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Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley sits at the table with his attorney, his chief of staff and a reporter. He is asked some troubling questions.

Why is Stapley listing his 7,251-square-foot Arcadia residence for $2.5 million at the same time he is seeking lower property taxes by telling the Maricopa County Assessor's Office that the mansion on 2.5 acres near Camelback Mountain is worth only $863,000?

Why should the county lower his property taxes to a level last reached in 1993 -- even though the home was completely remodeled last year by a team of more than 30 of the Valley's top interior designers?

How does the prominent Republican politician explain the downward trend in assessed value for his property when he knows very well that residential real estate prices -- particularly those in the Arcadia area -- have soared in the past few years?

Don Stapley is a licensed real estate broker; he knows how to determine the value of property. He's also former chairman of the county Board of Assessment; he knows how property taxes are set based on the value of land and buildings.

He is a member of the Board of Supervisors. As one of the county's highest elected officials, Stapley is expected to set an example for other citizens to follow -- the same high standards he espouses during ethics seminars he has sponsored for county employees.

How does Stapley answer these questions?

He feigns ignorance and blames someone else.

It's a pattern Stapley has followed for a decade, frequently stretching legal and ethical boundaries as a real estate broker.

His wheeling and dealing have triggered two Department of Real Estate investigations and created an uproar in neighboring Pinal County, where county officials accused Stapley of helping to create an illegal residential subdivision that could mar the landscape.

Stapley's 1997 purchase of the Arcadia estate came under unusual circumstances. In acquiring the house, he was also able to unload 15 rural acres -- and make a $120,000 profit -- that had been the target of a state probe into illegal lot-splitting.

But nowhere is Stapley's dubious behavior more pronounced than his handling of his 2001 property-tax appeal.

During a tape-recorded interview last week in his 10th-story county office, Stapley says his longtime property-tax consultant, Todd Parker, was working behind his back when Parker filed a tax appeal on the Arcadia property in March.

The appeal sought to lower the county's assessed value on Stapley's home for the 2001 tax year from $1.15 million to $862,875. The reduction would have saved Stapley about $1,500 in property taxes.

"Todd Parker filed the appeal without consulting me," Stapley says. "I became aware of it recently and asked him to drop the appeal."

Stapley says Parker "automatically" filed the appeal because the county was increasing the value of his property by 17 percent for the 2001 tax year.

"I was busy and we didn't talk about it," Stapley says.

Stapley says he learned about the appeal only after New Times filed a public records request seeking property-tax data on his residence, a request that didn't identify Stapley by name -- only by property identification number.

"I didn't realize that there was an appeal, and when you did your public records request, they [assessor's officers] sent a copy of your request up to me as a courtesy; so I checked some records and realized that it was a mistake, that it shouldn't be done," he says.

Stapley says Parker didn't know that Stapley had invested about $400,000 in upgrades in the home last year as part of the American Society of Interior Designers' showcase home program.

"He was unaware I had made the improvements to the home and I didn't desire to appeal the property tax," Stapley says.

Documents and interviews with Parker tell a far different story.

County records show that Stapley gave Parker written authorization on February 24 to file the property-tax appeal.

"We can't file any appeals without our taxpayers' authorization," Parker explains several hours after Stapley had accused Parker of erroneously filing the tax appeal.

It was only after Stapley signed the authorization that Parker says he proceeded to prepare the property-tax appeal, which was filed with the county on March 25.

New Times filed its public records request on May 9. Parker says he received a letter from Stapley on May 18 authorizing Parker to rescind the appeal, which he did on the same day.

After interviewing Parker, New Times contacted Stapley again for further comment. He did not respond. However, Stapley's chief of staff, Gibson T. McKay, contacted Stapley, who was driving to Moab, Utah, for the Memorial Day weekend.

"He [Stapley] said he went over there [Parker's office] and signed a bunch of stuff and didn't recall signing that one in particular, that appeal issue you were talking about," McKay says.

Not true, Parker says.

"He [Stapley] has not been in my office in a year and a half," Parker says.

