Months of legal wrangling surrounding the indictment of Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley were rendered irrelevant with the appointment of a new prosecutor and a series of court rulings this week.
The decision by Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas to send the criminal case to another prosecutor also cleared the way for negotiations on settling a separate court fight between the county attorney’s office and Stapley’s fellow supervisors.
Thomas announced Monday he was turning the prosecution of the Mesa Republican over to Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk. By Thursday, Polk hired former Navajo County Attorney Melvin Bowers as an independent counsel to take over the case. Polk also will handle other legal issues related to the ongoing investigation of Stapley by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
As a result of that move, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Anna Baca on Thursday rejected a motion by Stapley’s defense lawyers to have Thomas thrown off the case because of a conflict of interest. Baca also tossed a motion from Thomas to remove Judge Kenneth Fields for bias.
Both of those issues are now moot since Thomas and his office are no longer involved, Baca concluded.
In a separate decision issued Thursday, the Arizona Court of Appeals refused to take a case brought by Thomas challenging a superior court judge’s ruling in February that the county attorney could not be involved in attempts to obtain county documents related to construction of a new court tower in Phoenix. Judge Gary Donahoe had ruled Thomas’ office had a conflict of interest since it provided legal advice related to the tower. Donahoe made it clear another prosecutor could seek the documents to assist an ongoing investigation by the sheriff’s office.
Stapley defense lawyer Paul Charlton said he is pleased with the selection of Bowers, who served 19 years as Navajo County Attorney before retiring in December.
“I know Mel and believe him to be a professional,” Charlton said. “He’ll vigorously pursue the case and do what he thinks is right.”
Bowers has until Monday to decide whether to press the motion to have Fields removed from the case.
Thomas’ decision to give up the Stapley prosecution did not resolve his long-lingering battle with the board.
The supervisors stripped Thomas’ office of its power to represent the county in civil cases shortly after the Stapley indictment was announced in December. Lawsuits quickly followed.
Thomas characterized his decision to send the Stapley case to Polk as an attempt to settle his differences with the board, and asked that a mediator be brought in to end the costly court battles.
Board chairman Max Wilson invited Thomas to meet with the board in a letter sent Thursday. Both sides agree that the lawsuits should continue while they try to work out their differences in case a settlement cannot be reached.