Longform

Serving Up Stapley: Why’s the Don Stapley Prosecution a Big Joke? Because the Accusers Are Far Shadier Than the Accused

Dirt on Don Stapley, a 15-year member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, began flowing in spring 2008 from County Attorney Andrew Thomas' office.

A paper trail of Maricopa County Sheriff's Office documents reveals the genesis of the case, though with potentially telling details omitted. Records state that the criminal investigation of Stapley began on May 14, 2008, with three of Thomas' liaisons holding a meeting at Sheriff Joe Arpaio's downtown offices.

Lisa Aubuchon, a deputy county attorney assigned to politically sensitive cases, and two investigators from County Attorney Andrew Thomas' office met with a couple of Arpaio's top men. The subject: a tip about possible crimes committed by Stapley, a popular East Valley politician and one of the most powerful men in the county. The group sat down in a suite on the 18th floor of the Wells Fargo building, where Arpaio maintains his headquarters.

By then, the Board of Supervisors and Thomas had been waging a Cold War for more than a couple of years. They'd been held back from suing each other only by a détente (a legal memorandum of understanding regarding the handling of lawsuits) signed in June 2006.

Thomas' tip to the Sheriff's Office about alleged criminal acts by Stapley — the only one of four Republican supervisors to have criticized Thomas publicly at the time — was like a match to a fuse. It would soon touch off an expensive, all-out war between Thomas and Arpaio on one side and the Board of Supervisors on the other.

Aubuchon's team told the sheriff's commanders about eight properties owned by Stapley that, she said, were improperly listed on several financial-disclosure forms he had filed with the county since 2004.

While that information is interesting and the alleged infractions appear to be illegal, it's also fascinating what Aubuchon didn't share with the Sheriff's Office.

Aubuchon didn't say where the tip came from, and the report doesn't state whether the deputies even asked about its origin. Aubuchon brought up another tip about Stapley to the Sheriff's Office a few months later — this one about supposed kickbacks from land he owned. The second tip came on February 12, not long after New Times published an article theorizing that the first one came from Thomas' private lawyer.

When Aubuchon again attributed her information to an anonymous source, records show, an MCSO sergeant had the gumption to ask who had tipped off Thomas.

Aubuchon refused to tell him.

Now, it's easy to see that in some criminal cases, an investigator with a prosecutor's office might want to stay as tight-lipped as possible — for instance, because the mob might kill someone if the information got out. In this situation, though, when there's one elected official dishing dirt on another, the hit to the informant wouldn't be physical. Just political. Or financial.

David Hendershott, Arpaio's chief deputy, tells New Times it's no big deal that Thomas' office did not share the identity of the tipster, or tipsters. He says it doesn't matter because Stapley crossed a line. He says the County Attorney's Office is a credible source for a tip and says "it's a heck of a stretch" to assume any shenanigans from Aubuchon's refusal to name her source. Besides, he says, it's hardly uncommon for a tipster to have an ax to grind.

"Everybody who calls in a tip hates the guy they're calling in the tip on," Hendershott says.

Yet this astonishing lack of transparency between the lead investigative agency and the prosecutor's office leaves room for speculation. Thomas obviously has something to hide in this politically charged case — even from his most important ally, Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

There are a couple of other things that Aubuchon didn't tell Arpaio's men during last year's meeting, according to the paper trail. She didn't mention that Thomas might have a conflict of interest — or at least the appearance of a conflict — in the case. As Stapley's attorneys would later show, the supervisor had sought advice from Thomas' office in 2006 concerning properties connected to Conley Wolfswinkel, a longtime friend and business associate of Stapley's and a convicted felon.

Perhaps most egregiously, Aubuchon didn't tell the sheriff's men that the financial disclosure forms of their boss, Arpaio, contained inaccuracies as well. As can be seen from public records, Arpaio failed in certain years to disclose some properties he owned — just as Stapley failed to disclose some of his properties in some years.

Sure, Aubuchon may not have known these things, just as she either had no knowledge (or thought her office could get away with ignoring — that the Board of Supervisors hadn't made the county's rules on filling out financial-disclosure forms official) a troublesome detail that would cause Thomas' first case against Stapley to come undone in September.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.