Furthermore, Parker says, the tax appeal authorization form was not part of "a bunch of stuff," as McKay contends. Parker says he mailed the authorization form to Stapley, who signed the two-page document and faxed it back. It was the only tax appeal authorization Parker sent to Stapley this year, he says.

"There are not a lot of documents for him to execute," Parker says.

Stapley's explanation does not score well on the proverbial smell test. But foul odors waft around many of Stapley's business dealings.

It wasn't so with the county supervisor's forebears. The Stapley family has been prominent in East Valley politics and business since before statehood. Don Stapley's grandfather was a heavy-machinery distributor who made a fortune providing equipment for construction of Roosevelt Dam east of Phoenix. In the hallway outside Stapley's office is a photo of his grandfather riding with President Theodore Roosevelt en route to the dam's dedication ceremony. The family's stature is reflected in a major Mesa thoroughfare -- Stapley Drive.

In recent years, scandal has stalked the family.

When Don's brother, Jim Stapley, was a Mesa city councilman, he was accused of sexual harassment after he allegedly fondled a councilwoman during a helicopter ride. He was forced to resign on Halloween 1997 for a slew of questionable deeds, including allegations that he had impersonated a sheriff's deputy and a lawyer.

After decades in the East Valley, Don Stapley decided in 1997 to move his family to Phoenix, just a few blocks south of Paradise Valley.

"We actually visited the house three times and I kept saying that this wasn't "my house.' I had no intention of moving from Mesa," Stapley's wife, Kathy, is quoted as saying in the March 1999 issue of Phoenix Magazine.

During one visit to the Arcadia estate, the magazine reports, Kathy heard the "sound of bells chiming the hour from a nearby church. It reminded her of her teenage years spent living in Bavaria."

Kathy Stapley told the magazine "those bells probably clinched the house for me." The family purchased the sprawling, two-story home in October 1997 for a reported price of $900,000.

But those bells didn't prevent Kathy Stapley from taking the highly unusual step of relinquishing title to the property in July 1999. Her quit claim was filed at the same time her husband refinanced the estate with a $765,000 mortgage and after the couple had invested $400,000 to upgrade the home during the American Society of Interior Designers' showcase remodeling.

Don Stapley calls the quit claim a "strange deal."

Stapley says the loan officer told him it would be simpler to refinance the loan without his wife on the note.

"It had to do with some delinquent payments on credit card debt at Dillard's that was in her name," Don Stapley says. "Rather than having to explain that away," the note and the house were placed only in his name, he says.

Stapley says he filed papers recently that will restore his wife's ownership in the Arcadia estate. Kathy Stapley could not be reached for comment.

The quit claim is just one piece of the strange mosaic surrounding Stapley's acquisition of the Arcadia home, the ensuing major overhaul as a showcase property and subsequent marketing of the property for $2.5 million.

The saga began in June 1995, when Don Stapley agreed to act as a self-proclaimed "straw man" in a sham real estate transaction involving land near Maricopa County's San Tan Regional Park about 15 miles south of Apache Junction. The park is located in Pinal County, but is owned and operated by Maricopa County.

On June 26, 1995, a Stapley-controlled company called Arroyo Pacific Investment Incorporated signed a sales agreement recorded in Pinal County to purchase 40 acres for $80,000 from Bastante Incorporated. The agreement states that Stapley made a $16,000 cash down payment.

State records, however, show Stapley never made a $16,000 down payment on the land, writing a check on Arroyo's account to Bastante for only $8,000.

Records show that on the same day, Stapley sold the north half of the 40-acre parcel for $40,000 to Suzette Tyler. The sales agreement recorded in Pinal County states that Tyler made an $8,000 cash down payment to Stapley. Officials at the attorney general's office say there is no record of Tyler ever making an $8,000 down payment to Stapley.

Instead, assistant attorney general Michael Denious says, it appears that Tyler's father, Dixon "Duke" Cowley, made the down payment on Tyler's behalf to Bastante -- rather than Stapley's company, which had sold the land to Tyler.

