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Letter: Lawyers OK'd Stapley NaCo Fund in 2004

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This just in: A prominent election law expert signed off on Don Stapley's campaign fund for the National Association of Counties in 2004 -- complicating the sheriff's claim that the fund is at the root at least 45 counts of theft and 48 counts of "prohibited acts."

Our readers first raised this issue in response to the analysis of the allegations against Stapley that we published online Monday.

The sheriff argued that the fund, which Stapley began in 2004 to support his run for vice president of the National Association of Counties, was used to "pay personal bills and pad personal accounts" -- and that this automatically makes Stapley guilty of all sorts of stuff.

But our readers argued that the fund would not be subject to state campaign finance laws -- and least one lawyer agrees with that. Attorney Steven Betts, it turns out, actually wrote Stapley a letter back in 2004 saying just that. (At the time, Betts was an attorney at Gallagher & Kennedy, which is also where Stapley's current lawyer works.)

We've posted the letter online here:
NACO Campaign.PDF.

What does that mean?

For one thing, not being a fund under state law allowed Stapley to accept corporate contributions, which are typically not allowed by state law. It also allowed him accept donations well over the state maximum for a campaign contribution (currently $410 per individual per cycle). The donations Stapley receive do, in fact, include both corporate money and five-figure gifts.

For another, if the fund is not subject to campaign finance laws, it may well be subject to ... nothing. Obviously, the county's financial disclosure forms compell public officials to disclose the source of any gifts over $500 -- but, thanks to an earlier wrinkle in a previous case involving Stapley and the sheriff's office -- we now know that those public disclosure forms aren't legally binding after all.

So who would have jurisdiction over the fund? Damned if we can figure it out ...

We suspect the only way the sheriff can possibly have a case here is if Stapley misled his donors. But it's hard to imagine groups like the Home Builders Association or the Arizona Rock Products Association bitching if Stapley bought furniture or something of campaign brochures. These groups typically give money to get influence; they probably got their influence regardless of what Stapley spent the money on. They would make a strange set of "victims" in any court case, that's for sure.

Of course, this whole thing is strange. Stapley, a Mesa Republican, was arrested by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Monday without any indictment or direct complaint, as is usually the case in white-collar criminal investigations. Instead, the sheriff -- likely seeking revenge after his initital 118-count indictment of Stapley fell apart -- simply used "probable cause" to arrest Stapley and an "addendum" filed with the court to air all sorts of ugly allegations about him.

Suffice to say, an addendum has no legal standing. When no prosecutor stepped forward to file charges against Stapley by this afternoon, the Monday arrest basically went away.

If a prosecutor determines the addendum has any merit, he can always file charges, though -- meaning this thing could hang overhead until the statute of limitations passes in another seven years. That can't be fun for Don Stapley ... but then again, neither is getting arrested without an indictment.

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