In October 2007, New Times reporter Ray Stern was cited with a criminal charge for supposedly raising his voice while in the office of a lawyer working for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office -- and no one would say, even under oath, who'd actually decided on charging him with the misdemeanor citation.
Now a tantalizing possible answer comes from a truly unlikely place: Records show that, in her annual evaluation from the period in question, controversial Deputy County Attorney Lisa Aubuchon was actually praised for her "prosecution" of Stern.
It's truly a weird mention -- since Aubuchon's boss, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, had supposedly washed his hands of any involvement into matters involving New Times.
But as we learned earlier this year, Thomas' vows of recusals simply can't be trusted. Thomas had long protested that his office had nothing to do with the infamous arrests of executive editor Michael Lacey and CEO Jim Larkin -- even though his top staffers were actually involved up to their eyeballs.
Why should anyone have imagined that the citation to Stern -- issued on the same evening by the same sheriff's goons -- would be any different?
Here's what we know. Sheriff Arpaio pressured County Attorney Thomas to investigate this newspaper for publishing his home address on the Web. Thomas recused himself, saying he had a conflict of interest, and appointed as special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik. But the paper's owners resisted -- and ultimately published the details of Wilenchik's overreaching subpoenas rather than comply with them.
On the very day the paper was published, as tensions were running high, reporter Stern went to pick up a routine public-records request at the office of a private attorney representing the sheriff, Michele Iafrate.
In Iafrate's office, Stern began photographing some records, a technique that reporters frequently use to spare the expense of photocopies. (The Sheriff's Office itself has used digital scanners when viewing public records, to much the same effect.) Iafrate told him he couldn't use his camera; they argued; he left.
That night, Stern was visited at his home by sheriff's deputies and given a criminal citation. Soon after, this newspaper's executive editor and CEO were also paid visits, but they were actually hauled off to jail.
The next day, County Attorney Thomas fired his special prosecutor and dropped all charges against the two executives. But the charges against Stern languished for nearly a year. Since there was no longer a special prosecutor, and Thomas still had a conflict, the cases were kicked first the Phoenix City Prosecutor and then his counterpart in Mesa. It was Mesa that made the decision to drop the case, saying there was "no reasonable likelihood" of conviction.
During the year that the case was pending, New Times lawyers questioned sheriff's officers at great length, seeking to discover who ordered Stern to be cited and why.
They never really got a good answer.
As executive editor Lacey wrote in a cover story on Stern's citation, Iafrate called the Sheriff's Office to report on her argument with Stern about 9 a.m.. She was not seeking a criminal charge. But, by the time sheriff's officers were dispatched to interview Iafrate, around noon, it had turned into a criminal investigation.
Somewhere in "the gap" between Stern's visit to Iafrate's office at 9 a.m. and the phone call from Detective Graham to Iafrate, someone -- not Iafrate -- decided to go after the reporter on criminal charges.
What we do not yet know is: Who in the Sheriff's Office decided to roll Ray Stern into this ongoing assault upon the press?
When Michele Iafrate called to update the sheriff on Stern's review of the public records, who suggested she had the makings of a criminal complaint?
Who told Chief [Scott] Freeman to tell Sergeant Gentry to order Detective Graham to snap the Selective Enforcement Unit into action?
Questioned by New Times' attorney Steve Suskin, Freeman, who runs the MCSO's selective enforcement unit, insisted that he couldn't recall to whom he'd spoken to on the 19th floor before dispatching Gentry.
But now it all makes sense: There was no reason for Freeman to hide the involvement of, say, Chief Deputy David Hendershott. The Sheriff's Office had never claimed that they're recused themselves.
Thomas' office -- including Aubuchon -- had. Aubuchon had an office on the 19th floor of the building housing the Sheriff's Office and was frequently in touch with the selective enforcement unit. After getting the call from Iafrate, it's only too easy to imagine Aubuchon snapping into her normal role as legal adviser. After the special prosecutor was fired the next day, of course, no one would have wanted to admit that Wilenchik wasn't the only one overreaching; it was also one of Thomas' guys, Aubuchon.
Freeman's amnesia makes total sense: He was trying to help cover up the county attorney's involvement in actions that had proven to be an embarrassment.
Aubuchon's personnel file says this: "In addition to her other responsibilities, Lisa took on the prosecution of some difficult and high profile cases, including an animal cruelty case against a Chandler police office, a trespassing charge against the legal director of the ACLU, and a disorderly conduct charge against a New Times reporter."
That was written by Aubuchon's boss, Sally Wells in June 2008. Aubuchon signed it, saying she agreed with Wells' remarks.
Aubuchon is currently on paid leave from the County Attorney's Office and could not be reached for comment.
Wells, for the record, was also in contact with Sheriff's Office brass on the day of the New Times' arrests, despite her office's supposed recusal -- which may explain how she knew about Aubuchon's role.
You can read all about that here. And, while you're at, we recommend reading our post here, which details another occasion where Aubuchon couldn't help but get involved in a case even after Thomas's office had supposedly recused itself.
Yes, folks, we're beginning to develop a pattern here.
And we can only hope the independent investigators looking into Thomas on behalf of the State Bar of Arizona are paying close attention. Thomas skated on the Bar's original probe by saying his office wasn't involved in any matters involving New Times -- this is yet more evidence that his assertions were false.