Why would Cowley make a down payment on his daughter's behalf to Bastante for land purportedly purchased from Stapley?

The attorney general is alleging the payment was part of an illegal lot-splitting scheme masterminded by Cowley, who is an old friend of Stapley's. The state alleges in a complaint filed in March that Cowley engineered the purchase of the 200 acres, then executed a series of transactions to illegally subdivide the property into more than five parcels smaller than 36 acres.

State law requires developers to obtain a subdivision plan if they divide property more than five ways. Subdivision plans greatly increase costs to developers because they require approval from local governments and easements for roads and utilities. Developers can skirt the rule as long as they act independently and only divide their initial purchase into five or fewer lots.

So-called "wildcat" subdivisions can create major financial problems for municipalities because the land is often haphazardly developed without adequate services.

State Senator Tom Freestone, a Mesa Republican, has led an effort to strengthen state subdivision laws by limiting a single landowner to no more than three property splits.

"I think it is very important that we have proper planning of the private land we have in this state," Freestone says. "There must be some assurances for proper right of way, water and utilities."

The lot-splitting created by Cowley and his partners threatens to burden Pinal County with heavy expenses. Pinal County placed a moratorium on building permits on the 200 acres subdivided by Cowley and his associates. Pinal County Manager Stanley Griffis has sent several letters to the state Real Estate Department alleging that Stapley was involved in illegal lot-splitting.

"Illegal land splits, such as the Stapley properties seem to be, create a myriad of problems for county government and citizens residing in the general area," Griffis wrote the Real Estate Department in 1997.

There is little doubt that Stapley abetted the alleged illegal lot-splitting. Cowley, the state alleges, needed Stapley to appear to purchase 40 acres and then sell half of the land to his daughter in order to circumvent the subdivision requirements.

"It was basically designed to appear that Stapley was purchasing the whole 40 acres from Bastante; that's why he needs the affidavit with the $16,000 down payment," Denious says.

When asked by New Times why he recorded a sales agreement that falsely stated he made a $16,000 down payment, Stapley denies that such an agreement existed.

"That is false," he says.

When Stapley was given the opportunity to review the sales agreement, Stapley's attorney, Marlan Walker, intervened in the interview and told Stapley not to answer any questions concerning the Cowley matter.

"You know what, Don? I don't want to rehash this," Walker says.

The state contends that Cowley may have brought Stapley into the deal because of his political position.

"In an informal interview, Cowley stated that he "thought he was doing a favor for a politician,'" according to pleadings filed last month by the attorney general's office. Cowley, who did not return a call seeking comment, renounced that statement in a subsequent deposition.

Records show Stapley subdivided his 40 acres five ways -- 20 acres to Cowley's daughter, and his remaining 20 acres into four five-acre parcels. Suzette Tyler subdivided her land into four five-acre parcels.

Soon after the land was subdivided, Stapley began listing the property, which he purchased for $2,000 an acre, for $7,000 an acre. He sold off one parcel for $35,000 before Pinal County planning officials got wind of the lot-splitting frenzy and began pressuring the state Real Estate Department to investigate.

In October 1996, former deputy real estate commissioner Ed Ricketts sent a scathing letter to Stapley accusing him and Tyler of illegal lot-splitting by chopping the 40-acre parcel into eight pieces.

Stapley and his attorney responded by demanding a personal meeting with Real Estate Commissioner Jerry Holt. Normally, the real estate commissioner, who makes final decisions on cases brought before the department, would not meet with the target of an investigation because, according to Holt, it would "taint" his ability to make an impartial ruling.

Nevertheless, Holt met with Stapley and Walker at a restaurant to discuss the case in November 1996. The crux of Stapley's position, according to state records, is that Stapley only wanted to buy 20 acres and agreed, at Cowley's request, to purchase 40 acres and then immediately sell half to Tyler. Although he describes Cowley as a longtime friend, Stapley says he didn't know at the time that Tyler was Cowley's daughter.

Therefore, according to Walker, Stapley was not directly involved in Cowley's alleged scheme to illegally subdivide the property.

