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

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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!


David Hendershott

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.

Never mind that neither the judiciary nor the supervisors have the slightest complaint about Irvine's performance. Never mind that the two parties are far from adversarial.

Never mind that county officials turned to Irvine because Thomas' office refused to help them.

There's Thomas' version, and then there's the truth. When it comes to the court tower project, the two may well be completely different stories.

When they're speaking freely, county officials will admit that the situation rankles them. Thanks to a certain reckless disregard for accuracy, Thomas' innuendos have taken root in the public imagination — and county officials have found themselves under a cloud of suspicion. Even the painstakingly objective Arizona Republic has taken to placing the phrase "the controversial" before most references to the court tower project.

And yet, contrary to Thomas' claims, County Manager David Smith says no one has presented him with a specific allegation of wrongdoing on the project (other than that Thomas and Arpaio want the money for their budget).

"I have been looking for anything wrong with this project," Smith says. "What I find is just the usual situation of different points of view as the project unfolds, which is typical of any major capital project."

By failing to provide specifics, he says, Thomas and Arpaio have basically forced the county to prove a negative.

"It seems to me," Smith says, "that they took a flier on the notion that something this big has to have something wrong with it."

Sandi Wilson, the county's deputy manager, is sheepish about admitting it today, but she once had a good relationship with Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In her 15 years at the county, Wilson even managed friendly relations with Arpaio's chief deputy, the much-feared David Hendershott.

"I didn't really understand who he was," says Wilson, who adds that she was instinctively pro-law enforcement. "My uncle is a cop," she says.

And Hendershott could be surprisingly seductive: "He'd tell me, 'The sheriff and I will make sure you're the next county manager.' He's a very manipulative kind of man."

In the fall of 2008, a few months before the Stapley indictment, Wilson got a sudden glimpse of the chief deputy's darker side. Hendershott was intent on picking a fight over control of the county's computer system. Wilson didn't like what she saw.

Then came the budget battle. Though county administrators did their best to spare the sheriff's detention fund, which finances jail operations, they felt differently when it came to Arpaio's general fund expenditures, which cover salaries and administrative costs.

Like every other department, county officials decreed, Arpaio would have to make 12 percent cuts to those expenses.

Chief Deputy Hendershott's response? He went over the entire county budget with a fine-tooth comb, Wilson recalls. He wanted to know about various funds. What about this expenditure? What about that? Why didn't they cut risk management? (County officials had to explain that the pool of money in question helps to pay for all the lawsuits directed at the sheriff's operations.)

Then he latched onto the court tower.

"Why can't you use this money?" she said he asked. "Why can't you use this to balance the budget?"

The county had been socking away money for years to pay for the $347 million project, Wilson says. The court tower was badly needed: Space at the sprawling, utilitarian court complex on Jefferson Street is at such a premium that the county recently remodeled the basement to add four courtrooms. The basement! In the mornings, on the elevators and in the courtrooms that handle high-volume, low-level criminal cases, the place can be an overcrowded nightmare. It became increasingly clear that additional space was needed.

County administrators also knew they could save serious money — an estimated $190 million — by paying cash for the project instead of using bonds. That's why they'd been so intent on saving even as the state of Arizona and local municipalities spent their surpluses during the flush years of the 2000s.

And there was another problem with Hendershott's argument, a more philosophical one. The county would never use money it'd squirreled away for a special expense to balance the budget, Wilson says. That kind of balancing technique simply isn't sustainable.

The sheriff's men didn't seem to get it.

"They were desperate," Wilson says. "They didn't want their budgets cut."

By late 2008, what had become a slightly contentious relationship turned nasty. On the morning of December 2, Wilson got a terse call from Hendershott: "Don Stapley's going to be indicted on 100 felony counts." Click.

Wilson was flabbergasted, she says. Don Stapley? She'd worked with the supervisor for years and always thought of him as the office's "statesman," she says, not to mention friendly with the sheriff. Now Arpaio and Thomas were charging him with crimes?

"It completely changed the atmosphere," Wilson says.

Wilson wasn't sure what to believe. She felt a little better when she got a call from Hendershott later that week. "It's not about you, it's not about [County Manager] David Smith, it's not about the other board members," Wilson says Hendershott told her. "It's just about Don Stapley."

If Stapley screwed up, Hendershott asked, didn't he have an obligation to do something about it? Wilson had to admit, that sounded about right.

