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It's Time to Kick Andrew Thomas Off the Stapley Investigation

From the beginning, I've been skeptical about the charges against Don Stapley. The Maricopa County Supervisor faces 118 criminal counts for failing to disclose his business dealings — clear overkill for what essentially amounts to a paperwork error.

But now I'm not just skeptical. Now I'm absolutely convinced that Stapley is the victim of a serious vendetta, and that Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas must be removed from prosecuting this case.

There is no other way Don Stapley can see justice.

Now, longtime readers of this paper know that New Times has never been a big fan of Stapley — and that we really don't like Andrew Thomas, either. But this has nothing to do with anyone's feelings about either man. This is about what's right.

In late December, I began to hear rumors that County Attorney Thomas might be prosecuting Stapley at the behest of Thomas' private lawyer, Leo Beus. Beus is representing Thomas in his ongoing battle with the State Bar of Arizona and, by all accounts, has done a remarkably effective job.

But in addition to fighting for Thomas, Beus has also been locked in litigation with Conley Wolfswinkel, the East Valley land baron/convicted felon whose downfall came during the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s. He and Stapley are old high school friends and sometime business partners.

As I wrote in a column last month, Beus was dealt a staggering blow last year when Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Edward Burke overturned a $171 million jury verdict Beus and his partners had won against Wolfswinkel. At that point, the court record shows, Beus' attorneys began to question whether Stapley's appearance in the courtroom during closing arguments had swayed the judge to upend the will of the jury.

Within weeks of the attorneys' raising that question in court filings, the County Attorney's Office received a "tip" and began to investigate Stapley. And let me be clear: The record shows that the investigation started with Thomas' office, not with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, even though Arpaio's deputies were ultimately assigned to the investigation.

Why is that important? Thomas is the guy whose own lawyer, a guy he surely felt indebted to, was concerned about the Stapley/Wolfswinkel relationship.

And, as we now know, the investigation has in fact focused on Stapley's ties to Wolfswinkel, the very issue that Beus and his lawyers were exploring.

I talked to Beus about it all in late December, and he swore he'd had nothing to do with the investigation into Stapley. His attorneys told me the same thing.

But, when we talked, Beus happened to mention that he was suing Wolfswinkel in another case — this one on behalf of national homebuilder Lennar. (Suffice it to say that the litigation between Lennar and Wolfswinkel isn't directly related to the charges against Stapley; it has to do with water and new development.) At the time, I didn't think it was a big deal.

But last week, when I went to look at the file in the Lennar case, I nearly fell off my chair.

On January 12, Thomas' lead prosecutor on the Stapley case, Lisa Aubuchon, quietly filed a motion in the Lennar suit. All depositions in the case had been sealed because they contain proprietary business information — but Aubuchon asked that the judge unseal the deposition of Conley Wolfswinkel.

"There is a likelihood that the deposition touches upon Conley Wolfswinkel's business dealings with Donald T. Stapley Jr.," Aubuchon writes.

Oh, really? Stapley's name appears nowhere in the public record on this case. (Trust me, I looked.) The partnership of Wolfswinkel's that was doing business with Stapley isn't even a party to this litigation.

So why the hell would the County Attorney's Office believe there's a "likelihood" that the deposition deals with Stapley? There's simply no reason to suspect that's a part of this case — unless, of course, someone violated the court order sealing the deposition and told the county attorney to look there.

I'm not the only one who suspects something funny is afoot.

"One has to wonder how a third party, not involved with the litigation, would even be aware of a deposition subject to a confidentiality agreement," says Stuart Goodman, a spokesman for Wolfswinkel.

Yes, indeed. One has to wonder.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Beus, on behalf of his client, attempted to get the deposition unsealed last month.

When I contacted him for this column, Beus again adamantly denied playing any role in triggering the investigation. "I have never spoken to Andrew Thomas about investigating Don Stapley. I consider Don Stapley a friend. I would never do anything with Andrew Thomas or the County Attorney's Office to cause any harm to Don Stapley, nor did I know anything at all about any investigation until I read it in the newspaper."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske