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December 11, 2009

Lawlessness in Maricopa County

Somebody at work told me that it might be worthwhile to take a glance at the happenings in Maricopa County this past week. It was and it wasn't. Things are way more complicated there than I expected, but this is interesting in a "maybe we should just let God sort them all out" way.

Here's the shortest version: Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his lackey, County Attorney Andrew Thomas, are continuing their war on the Board of Supervisors by bringing a RICO suit against them. The suit seems contrived and petty and I'll bet you a beer it ends up with Thomas facing another state bar disciplinary investigation. To think these two could end up Governor and Attorney General of a state in this country (and not, say, some third-world shit-hole where their jackbooted thuggery would be less remarkable) depresses the hell out of me.

Now for a looooong version, interesting only in how desperate Thomas seems and how fervent Arpaio is to stick it to the Board.

Arpaio and Thomas have been in a year-long battle with the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors over an expensive building project at the Superior Court called the Court Tower. They've also been fighting over the criminal prosecution of County Supervisor Don Stapley who was accused of illegally making a bundle off the tower project. But they were losing that battle.

The board, saying Thomas has a conflict of interest, has taken away Thomas' authority to represent it in civil cases and refused to approve the hiring of special prosecutors to investigate Stapley and the court tower.

The court has ruled against Thomas in his efforts to regain his power to represent the board, and [Judge] Donahoe has ruled that the county attorney's office cannot participate in the investigation of the court tower. In another ruling, Donahoe ordered that the sheriff's office return all items seized during the search of East Valley developer Conley Wolfswinkel, whose relationship with Stapley was under investigation by the sheriff's office.

So Arpaio and Thomas upped the ante. They've brought a RICO suit against pretty much anyone in county government who ever stood up to them. From the lawsuit (PDF), here are the players:

All five Maricopa County Supervisors,
Judge Barbara R. Mundell,
Judge Gary Donahoe,
Anna Baca, retired Superior Court judge,
Kenneth Fields, retired Superior Court judge,
County Manager David Smith,
Deputy County Manager Sandi Wilson,
Wade Swanson, of the county Office of General Litigation,
Thomas Irvine, the county supervisors' outside counsel, and
Edward Novak, a lawyer who works at the same firm as Irvine.

The claim is that they were all part of a plot to stop the prosecution of Stapley and the investigation of the Court Tower project. Let me explain. No. There is too much and nobody wants to have to read the poorly-written RICO suit like I just did. Let me sum up.

Remember, these are the accusations, not the facts. They're quite tangled and read like they’re prepared by a paranoiac small-time local-government attorney who thinks he’s taking on a vast, but invisible conspiracy to ruin his life. Oh wait a minute; was that too “on the nose?”

According to Thomas, the Stapley case had been (allegedly and how does Thomas know this) assigned to one judge (unnamed in the lawsuit), but then Judge Mundell reassigned it to Judge Fields, who hates Thomas (the feeling is mutual), but didn't recuse himself from the case. Thomas calls this the "Mundell-Fields faction" which he has been fighting with for years over state bar complaints by Fields that went nowhere. Fields also campaigned for Thomas' opponent in the general election last year, which Thomas suggests means that Fields must recuse himself from all cases brought by Thomas (wouldn't that be every criminal case in the county? what would Fields do all day?) Fields later dismissed the misdemeanor charges against Stapley and Thomas thinks that's criminal because he then felt compelled to drop the felony charges against Stapley. Who he's pretty sure is a criminal.

The Board members, plus Wilson and Irvine, stand accused of "usurping" Thomas' authority to act as the Board's legal counsel when, rather than sticking with Thomas, they hired Irvine as outside counsel (an “illegal takeover”) after Thomas started prosecuting Stapley and Arpaio started investigating the Board. So...yeah. He thinks that's pretty criminal.

Thomas then accused the outside counsel of a conflict of interest. So the Board and Irvine accused him of conflicts of interest. Then, when Judge Donahoe was set to rule on that, Thomas accused Donahoe (a subordinate of Judge Mundell and therefore part of the "Mundell-Fields faction") of an undisclosed conflict of interest. Because this farce isn't ridiculous enough, Donahoe then "falsely" (to hear Thomas tell it) accused right back. Thomas thinks that's pretty fucking criminal.

But what really baked Thomas' noodle is that Donahoe then ruled that Thomas' conflict of interest disqualifies him from the clock tower investigation (this is where it ties back to Stapley and Arpaio, who is still itching to bring down the tower and the Board). Arpaio and Thomas say that's intimidation and obstruction of justice because now Thomas isn’t allowed to work with his best pall Arpaio. And they just sued Donahoe in a separate case for taking bribes. Conveniently on the very day Donahoe was supposed to rule on whether Thomas could continue the clock tower investigation and prosecutions against the Board. (More on the Donahoe bribery case waaaaay below. Wait for it, it's good.)