That next week, the board of supervisors — minus Stapley, who recused himself — met with Thomas' right hand, Barnett Lotstein. (Thomas himself refused to show.) The supervisors tried to understand how the county attorney could be both their attorney and their prosecutor. Lotstein kept insisting it wasn't a problem, but the supervisors were skeptical.

They ultimately took action. At the meeting, the supervisors approved the hiring of Tom Irvine, an attorney with Polsinelli Shughart. Irvine, who'd successfully helped the supervisors defend an earlier lawsuit, would help them understand the lay of the land.

Ultimately, Irvine's hiring would be the board's first step in dismantling much of the county attorney's civil division. Believing they could no longer trust Thomas to provide legal advice, the board — with Irvine's help — began to take steps to set up its own office of legal counsel.

And so it hardly seems a coincidence that, just one week after the board hired Irvine, a sheriff's deputy approached Wilson and served her with a subpoena.

The request demanded records from the county related to the court tower project: contracts, procurement records, and more. It was surely tens of thousands of pages of documents.

So much for what Hendershott had assured Wilson just a few days earlier. This wasn't about the board or the county manager or the other county supervisors? Just one week after Hendershott's assurance, the entire county administration was suddenly under criminal investigation!

When Wilson was served the court tower subpoena, she hardly knew which way to turn. The timing couldn't be worse: Her boss, County Manager Smith, was out on sick leave. (Smith's medical issues were so serious, he ultimately missed three months of work.) On this issue, the buck would stop with Wilson.

And the sheriff's deputy had instructed Wilson not to talk to anyone about it. Under Arizona law, even targets of a grand jury investigation may not publicly discuss the matters at hand. Wilson, surely, remembered what had happened when the owners of New Times dared to defy that edict just one year earlier; sheriff's deputies famously arrested them at their home under the cover of night.

Wilson wanted none of that. But she needed legal advice.

At that point, it's fair to say, Wilson still didn't quite realize just how adversarial the county's relationship with County Attorney Andrew Thomas had become. Wilson was so naive, she actually e-mailed Thomas' office, asking for help on how to handle the subpoena that his own prosecutors had issued.

No one wrote back.

Wilson wasn't even sure she was allowed to tell the supervisors: Weren't they potential targets?

That's when she thought of Tom Irvine. Wilson knew Irvine, a construction attorney, had been the court administration's go-to guy for the tower project.

Perhaps more importantly, the board of supervisors had just hired Irvine to help it deal with Thomas' conflicts of interests. Who better to ask for help?

It's safe to say that you shouldn't ask Tom Irvine about construction unless you really, really want to know about construction.

For one thing, Irvine is a talker. Even though he's soft-spoken, he has a lot to say. For another, he's a design enthusiast at heart.

Irvine has been involved with some of downtown Phoenix's bigger construction projects. He represented the city of Phoenix in the construction of Bank One Ballpark (now Chase Field). And, as chairman of the Citizens Committee on jail planning, he shepherded the county, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, through the construction of the Fourth Avenue Jail.

That project led almost directly to the court tower. As Irvine explains, when voters approved funding for the new jail, they also approved fine print that would move the entire criminal court system downtown. It only made sense.

Until recently, some criminal cases were tried in Mesa and some were tried downtown. Two locations meant extra expenses for security — what with both courthouses needing deputies — and, in the case of the Mesa trials, extra transportation costs. With inmates held at the Fourth Avenue Jail, the county could save money by holding all court hearings right next door.

But the downtown court complex was already bursting at the seams. So the county saved its money, axed other projects when necessary, and focused intently on building a new courthouse.

By 2006, they were ready to go. And just as Irvine had been hired to handle the fine print on the jails, he was hired to coordinate a key aspect of the new court tower's design and development process.

The big difference? This time, he was hired by the county judiciary: Even though the county is funding the project, Superior Court Presiding Judge Barbara Mundell and her staff are technically in charge of approving and developing the design, function and operations of the new building. Consultants had provided the same service for Arpaio during jail construction; Mundell's staff selected Irvine.

Now, the court staff doesn't typically need attorneys who specialize in construction. Jessica Funkhouser, the court's special counsel, says that state law allows court staff to take advantage of other government entities' bidding process in cases like this. Irvine's firm had submitted qualifications for construction work through the city of Phoenix's competitive process. Piggybacking on the city's contract, the courts could hire Polsinelli Shughart at the same rate.

