Longform

The Court Tower Conspiracy: Andrew Thomas and Joe Arpaio's Court Tower "Cover-Up" Sounds Like a Good Story, But It's Pure Fiction

If Andrew Thomas were the one telling this story, he'd probably begin it on December 12, 2008.

That's the day Thomas, the newly re-elected Maricopa County Attorney, issued a subpoena to other county officials — demanding to see all contracts and procurement documents from the court tower about to break ground in downtown Phoenix.

Thomas would surely tell you that he and his closest ally, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, had become convinced that the project had fallen prey to misspending, graft, even outright corruption. Grand jury time!

But county officials blocked Thomas from getting the records. As Thomas would tell it, corrupt judges refused to acknowledge their conflicts of interest. They quashed Thomas' subpoenas and kicked his office off the case — refusing to change their minds even after Thomas provided them with shocking new evidence.

So Thomas had to file a racketeering claim against county judges, officials, and their lawyer, Tom Irvine. He had to file a criminal claim against the judge who denied him the court tower records. Anything to root out corruption.

Or so Thomas would tell you.


If someone else were telling this story, they'd undoubtedly start it earlier than Thomas.

They might well start it on December 5, 2008 — just one week before Thomas.

By that point, the relationship between Thomas and Arpaio and the other county officials had taken a turn for the worse.

As the county attempted to deal with a shrinking economy and budget shortfall, the sheriff began loudly questioning why county administrators were pushing forward with the pricey construction project, even as his budget was being cut.

Then came the indictment against Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley, charging that he'd failed to disclose his financial interests on county-mandated forms.

Those charges ought to amount to a few misdemeanors, legal experts say. Yet in this case, Arpaio and Thomas slapped Stapley with 118 criminal counts — half of them felonies.

And so on December 5, four county supervisors — the board minus Stapley, who recused himself — met to discuss the ramifications of Stapley's indictment. They'd long considered Thomas their attorney, to the point that Stapley had even gotten legal advice from Thomas' office on filling out his disclosure forms. Now Thomas was prosecuting Stapley for the very same matter it once advised him on.

Could the supervisors trust Thomas? How could he possibly have their interests at heart when he was trying to prosecute one of their own? The supervisors no longer knew what to believe.

At that meeting, the supervisors took action. They took the first step toward a series of moves that would eventually strip Thomas of much of his civil division, instead setting up a separate unit that answered to the County Manager's Office.

That day, they appointed an outside lawyer to look into Thomas' conflicts of interests. That lawyer: Tom Irvine.

Irvine had long been involved with the court tower project, as Thomas' office was well aware.

And that's why it's so interesting that — just one week after Irvine was hired to look into Thomas' conflicts — Thomas went after Irvine, and the court tower, with a vengeance.

To date, no one — from Arpaio to Thomas to the media to the conservative bloggers who've fumed over the project — has offered specific allegations of impropriety regarding the court tower's construction. Yet the project is at the center of every conspiracy theory Thomas and Arpaio have proffered in the past year.

Indeed, Arpaio and Thomas have made the court tower the subject of a grand jury investigation. It's been Exhibit A in a "racketeering" lawsuit that Thomas filed against county officials, charging that the supervisors, some county judges, and their lawyers are a "criminal enterprise." The project is also at the heart of a criminal complaint against the county's presiding criminal court judge — Thomas charged, in essence, that Judge Gary Donahoe had obstructed justice by stopping Thomas' probe.

The court tower conspiracy has also been Thomas' chief tool in a concerted effort to smear Irvine.

In the 14 months since the board of supervisors hired Irvine to look into Thomas, Irvine has been sued by Thomas — twice. One suit is the racketeering claim, accusing Irvine and his law partner of being part of a criminal enterprise. The second, since dropped, accused Irvine of trying to usurp Thomas' power.

Thomas hasn't limited his animus to civil suits. The county attorney announced, in court filings, that Irvine was a target of a criminal investigation related to the court tower. He also got a friendly local television journalist interested in his Irvine-focused conspiracy theory. Josh Bernstein, a news reporter at Channel 15 (KNXV), actually attempted one of those parking lot stalking jobs by following Irvine with a camera, shouting questions.

Typically, you see people get that treatment when they're caught with their hand in the till — or in the pants of a little boy. Not Irvine. The most Thomas (or Bernstein) has alleged to date is that Irvine has dared to represent both the county judiciary and the county supervisors on the court tower project.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske