Before Don Stapley’s Indictment, There Was the Land Deal

Behind the year's most shocking indictment — 118 criminal counts filed last month against Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley — is a bizarre tale of a land deal turned ugly, a $360 million jury verdict reduced to nothing, and a political fundraiser hosted by one of the Valley's most influential law firms.

This particular story-behind-the-story has been playing out for nearly a decade now. But some political insiders believe the tipping point for Stapley may have come in December 2007, when he made the near-fatal mistake of showing up in a courtroom to support an old high school friend.

It wasn't just any high school friend. It was Conley Wolfswinkel, the East Valley land baron who became a poster boy for avarice in the late-'80s savings-and-loan scandal. This time around, Wolfswinkel was being sued by a group of investors over his 2003 purchase of 13,000 acres in Buckeye.

Stapley may have thought he could just quietly sit in the courtroom, listen to the closing arguments, and lend his support.

He was wrong.

The jury returned a huge verdict against Wolfswinkel — but the judge on the case subsequently threw it out. Court records show that, at that point, Stapley's appearance triggered scrutiny from lawyers representing the investors. Stapley's business ties to Wolfs­winkel were raised with the county's presiding judge in a conference call; the investors' lawyers suggested Stapley's presence may have improperly influenced the judge.

Within two weeks of that phone call, County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio initiated their investigation of Stapley. Their probe focused on Stapley's ties to Wolfswinkel.

It might all seem like an amazing coincidence, except for one thing.

One of the land investors, a guy who's spent the past decade trying to stop Conley Wolfswinkel, is Andrew Thomas' attorney.

At this point, there's no way of knowing exactly how the county's investigation into Supervisor Stapley began. At their joint news conference to discuss the case last month, Sheriff Arpaio and County Attorney Thomas said only that they'd received a "tip," and that the investigation started in May.

Many insiders believe the source of that tip is Thomas' attorney, Leo Beus, a prominent guy in the Mormon community and partner in a firm that represents most of the big developers in town. But in a phone call with New Times, Beus flatly denied ever talking to Thomas about the case.

"I have no idea how Andrew Thomas got any information about it," he says. "I never, ever spoke to Andrew Thomas about this." Beus adds that he considers Stapley a friend.

"I have no desire to do him any harm at all," he says.

Dan Dowd, one of the attorneys representing Beus' investor group on the deal, says the same thing: "Our office never had discussions with the county attorney on any of this."

That certainly may be true. But the facts point to, at minimum, one hell of a coincidence.

Here's what the record shows, according to court files, county financial records, and campaign finance filings.

In 2007, Andrew Thomas hired Beus and his partner, Paul Gilbert, to represent him in a showdown with the State Bar of Arizona.

At the time, Thomas was facing 13 different Bar complaints. The Bar wasn't happy about how Thomas had sought to stop Judge Timothy Ryan from hearing all criminal cases because of Ryan's stance on immigration. Nor did the Bar appreciate comments Thomas had made to the media, criticizing the judiciary, or his appointment of a special prosecutor with clear conflicts of interest in the botched New Times investigation. (See "Andrew Thomas Fights to Seal Wilenchik's State Bar Secrets," June 26, 2008.)

Thomas was in the fight of his political life. And Beus proved to be just the right attorney to help Thomas win it.

Beus' selection initially surprised insiders. His firm is a powerful one — but it specializes in land-use issues.

No matter. Beus took on the task of defending Thomas with an intensity far beyond the usual role of a lawyer. He took the Bar to task in the media, in a special action to the state Supreme Court, and in conversation to anyone who would listen. With Dan Cracchiolo, his co-counsel on the matter, Beus even paid for a full-page ad in Arizona Attorney, the Bar's in-house magazine, claiming the Bar was on a witch hunt.

"We write this letter, not as Mr. Thomas' attorneys, and pay for this space at our own personal expense because we have something to say that all Arizona lawyers may want to hear," they wrote.

In direct response to Beus' complaints, the Bar agreed to remove its chief counsel from the case and appoint an independent investigator; sources tell New Times the case against Thomas has been foundering ever since. Score one for Leo Beus.