Irvine was hired in 2006 at an hourly rate of $325, according to court administration files.

It was only two years later, in December 2008, that his hiring would become an issue.

By that point, everything had changed. Arpaio and Thomas were angry about their budgets and at war with the supervisors. And Irvine had been hired by the county supervisors (who were Thomas' Public Enemy Number One) to help the board set up its own legal department (one of the worst things that could happen to Thomas, professionally speaking).

At that point, Thomas' go-to prosecutor for high-profile cases, Deputy County Attorney Lisa Aubuchon, would actually claim in court filings that the method of Irvine's procurement might be a criminal matter. (It didn't seem to matter that state law expressly allowed such contracts.) And Thomas' favorite reporter, Channel 15's Bernstein, would make an issue of the "piggybacked" contracts — as if "piggybacking" were an inherently dirty practice.

Neither Thomas' spokesman nor Bernstein responded to messages seeking comment.

In 2006, though, no one questioned Irvine's hiring. For two years, in fact, everyone involved with the court tower project got along fine.

Surprisingly, that even included Arpaio and Thomas.

Court officials were eager to get a building that worked, Funkhouser says. Previous additions to the court system were done on the cheap, and it showed. (The Northeast Court Complex, for example, can't hold trials involving 12-person juries; the jury rooms are simply too small.)

"If we were going to build it, we wanted to build it right," she says.

So the court didn't just hire an architect and a lawyer to oversee the project. It also put together a stakeholders group, which included everyone who'd be using the new building: judges, prosecutors, sheriff's deputies, victim advocates, even the media.

Naturally, both Thomas and Arpaio had representatives on the committee. Thomas' representative was the prosecutor he turned to for high-profile cases, Aubuchon. Arpaio was represented by his top deputy, Hendershott.

When members of the advisory board were given an opportunity to check out similar projects in other states, Thomas and Arpaio's reps jumped at it. Hendershott went to Philadelphia to see its new courthouse, as did Thomas' chief assistant, Sally Wells. Aubuchon flew to Los Angeles to check out the court facilities there.

Irvine didn't go on any of the junkets. He could already see the projects, he says, in his head.

But he was at plenty of meetings, along with Aubuchon. Sign-in sheets, which New Times obtained through a public-records request, prove Irvine's attendance as a representative of the court. Aubuchon signed in as a county attorney.

Minutes show plenty of back-and-forth between the parties.

Funkhouser, the court's on-staff special counsel, says that Aubuchon was intent on the idea of the courthouse's not housing "restorative justice" programs: "That was being 'too soft on criminals,'" Funkhouser says. Aubuchon's view ultimately prevailed.

As both Irvine and Funkhouser recall, however, the meetings were congenial. Aubuchon never attempted to block the project from going forward. And the County Attorney's Office signed off on all the contracts. No concerns were raised, County Manager Smith says.

Later, Thomas would try to raise hell about the grandeur of the building. His representatives would wax on about how the judges would get fancy-sounding "robing rooms." Or they'd talk about the expensive materials being used, like marble or travertine.

But minutes show that Thomas' staff, including Aubuchon, who ostensibly had his ear, didn't make a similar stink during stakeholder meetings. Irvine and Funkhouser say that's with good reason.

"This is not a fancy building," Irvine says. The presiding judge decreed that no component of the project could cost more than the median price of that component in other recently built courthouses. That meant functional, durable materials designed to last 100 years.

Indeed, a look at the plans shows few of the luxuries that Thomas and his sock puppets keep alleging.

Consider the much-maligned "robing rooms." Despite the ceremonial-sounding name, they're really a way to save space.

In the old courthouse, judges have extensive chambers and private bathrooms next to their courtrooms. In the new building, they'll get a tiny closet of a room adjoining the courtroom, just enough for a laptop and a coat rack for their robes. Their offices — and shared bathrooms — will be located in a suite upstairs.

Thomas' claims about marble and travertine are equally disingenuous.

Court officials, Irvine, and county administrators tell New Times they have no idea where the marble came from: It simply isn't part of the plans.

And as for the travertine . . .

While the name sounds fancy, it's actually far from. Travertine is one of the stones used most frequently in modern construction.

A curious reader need only travel to the county's current East Court Building, part of the drab functional complex on Jefferson Street, to get an eyeful of that construction material.