Oh, but I'm not finished. Thomas says that Novak (Irvine's law firm partner) filed a bar complaint against him (again, how does he know that? complaints are anonymous), but that the State Bar illegally coordinated with Novak (who was at that time the President of the State Bar), even though the Bar dismissed the complaint. Thomas says it still intimidated him and was, therefore, criminal. He also says this was on Stapley’s behalf. Okay??

Last month, the Board filed another complaint with the State Bar citing all the foregoing shenanigans. Thomas says this "perfected the coordinated efforts of defendants to corruptly deprive plaintiff Thomas and MACO prosecutors of their license [sic] to practice law in Arizona." Which he thinks is criminal.

Somewhere in all of that gobbledygook Thomas says there has been bribery, racketeering, extortion, and conspiracy among all defendants to commit those unlawful acts, all on behalf of Stapley, who must have a hell of a lot of dirt on all these people to make them risk their livelihood and freedom on his behalf.

This does not read like a successful suit. For starters it complains of things that aren’t criminal as if they are. For example, making a bar complaint? So. Not. Criminal. Hiring their own counsel instead of using Thomas when Arpaio was investigating them and Thomas was talking about prosecuting them? So. Not. Criminal. Judges ruling against Thomas? Also not criminal. The Board members hiring someone to sweep their offices for recording devices (planted by Arpaio’s investigators)? So. Not. Criminal.

Unless, they can tie it to an exchange of money or favors or some other corruption. Which Thomas tries, halfheartedly. For example: “Despite the classic signs of graft that have come to light regarding the Court Tower project, defendant Board has paid defendant [outside counsel] at least $1.2 million in legal fees over the last fiscal year.” Okay. Kudos to Thomas for bringing up money, but is he suggesting the legal fees were the unlawful product of graft? Are the legal fees unlawful at all? Is that just there to tie the outside counsel to the Board? Um, okay.

Also, every time a judge (even judges not being sued here) ruled against Thomas, he calls it a “false” or “improper” ruling. For example, he says Fields' ruling “offers reasoning never before embraced by an Arizona court.” He says another judge “cited no basis in law for his” order “which has wrought havoc in Maricopa County government.” I find it...interesting that his RICO case would require a federal court to go back and overturn all these state rulings against Thomas, which he presumably failed to appeal or already lost on appeal. Again, every crazy dude in court always says that the orders against him are "illegal" or "false." Next Thomas will be referring to the Maricopa Superior Court as the "So-called Court" and suing the judges for corruption behind the bench.

Oh, yeah, the bribery case (see what I did there?). Judge Donahoe was set to hear argument on whether the Board of Supervisors had authority over Thomas' appointment of a pair of outside prosecutors. Since he can't prosecute them because of a conflict, he wanted to hire his own outside counsel to do it. But technically, he works for the Board so would they have authority over his appointed outside prosecutors? Oy. Also, yes, hiring outside counsel is exactly what he complains of the Board doing, which is why I called this thing petty.

Instead, the morning of the hearing Thomas announced that he was filing criminal charges against Donahoe, accusing him of hindering prosecution, obstructing a criminal investigation and bribery.

When asked about the bribery charge, Thomas practically came to pieces trying to justify it:

But Thomas couldn't offer any evidence to the assembled media scrum that Donahoe actually had accepted a bribe of any sort. Instead, he and Sheriff Joe Arpaio (who stood next to Thomas at the lectern) offered the same vague allegations they have made for nearly a year regarding the county's planned court tower, currently under construction.

In fact, the county attorney said no evidence exists that the veteran judge personally has received anything in the way of a personal financial benefit during the flap over the $347 million construction project.

Arizona has a "very broad" definition of bribery, Thomas said in response to requests for specificity.

But Thomas insisted that he wasn't pursuing a criminal case against Donahoe as a preemptive strike hours before the judge was set to hold a hearing that could have ended with Thomas being barred from prosecuting any county supervisor.

He later told the gaggle, "If I'm not explaining this well, I hope you'll help me."

Say what?

"In fairness," Thomas said, after enduring increasingly pointed questions, "I admit this is a hard thing to believe."

Uh huh.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There could very well be some criminal activity going on here. Stapley certainly looked like he had some sweet land deal going over the Court Tower. But this fantasy by Thomas wherein every person who ever crossed him is involved in a conspiracy to benefit Stapley? Riiiiiiight. Check your meds, Andrew. And while you’re at it, put a leash on your butt-buddy Arpaio.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 09:38 AM

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