Three Maricopa County employees are heading to mediation talks on Monday with the possibility of settlements in their multi-million-dollar claims against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas.
This will be the first round of what are sure to be other mediation talks -- and potentially quick and lucrative conclusions -- regarding tens of millions in claims racked up by the targets of Arpaio and Thomas in discredited criminal investigations.
Rocky Armfield, county risk manager, confirms for New Times that the employees will meet on Monday with retired Superior Court Judge Chris Skelly, now a private attorney who works as a mediator.
The employees are:
* Sandi Wilson, deputy county manager. She was considered a principle in Arpaio and Thomas' ridiculous court-tower investigation, which led to her being named in the pair's federal racketeering lawsuit filed in late 2009. In a smarmy news conference in March of 2010, Arpaio and Thomas announced victory in the lawsuit -- while at the same proving it was a failure by dropping the case. They asked the U.S. Justice Department's Public Integrity Section to investigation their dubious allegations and were promptly told to pound sand.
Wilson filed a claim about three months later, asking for either an apology or $2 million. She never got the apology.
* Stephen Wetzel, the county's chief information officer, filed a claim seeking $2 million, and has also filed a federal lawsuit. He alleges he was unfairly wrapped up in the bogus criminal investigation conducted by Arpaio and Thomas regarding a sweep for electronic listening devices ordered by county officials. (County Supervisor Andy Kunasek appears to have been the primary target of the sheriff and former county attorney in that case.)
The evidence of ethical abuses in the case were numerous: In one egregious example, Thomas' office presented the case before a grand jury, were told by the panel to quit bothering to investigate such a poorly conceived criminal case, yet tried to pursue felony charges against Wetzel and others anyway.
Wetzel's claim makes a good case for a motive, in that Arpaio and his chief henchman, Dave Hendershott, were ticked off over a previous squabble regarding control of the county's computers.
* Susan Schuerman, executive assistant to County Supervisor Don Stapley, filed a claim last June seeking $1.75 million. She says Hendershott threatened her if she didn't help him sink her boss, Stapley, who was among the first of Arpaio and Thomas' political enemies to be targeted in an ironically named Maricopa Anti-Corruption Enforcement task force.
She said she was personally threatened by Hendershott, who told her that failing to help him go after Stapley would be a "big mistake." When she didn't provide any help, she ended up part of a bogus criminal investigation that was touted by a spokesman for Thomas' office, but ultimately went nowhere.
Armfield says it would be "indiscreet" to say whether other mediation meetings are planned.
But others are likely. Supervisors Stapley and Mary Rose Wilcox have filed big-dollar claims. Even Hendershott and Thomas want a piece of the county, though it seems Thomas is more likely to be disbarred than paid for his actions. Hendershott, of course, was fired by Arpaio following the conclusion of an internal investigation.
The county last year announced it would try to form an alternative dispute resolution program to handle the numerous claims by its own officials, and nearly landed nationally mediator Kenneth Feinberg to do the job. When Feinberg backed out, Skelly told the Arizona Republic he'd consider mediating the claims but wouldn't be part of a dispute resolution program because it would likely be the target of yet another lawsuit by Sheriff Arpaio.
At least with the MACE team disbanded and Thomas out of office and fighting for his career, Skelly has a smaller chance of being criminally investigated for no good reason.
The results of this first round of mediations will be interesting to observers on both sides of the aisle, not to mention county taxpayers.
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