The entire lobby of the 1965 building is walled in, yes, travertine.

When Sandi Wilson turned to Tom Irvine to help her deal with the court tower subpoena in December 2008, she had no idea she was setting off a powder keg.

For a while, no one else did, either. Not the press, not the court administration, not the superior court judges. Grand juries are supposed to be secret, and this one actually stayed that way.

Quietly, away from the prying eyes of the media, things were happening.

Irvine connected Wilson with his law partner, Ed Novak, who specializes in criminal defense. Novak, one of the better lawyers in town, had previously represented Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard when Thomas tarred Goddard with a very public criminal investigation into a deal he'd made with a prominent defendant.

In the Goddard investigation, the Attorney General's Office ultimately turned over more than 70,000 pages of documents to the sheriff and county attorney, only for the probe to fall by the wayside without any charges or criminal complaints.

This time, Novak decided not to play that game — and not because of what happened to Goddard, either. Novak says he was horrified that Thomas could launch a criminal inquiry into the exact same project that his team had provided legal representation on.

"I felt that my client should be offended by this," he tells New Times. "The notion that its lawyer would institute an investigation of it and issue grand jury subpoenas, when it had advised its client on the exact same issues — it's just offensive." Novak filed a motion to quash the subpoena and kick Thomas' office off the case.

Thomas argued there was an iron wall between his civil staff and his criminal team. Yet the very prosecutor issuing the subpoena — Aubuchon — had been part of the project's stakeholders committee. She'd attended numerous meetings as a deputy county attorney, including that trip to Los Angeles. And the county had relied on Thomas' staff to point out any potential problems with contracts on the project. Those were the same contracts Thomas was now subpoenaing.

Surely, that should be enough to derail the probe.

Aubuchon fired back on Thomas' behalf, raising several issues. Thomas, she claimed, had no conflict. But that wasn't true of any of the other parties involved.

The judge, Presiding Criminal Court Judge Gary Donahoe, had a conflict because he was, well, a judge. Someday he might preside over cases in the new courthouse, Aubuchon argued.

And the defense lawyers on the case had a conflict, too. Irvine's firm was representing both the court administration (on the court tower issue) and the county board of supervisors (on the subpoena issue). Wasn't that, she wrote, a conflict?

On February 6, Judge Donahoe issued his ruling.

The judge noted that he had no conflict on the case. He had no "absolutely no interest in the court tower," Donahoe wrote, "that would be affected in any way, let alone a substantial way, by this litigation."

Indeed, Donahoe, unlike Aubuchon, had never been part of the stakeholders committees for the court tower project. And while Aubuchon might claim that Irvine was technically Donahoe's lawyer, Irvine says that's not true. He was hired by the court administration. He met with Presiding Judge Barbara Mundell.

He never met with Judge Donahoe, not as his attorney.

Judge Donahoe also found that Irvine's firm didn't have a conflict. Yes, his firm represented both the court on construction issues and the county on this matter. But whether Irvine's firm had "a potential conflict of interest in representing the Board," Donahoe wrote, "is a matter between [the firm] and the Board."

Donahoe felt differently about Thomas' conflicts. He disqualified him from the case.

Thomas' deputy county attorneys had attended executive sessions where the project was discussed, he wrote. And while Thomas' lawyers kept claiming there would be an "appearance of impropriety" if Irvine's firm stayed on the case — well, Donahoe thought Thomas' conflict was much bigger. He wanted to prosecute his own client, for a matter he'd advised it on.

"It strikes the Court that any rationally thinking person would likely conclude that it appears improper for adversaries in a court proceeding to have the same lawyer," Judge Donahoe noted tartly.

"The . . . appearance of evil is present," Donahoe continued. "The Board will never believe that confidences about the court tower it shared with members of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in executive sessions, other meetings, and perhaps in the sought-after correspondence and e-mails, will not be divulged by the deputy county attorneys involved in this investigation."

Thomas spent months trying to undo that decision.

Thomas and Aubuchon filed a motion to reconsider with Judge Donahoe. Denied.

They filed a special action with the appellate court, appealing Judge Donahoe's denial. Denied again.

Bizarrely, Aubuchon even filed an appeal of the special action with the Arizona Supreme Court, claiming that — thanks to a news report on Channel 15 — she'd learned some shocking new information that the court simply needed to hear.

The news?

Tom Irvine represented both the court administration and the county board of supervisors.

