The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has spent $375,442 to stop Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox from receiving a $975,000 settlement and is preparing to spend more.
A lawyer hired by Maricopa County will fly to and stay in San Francisco at county expense for a March 11 hearing on the settlement matter before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The lawyer, Jeffrey Leonard, also will bill the county for his continued work on the case -- even though it's no longer in doubt that Wilcox deserves the settlement money because of the reckless and improper actions of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas.
The biggest joke of this case, though, is that the county almost certainly would have to pay more than $975,000 (plus legal fees) to Wilcox should it prevail in this appeal. Maybe a lot more.
Following last month's payouts of $3.75 million to New Times' co-founders and $3.5 million to former Supervisor Don Stapley because of Arpaio and Thomas nastiness, Wilcox's settlement appears to be relatively cheap.
Her settlement was authorized by retired County Manager David Smith, but the county withheld it on a technicality based on advice from current County Attorney Bill Montgomery. U.S. District Judge Neil Wake later ruled that the county has no legal standing to withhold the agreed-upon settlement and that Wilcox can have her money.
But Supervisors Max Wilson, Andy Kunasek, and Fulton Brock voted in June 2012 to appeal Wake's ruling. Wake allowed the county to wait on cutting a check to Wilcox until the county's appeal process had been exhausted, but he added $28,000 in legal fees to the total.
Because the Supervisors authorized the appeal, only the supervisors can stop it. The board's makeup is different now: Brock, following the scandal of his child-molesting ex-wife, decided not to run for re-election in 2012 and was replaced by Denny Barney. Stapley didn't run in 2012 and was replaced by Steve Chucri. Wilson, after being re-elected to another full term, stepped down from his post in March, citing health concerns, and was replaced by Clint Hickman. Kunasek and Wilcox are the remaining board veterans.
The precedent to pay for the antics of Arpaio and Thomas is well-established. Kunasek knows this better than any of the five board members -- he's already taken $123,000 from the county because of what the sheriff and ex-prosecutor did to him.
Kunasek fought trumped-up allegations by Arpaio's office alleging he misspent county money by looking for listening devices in county offices. Kunasek's later testimony suggested that at one point in the feud, Arpaio may have tried to change the balance of power with the indictment of a third Supervisor, leaving the board without enough members to vote on anything.
The county agreed last January to pay Kunasek the six-figure settlement, which he and his lawyer said covered only the money Kunasek had paid for legal fees and investigative costs. He's to be commended for that, because he could have received something more for what his attorney, David Derickson, called the physical and financial pain inflicted on Kunasek and his family "because Arpaio, Thomas, and their agents believed they could 'decapitate' county government . . ."
Yet it's clear that Wilcox suffered more than Kunasek at the hands of Arpaio and Thomas.
Wilcox was charged with dozens of bogus criminal counts based on her failure to disclose loans from the lending division of Chicanos por la Causa on financial-disclosure forms. Former Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores, who received the Wilcox case after Thomas conceded he no longer could pursue it because of a conflict of interest, later would state that a detailed examination of the case revealed an "utter lack of motive or evidence" of crimes.
"The undertone [of the counts] is that Wilcox obtained the loans as a quid pro quo for voting funds to CPLC. There is no evidence to even suggest such a thing occurred," Flores wrote. The sheriff's and county attorney's offices also made a serious error when presenting the case to the grand jury: They claimed falsely that the loans were personal and not business ones. Since business loans don't need to be disclosed, the idea that Wilcox should have disclosed them was invalid.
A few months after Flores' January 2011 announcement about Wilcox, Flores dropped Thomas and Arpaio's case against Stapley, too.
Flores wrote in her analysis that the evidence did reveal that Stapley may have been guilty of something. Stapley should have revealed on his financial disclosure forms, required for elected officials, that he'd received tens of thousands of dollars in donations to a campaign he ran for a board position with the National Association of Counties. Stapley can whine, but it won't erase the fact that his actions in collecting the NACo money off the books from people he might deal with in his capacity as supervisor and then spending the money on personal items were less than honorable.
But as Flores had noted two years ago, the actions of Arpaio and Thomas were reprehensible and tainted the Stapley case beyond repair.
Last month, the county decided that giving Stapley $3.5 million was better than the anticipated butt-whupping in court. The settlement followed a scathing opinion and ruling by Judge Wake, who rejected motions by Arpaio to end Stapley's lawsuit.
Supervisor Wilcox, arguably, has a stronger case against the county. Yet she's also asking for more money, proportionately. Slightly less than half of Stapley's award went into his pocket, but Wilcox's expenses, estimated to be less than $400,000, are about 40 percent of her settlement with Smith.
Campbell notes that if the county prevails before the Ninth Circuit and the $975,000 settlement award is overturned, Wilcox will keep pressing her claim. The county then will spend hundreds of thousands more in legal fees and discovery preparing for a trial before the same judge.
Logic predicts that the county would decide to settle the case before a trial, as it did with Stapley and New Times -- and don't forget retired judges Gary Donahoe, Barbara Mundell, Ana Baca, and Kenneth Fields, businessman Conley Wolfswinkel's family, county IT chief Stephen Wetzel, Deputy County Manager Sandi Wilson, and Stapley assistant, Susan Schuerman.
Campbell says, in retrospect, Wilcox's $975,000 settlement looks like a "bargain." Her settlement was made in April 2012, he points out, long before relevant depositions and documents that came out during the lawsuits by Donahoe and Stapley.
"I don't understand what the county is doing," Campbell says. "It really makes no sense."
Perhaps politics make the difference: Wilcox is a Democrat, and the other four supes and the county attorney are Republicans.
If the county loses the appeal, after the March 11 hearing in San Francisco, the Ninth Circuit court could award Wilcox all or part of her settlement award, plus legal fees to date.
But it looks like the most expensive option would be for the county to win the appeal.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.