A week after the meeting, Holt issued a statement recusing himself from making the final decision on the Stapley case. Instead, Holt relegated "all authority to act in this matter to Edwin J. Ricketts, deputy commissioner."

Walker readily admits he despises Ricketts, claiming Ricketts is a racist and a Mormon basher. Both Walker and Stapley are Mormons.

Ricketts resigned as deputy commissioner in early 1997 after he allegedly made racist comments during a meeting at the attorney general's office, an allegation Ricketts denies.

"The guy was essentially thrown out of office for his racist activities against a number of people, including Mormons," Walker says in an interview. "I have nothing good to say about the guy."

Ricketts declined to comment on the Stapley matter or Walker's accusations. Since leaving the Real Estate Department, Ricketts has become known as an expert on illegal lot-splitting.

But controversy over Ricketts allowed Walker to cast the entire Real Estate Department investigation into the illegal lot-splitting on and adjacent to Stapley's land as a witch hunt.

"I believe this fiasco, that the Department of Real Estate calls an investigation, has been motivated by prejudice, politics and jealousy," Walker wrote to the Real Estate Department in February 1997. Walker asked that the investigation be turned over to the attorney general.

Walker also demanded that the department issue a "public apology" for the way it handled the investigation.

Walker got what he wanted.

The attorney general's office assumed the investigation in March 1997 and earlier this year filed a complaint against Cowley, Tyler and others involved in the initial 200-acre purchase and subsequent subdividing sales -- everyone, that is, except Don Stapley.

The case was settled on May 26 after Cowley, Tyler and others signed a consent decree admitting they violated state subdivision laws and agreeing to pay $92,500 in fines.

Michael Denious, the assistant attorney general, says the department decided to charge only the major players.

"Our theory going into the hearing is that this was the doing of Cowley," Denious says. "Stapley was a little more passive and we decided not to name him as a respondent."

Not only was Stapley dropped from the attorney general's case, he also got his apology from the Real Estate Department.

Commissioner Holt, who in 1996 had "recused" himself from the matter, waded back into the case in March 1999, sending a written apology to Stapley renouncing Ricketts' investigation.

"The Real Estate Department sincerely regrets and retracts any comment we have made in the past which did link or may have linked you to unlawful subdivision activity," Holt's letter to Stapley stated.

Don Stapley came out unscathed. He avoided legal action and got a written apology from the real estate commissioner.

He also managed to trade his remaining 15 acres for a $120,000 profit, a windfall that helped land him in the Arcadia estate.

Lawrence Tercha was not going to go away quietly.

In March 1996, Tercha signed a sales agreement to buy five acres of San Tan land from Stapley for $35,000. But before the agreement could close, state investigators began poking into lot-splitting allegations.

Walker, Stapley's lawyer, says the attorney general requested that Stapley not sell any of his three remaining five-acre parcels until the investigation was concluded.

Assistant AG Denious disputes Walker's contention, saying it is unlikely the department would have interfered in the sale of the property. The state, he says, has never issued an order prohibiting the sale of the lots.

In any case, by June 1997, Tercha, a Michigan snowbird, had hired attorney James Carnago to try to force Stapley to live up to the sales agreement. Stapley had tried to terminate the deal by returning Tercha's deposit. Tercha, however, sent the money back to Stapley.

Carnago soon discovered that Stapley wanted to trade the property to another party rather than close the deal with Tercha.

"All this seems to indicate some defalcation on the part of Mr. Stapley and his organizations and intends to indicate to this writer that some violation of statutes and rules have taken place," Carnago stated in a June 9, 1997, letter to the attorney general's office.

In an interview, Carnago says he didn't know at the time whom Stapley wanted to swap land with.

A couple of weeks after Carnago wrote his letter, Stapley and other members of the Board of Supervisors approved a $9 million expenditure that was lumped into the county's transportation budget to upgrade the Estrella Parkway near the town of Goodyear.

