favor for some nice politicians." Others involved wound up paying $87,000 to keep their real estate licenses.

Stapley wriggled off the hook, probably due in part to his electoral status. He pocketed a $120,000 profit on his tainted Pinal acreage, which he eventually unloaded in a swap with a developer who had business before the Board of Supervisors. As part of that paper shuffle, Stapley also got a 7,251-square-foot Arcadia mansion. While Stapley was listing the residence for sale at $2.5 million, he was trying to cheat the county out of taxes on it. He filed a tax appeal claiming that the place was worth only $863,000.

When New Times' John Dougherty exposed that subterfuge ("Stapley Manner," June 1, 2000), Stapley claimed his property tax consultant had filed the tax appeal without his knowledge. It's an assertion the consultant convincingly refuted.

The Real Estate Department was aroused from its slumber again in 1999 when it learned from the press that Stapley had given false information on his broker's license renewal in 1992.

Stapley answered "no" to a question asking if he had ever been "a party to a lawsuit which included allegations of misrepresentation, fraud, racketeering, breach of fiduciary duty, misappropriation, dishonesty, or where the lawsuit arose out of conduct of any real estate business or involved a transaction in real estate . . ."

In fact, Stapley answered "no" to four separate questions about litigation. Yet in 1990, Stapley had been named in three different lawsuits alleging nonpayment of development loans exceeding $100 million. Two of those suits were brought by the Resolution Trust Corporation, and one of them accused his firm of transferring property "in an effort to hinder, delay or defraud the RTC."

He also answered "no" to a question asking if a real estate venture had ever resulted in bankruptcy. At the time, Stapley was a managing partner in Val Vista Lakes Development, which was seeking bankruptcy protection to reorganize in excess of $50 million in debt.

Stapley may be a high roller, but these are not details that easily slip the mind. I shudder as I ponder the damage such a memory could wreak in the realm of governance.

The Department of Real Estate could have revoked his license for any of these violations. It could have fined him $1,000 per violation. It didn't.

In October, Stapley signed a consent order with the Department of Real Estate to resolve his false application. He agreed to pay $1,000 and attend six hours of continuing education classes.

Licenses must be renewed every two years, and licensees must complete 24 hours of continuing education during each two-year period.

The consent order Stapley signed is unambiguous. It states that the six hours are "in addition to" the 24 normally required.

But Don Stapley knows nothing of shame, humility or remorse. If there are any lessons to be learned, he'll do the teaching. Besides, he isn't about to go slumming with a bunch of plebeians who've never even bought an election.

He defiantly demanded that the Real Estate Department waive the 24-hour education requirement. He said he deserved the waiver, in spite of the consent order, in spite of his ethical elasticity, because his duties as a county supervisor keep his knowledge of real estate laws razor-sharp.

When Denise Sulista, assistant real estate commissioner, said no, Stapley passed a stone. He filed a complaint with the state's ombudsman, who is charged with helping members of the public resolve problems with state agencies.

He met with real estate commissioner Jerry Holt on December 21, and delivered a letter -- written on county stationery -- reiterating his demands for the waiver.

The supervisor is no F. Scott Fitzgerald. "Again, in my opinion, the Consent Order in no way eliminates my rights as a licensee to seek and obtain a waiver if I qualify for one, but rather only requires 6 additional hours of educational classes to the normal 24 hours required of all licensees who would not otherwise qualify for a waiver," he wrote.

"We made a deal that he could meet with Jerry Holt and plead his case," says Charles Downs, Department of Real Estate spokesman. "He convinced Jerry to give him the waiver. Denise said that Jerry told her he was comfortable with giving Stapley a waiver."

Sulista wrote Stapley on January 3 to say that the waiver had been granted.

Downs says regulators aren't overly concerned about whether a licensee has been sued or has filed for bankruptcy. They simply want disclosure.

"The fact that he had failed to answer the question honestly was the beef," Downs says.

Stapley did not return my calls. Last Thursday, his secretary at the county told me he was out of town, but she didn't know where.

Education waivers are not unprecedented. The Real Estate Department does indeed consider elective office to be an adequate substitute for class work -- even if the behavior of elected real estate salesmen frequently suggests they belong in special education.

The consent order gave Stapley 90 days to complete his six hours of remedial education. He was to inform the department within 45 days which courses he would complete, and who would instruct them.

Downs assures me over the phone that Stapley did complete his six hours, on January 15. The school where he reported taking the courses refused to confirm that he had.

As an extra-credit assignment, Stapley also was told to complete a three-hour broker management course. He has until May 15 to do so, Downs says.

My public records request to the agency should have produced documentation to show that Stapley followed orders and took his lessons. But no paperwork turned up.

What did turn up was commissioner Jerry Holt's appointment calendar -- 334 days' worth. If the calendar is any indication, Holt is a very busy man. Much too distracted to return my calls.

Yet his focus on running the Department of Real Estate seems blurred. As nearly as I can ascertain, there were 585 separate entries. Unfortunately, fewer than 100 of them were legible.

The remainder had been redacted -- blacked out. Someone was turned loose with a tar brush.

The redactions were made because "it's not public record," says assistant attorney general Michael Denious, who advises Holt's agency. "It's a matter of personal appointments that the commissioner had."

Holt's December 21 chat with Don Stapley was not considered "personal."

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