"Because [Irvine's law firm] chose not to disclose its dual representation to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, the information was discovered only through a June 8, 2009, report by investigative journalist Josh Bernstein," Aubuchon claimed in her filing.

Aubuchon then attached a transcript of Bernstein's report. But, incredibly, she also attached a copy of Judge Donahoe's ruling from February — a ruling that dealt with the very issue at hand.

That ruling contradicted Aubuchon's protestations. She'd known all along that Irvine's firm represented both county and court; Judge Donahoe had ruled on that very issue and decided it wasn't a conflict.

So much for Aubuchon's brand-new discovery.

Not surprisingly, that appeal was denied, too. And that was pretty much the end, because Thomas had nowhere else to appeal the matter.

But the wound apparently festered.

In December 2009 — nearly six months after Thomas' final appeal was rejected and nearly year after the original subpoena — Thomas' office filed its racketeering claim, alleging that Judge Donahoe, Irvine, his law partner Novak, the five county supervisors, and a few extra judges were part of a "criminal enterprise."

This "criminal enterprise," however, didn't occupy itself with the usual criminal pursuits: dealing drugs, fencing contraband, running a protection racket.

They'd conspired to — gasp! — build a courthouse.

"This action," Deputy County Attorney Aubuchon harrumphed, "arises from a concerted scheme to hinder the criminal investigation and prosecution of elected officials and employees of Maricopa County . . . related to the funding and construction of the Maricopa County Superior Court Tower."

One week after the racketeering suit was filed, Aubuchon dropped the biggest bombshell of all.

She filed a criminal complaint against Judge Donahoe, charging him with felony counts of bribery, obstructing a criminal investigation, and hindering prosecution.

According to the "probable cause statement" Aubuchon attached to the complaint, Donahoe's criminal behavior consisted of the following actions:

• He refused to see that he had a conflict on the court tower project and should have stepped off the case.

• He refused to remove Irvine and Novak from representing the county on the case, despite their supposed conflict. "Judge Donahoe failed to see that a conflict existed or that allowing Irvine and Novak to appear before him could raise an appearance of impropriety," Aubuchon huffed.

• He insisted on removing Thomas from prosecuting the case and stopped him from getting the records in question.

• In three other cases, he ruled against the Sheriff's Office or the county attorney.

At a press conference, Thomas struggled to explain how, exactly, those actions added up to a charge of bribery.

Arizona has a "very broad" definition of bribery, he said. He added a plea for help to the media scrum: "If I'm not explaining this well, I hope you'll help me."

But despite his inability to explain the charges his own office had issued against Judge Donahoe, Thomas still sounded a defiant note.

The court tower investigation, he vowed, would go on.

"We are going to get to the bottom of this, and we are not going to be obstructed anymore," he warned.

It's funny, really, to think that Andrew Thomas still imagines he can get to the bottom of anything.

He's lost case after case: Virtually every indictment he's brought against another public official has resulted in dismissal or defeat. He's also lost most of his civil division — and, with it, the ability to hit up law firms seeking county work for campaign contributions. Perhaps as a result, his campaign for Arizona Attorney General is flagging. So far, he's been able to raise just $25,000.

And for all the sound and fury Thomas brought to his December filings against Donahoe and all the alleged "racketeers" in county government, the cases have had little legal success to date.

At this point, the charges against Donahoe are on hold. The judge assigned to the case ruled that Donahoe would likely prevail in his attempt to disqualify Thomas from the case. That's spared Judge Donahoe the indignity of being fingerprinted and booked like a common criminal.

The racketeering lawsuit, meanwhile, is faring no better. Thomas pulled his usual bulldog, Aubuchon, off the case and appointed another deputy county attorney, Rachel Alexander, to handle it. Alexander is a conservative blogger not known for her experience on high-profile criminal matters; indeed, she was transferred to the Major Crimes Unit just one week before handed the complicated racketeering case.

So far, Alexander seems badly in over her head. She missed a key deadline. She's been outmatched — and, in this case, that's hardly her fault. She's up against some of the Valley's top defense lawyers, and (thanks to the multiple defendants on the case) she's been forced to fight off a half-dozen of them at once.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors have convened a grand jury to examine allegations that Arpaio and Thomas have abused their power. Both County Manager David Smith and his top deputy, Sandi Wilson, have testified.