The parkway project, which a month earlier had been scheduled for construction in 2002 by the county's Transportation Advisory Board, had suddenly become a high priority. With the supervisors' vote, construction would begin in 1999. County transportation officials can't explain why the project leapt up the construction schedule.

Estrella Parkway happens to lead to a massive real estate project that was started by Charles Keating in the 1980s. The Estrella development floundered with the collapse of the Arizona real estate market. The property was eventually purchased by Sun Chase Holdings, an international development company financed by a wealthy Malaysian family that controls a vast timber empire.

Sources familiar with the project say upgrading the road to Estrella was a high priority for Sun Chase.

"It's the entrance into the development. Without an improved road, you are going along a country road" that was prone to flooding, says one source who asked not to be identified.

Stapley doesn't recall when he began discussions with Estrella's developer, Bill Pope, president of Sun Chase Holdings, about trading his San Tan land and other properties for the Arcadia estate. Pope had known Stapley for several years and has contributed money to Stapley's election campaigns.

But by the middle of the summer of 1997, those discussions were ongoing, Stapley says, and eventually culminated in a complicated exchange of property between Stapley and a Pope-controlled company called Arizona Sun Holdings, a subsidiary of Sun Chase Holdings.

By August 1997, Stapley had formally agreed to swap his Mesa home, a San Diego condominium and his 15 San Tan acres to Arizona Sun Holdings as down payment on the Arcadia estate.

Stapley's possible motivation to trade the land rather than sell it off piecemeal becomes more apparent when the details of the trade are revealed. Rather than having to market the property and appear to be subdividing his 20 acres into four parcels, Stapley could net a large profit and only cut his 20 acres into two parcels.

According to county real estate records, Stapley's Mesa home had no equity, and the San Diego condominium contributed only $8,000 toward the down payment for the $900,000 Arcadia estate. The bulk of the down payment came from the 15 acres of land -- which Arizona Sun Holdings agreed to value at $125,000.

In a little more than two years, Stapley's $40,000 investment in the 20-acre San Tan property had returned him $160,000 -- a net profit of nearly $120,000.

Stapley closed the deal on the Arcadia home by taking out a $500,000 mortgage from a private lender and securing a $250,000 carryback loan from Arizona Sun Holdings. Stapley's actual out-of-pocket cash to get into the Arcadia estate was $34,000, including $19,000 in closing costs.

The trade extricated Stapley from the San Tan land that was under investigation by the Real Estate Department and the attorney general. It also eliminated questions about Stapley's ownership of land adjacent to a 10,000-acre county park. The county created the park in 1986, but has only recently begun adding improvements and fencing the perimeter. In 1999, Maricopa County and Pinal County signed a joint agreement to build a paved road into the park's north entrance.

Stapley says he knew little about the park prior to purchasing the San Tan land in 1995. He says he had never even been to the property before he bought his parcel -- despite records showing that a Stapley partnership once owned the same controversial 200 acres in 1984.

Stapley says that as discussions at the county concerning development of the park progressed, he became increasingly concerned about owning the land.

"That's part of the reason, as I recall, that I felt a bulk trade of 15 acres was something that would be a good thing to do because I shouldn't be involved in properties around a county park," Stapley says.

"I remember discussing that specifically with Marlan [Walker] and pointing out to the AG that I would like to get away from the San Tan area in terms of property ownership," he adds.

While Stapley made a killing on the deal, Tercha had to look elsewhere.

Tercha finally closed a deal last year with Arizona Sun Holdings. However, the price had gone up $5,000 to $40,000. Despite the price boost, Tercha says he's glad to have the land.

"We are completely happy with the situation, but it was a pain in the ass getting it," Tercha says.

Arizona Sun Holdings, meanwhile, still owns 10 acres near the park. Pope says his company also profited from the Stapley trade, netting $87,500 on the sale of the San Diego condominium and $38,000 on the sale of Stapley's former Mesa home to Mesa city councilman Bill Jaffa.

"It was a fair deal," Pope says.

Then, oddly, he adds: "I'm not particularly proud of it. It was just a transaction that happened a long time ago."

A little more than a year after moving into the Arcadia estate in the fall of 1997, the Stapleys once again were packing their bags to move.

But the family was just going down the street to a condominium for a couple of months while a team of interior designers and craftsmen commenced a complete makeover of the 20-year-old house.

The Stapley home had been selected by the American Society of Interior Designers to be the 1999 Phoenix showcase home as a part of a fund-raising event for the Harrington Arthritis Research Center.

Stapley says a neighbor suggested that the house would be a good candidate for the showcase. Stapley says after lengthy discussions with his wife, the couple decided to offer their house to help raise money for the charity.

ASID eventually selected the Stapley house and dispatched 20 design teams that included more than 30 designers to prepare detailed plans for different spaces throughout the expansive home. The Stapleys were not charged for the design services, which easily would have cost more than $100,000.

Stapley, meanwhile, agreed to cover the remodeling costs and signed a series of contracts with the individual design teams to remake the grand entryway, powder room, dining room, an atrium, the master bedroom and three other bedrooms, the kitchen, various bathrooms, a living room and adjacent patio, laundry room, library -- even the pool pump house, which was converted into a guest house.

Stapley refused to provide copies of the contracts that detail prices for materials and supplies, which designers say were also often donated or obtained at deeply discounted prices.

"It's my own private business and has nothing to do with you," Stapley says of the contracts. "I can tell you we invested $350,000 to $400,000 in cash for goods and services that were provided."

Showcase homeowners generally reap a windfall from their investment, says Bob Case, chief executive officer of the Harrington Arthritis Research Center. Case says homeowners typically agree to invest $100,000 to $200,000, mostly to cover construction costs.

"The homeowner usually gets easily twice to three times that same amount back out of the project in increased value of the property," Case says. "If they are going to be putting something in that is going to be permanent, they are purchasing it at rock-bottom, wholesale prices."

The Stapleys went all-out on upgrades, including spending about $80,000 on the kitchen, which, according to interior designer Mary Fisher Knott, could not be replicated for the same price in another setting because many materials were obtained at deeply discounted prices.

Once the remodeling was completed, the Stapley home was opened for public tours for three weeks. About 10,000 people toured the residence -- at $14 a head. A gala opening was also featured at $125 per person.

Interior designers and suppliers of custom appliances benefit from the tours because their services and products are exposed to thousands of people who could become future customers.

"It's advertising promotion for the designers, so they don't charge anything to do it," says interior designer Libby Copeland, ASID co-chairman for Stapley's showcase home.

The Harrington Arthritis Research Center also earned a financial benefit, Case says, reaping more than $100,000 from ticket sales and the gala held at the Stapley home.

How much the Stapleys will benefit financially from the project depends on how much the estate sells for. Stapley says he hasn't received any firm offers at the $2.5 million sales price.

The showcase, Stapley says, was done primarily to benefit the charity.

"I wasn't looking for a free ride. I looked honestly first at the charity and what we could do to help. They thought the location was so good, we felt it would be worth the sacrifice to help a good organization.

"We did get a benefit from it. But it is an intangible benefit; it wasn't a monetary benefit," Stapley says.

The biggest plus is that the house was updated swiftly, he says.

"Getting it done quickly, to me, was the most important part of that," Stapley explains. "Because my wife is slow. She lived in the house in Mesa for 14 years and we still weren't done. I mean, that's just the way she is. This has really helped to get things completely done."

While Stapley downplays his potential financial return from the showcase event, there is no doubt the estate has greatly increased in value.

"In the last three years, what has the real estate market done in the Arcadia district?" Stapley asks before answering his own question. "It's gone up tremendously. I had no idea for sure it was going to go as high as it has. I had no clue."

Knowing about rising real estate values, however, didn't stop Stapley from trying to reduce his taxes by authorizing his property-tax consultant to appeal the 2001 assessed valuation of his property. The appeal sought to lower the value of the property to less than the amount Stapley paid to acquire it in 1997.

Stapley, who earns $54,600 a year as a county supervisor, has a history as a tax resister.