But the whisper campaign against the court tower has continued apace. The narrative pushed by Thomas' people is still that the county supervisors and administrators have something to hide — why else block Thomas and Arpaio? Why not turn over those records that Thomas demanded back in December 2008?

The crazy part is, they did.

Yes, the county fought the subpoena that Thomas and Aubuchon issued in December. But just a few weeks after the subpoena, the Sheriff's Office employed one of its favored tools and put in a public-records request for nearly the exact same records. Interestingly, the sheriff's request was quickly followed by a near-identical request from Thomas' favorite reporter over at Channel 15.

The county decided against fighting either request, Wilson says.

It wasn't simple. Much like the subpoenas, the requests weren't focused on anything particular. The sheriff wanted all contracts and all procurement documents. It wanted detailed budgets and e-mails and requests for proposals.

The request generated tens of thousands of pages — so many pieces of paper, in fact, that the county had to hire two lawyers working full-time for weeks to scan the documents for attorney-client privilege issues.

Total cost of assembling the request? $80,000.

So far, the pages have yielded little of interest.

Despite the massive amount of materials he'd requested, county staffers tell New Times, Channel 15's Bernstein was in the records room for less than an hour and asked for just a dozen copies, most of them photographs of county officials on their trips to Philadelphia.

Then Bernstein wanted to know about the documents in the adjacent room.

Bernstein was told that's where attorneys were reviewing additional documents for attorney-client privilege, recalls Wade Swanson, the county's new general counsel.

"As fast as someone could review them for privilege and confidentiality, they were being made available to the general public," Swanson says.

Bernstein didn't waste more time going through the records that were available. Instead, he had his crew film the locked door concealing the records that were still being reviewed — and he hijacked County Manager David Smith to ask what he was hiding.

Bernstein never made another trip to the records room, Swanson says.

As for the Sheriff's Office, well, at least officers bothered to look at the records they'd demanded. A detective and a sergeant showed up a week after Bernstein and spent at least three days scanning documents electronically.

What they've done with those records is anyone's guess.

New Times twice put in a public-records request for any reports into the project generated by the Sheriff's Office, without so much as a response.

And it's not just us.

For a time, Thomas had officially farmed out the court tower investigation to the Yavapai County Attorney's Office, saying that he was attempting to take the high road by using an independent prosecutor. (He also sent Yavapai criminal cases involving Supervisors Stapley and Mary Rose Wilcox.)

But Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk intimated that she didn't feel comfortable with the pressure that Arpaio and his deputy Hendershott were putting on her office. After she resisted Hendershott's commands, in October, Thomas suddenly took the cases back — independent prosecutor be damned.

It's interesting to note, though, exactly what Thomas gave the Yavapai prosecutors.

Dennis Magrane, Polk's chief of staff, says Yavapai was given the Sheriff's Office reports into Supervisors Wilcox and Stapley, as well supporting documentation. But while they were officially given the court tower "investigation," Magrane says that the "investigation" didn't include a single file or report.

"The Maricopa County Attorney turned the authority to prosecute the case over to us," he says. "But the Sheriff's Office didn't have a case to turn over at that point. We have not been provided with [anything] to date regarding any investigation on the courthouse."

That's a stunning acknowledgement — because it almost certainly shows that there never was a targeted investigation into the court tower.

Instead, there was a fishing expedition.

The county attorney wasn't subpoenaing records to get to the bottom of a credible allegation of wrongdoing. The office was subpoenaing records to see if they could luck into finding something wrong.

And, while they were at it, the expedition was surely a convenient way to derail Tom Irvine's probe into Thomas' conflicts — and to force the county to play ball on budget issues.

"Andrew Thomas and Joe Arpaio have shown that they are vindictive," says attorney Novak, "and they'll do whatever they can get away with to further their own interests."

The gambit didn't work, of course. Thomas still lost his civil division. Arpaio still lost his budget battle. And right now, Thomas has painted himself so badly into a corner that he's been forced to ask the supervisors to let him help choose his replacement if he leaves office to run for attorney general. (Yeah, right, they scoff in reply.)

But the whole year of turmoil did do one thing.

It allowed Arpaio and Thomas to paint the county as hopelessly corrupt. It let them blame their own bad lawyering on ethically compromised judges. And it gave them a tool to tar the entire county administration without a shred of proof.

Forget the truth. For Andrew Thomas, it's one hell of a story.

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