In 1995 -- not long after being elected supervisor in November 1994 -- Stapley sued Maricopa County in Superior Court after his tax appeal on 4.95 acres of citrus groves in east Mesa was denied.

Stapley, representing himself, told Judge William J. Schafer III that the property he had owned since 1989 was worth $50,000. The county assessor had valued the land at $198,000.

Without comment, Judge Schafer lowered the full cash value of the land to $6,485, court records state.

That slashed Stapley's 1995 property-tax bill on the parcel by 93 percent, from $3,540 to $231.84, according to county treasury records.

Stapley's taxes remained at $231.84 a year until he sold the property last November. Suddenly, the value of the orchard skyrocketed again. According to an affidavit filed with the county, the same land Stapley valued at $50,000 and Judge Schafer lowered to $6,485 was sold for $320,000.

Stapley filed his first tax appeal on his Arcadia home on March 28, 1998, for the 1999 tax year after the county assessor said the property was worth $1.148 million.

Stapley, acting through property tax appeal specialist Parker, claimed the property was worth only $861,294. This time, the county assessor lowered his assessed valuation to $900,000, the amount Stapley paid for the home.

Like many Arizona real estate brokers, Don Stapley got hammered in the late 1980s when the market collapsed. At least one of his companies was forced into bankruptcy, and judgments were levied against Stapley in the aftermath of the carnage, court records show.

In some circles, the debacle and ensuing lawsuits, judgments and bankruptcies were seen as a badge of honor, the real estate developers' equivalent of a Purple Heart.

But instead of acknowledging that he had been slammed by the market, Stapley failed to disclose on real estate license renewal forms the bankruptcy of at least one of his companies, Real Estate Department records show. He also failed to disclose throughout the 1990s that he had judgments levied against him or his companies, records indicate.

Assistant attorney general Denious says the department is investigating.

Walker, Stapley's attorney, says he's negotiating a settlement with the department.

"Don wasn't trying to hide anything," Walker says. "The lawsuits were all a matter of public record."

Real Estate Department officials declined to discuss the investigation, but Walker says he expects it to be brief.

"We are going to enter into a consent order," Walker says. "It's small fry and some education hours" for Stapley.

Walker says the latest investigation -- just like the lot-splitting charges against Stapley that were eventually dropped -- is the result of anti-Mormon sentiment.

Walker is particularly vexed with veteran Arizona Republic reporter Edythe Jensen, who lives near Gilbert and covers the southeast Valley for the paper.

"She hates Mormons," Walker says. "She is digging to find dirt on some prominent Mormon, to find an affair to write about to embarrass the Mormon Church."

Jensen is a widely respected reporter who has covered development issues in the East Valley for more than a decade. Her stories first uncovered the illegal lot-splits on the 200 acres in which Stapley had invested.

Her follow-up stories have revealed other lot-splitting developments in southeast Maricopa County that are carving the desert into one-acre lots that lack utilities and are accessible by substandard roads that school buses can't navigate. She did not return a call seeking comment on Walker's remarks.

After a while, Walker's and Stapley's tendency to blame others for Stapley's legal and ethical problems begins to sound like a broken record: The property-tax consultant filed the appeal without my knowledge; Ed Ricketts hates Mormons; Kathy Stapley ran up a big credit card debt; Edythe Jensen wants to embarrass the Mormon Church.

Such behavior has generated distaste in political circles.

"I don't like Don Stapley. . . . It's [business practices] very repulsive to me," says one prominent East Valley elected official who asked not to be identified.

Near the conclusion of the interview in his office, Stapley says he "understands" why his actions invite scrutiny.

"But trust me and believe me there was no ill-gotten gains. There was no scheme on my part, I promise you that. I've got my neck out a country mile on this [Arcadia house] investment. I put a whole lot of eggs in one basket and I'm taking a big risk because it is not a cheap house to live in. I'm not comfortable, personally," he says.

"I can afford to live there," he quickly adds.

"But it's just not my style. It's an investment."

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