The prosecutor in the criminal case against Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley was scolded by a judge Thursday over the release of a sealed deposition obtained by the Tribune.
Judge Larry Grant of Maricopa County Superior Court blasted deputy county attorney Lisa Aubuchon because the Tribune was allowed to obtain a copy of a deposition given last year by developer Conley Wolfswinkel.
That deposition, given in a 4-year-old civil case, had been sealed by the court.
Aubuchon and Wolfswinkel's lawyers had been battling over whether to have it unsealed when the Tribune obtained a copy last week.
The document was found in the corporate files of Wolfswinkel-related companies during a search of their Tempe offices in January by Maricopa County sheriff's deputies.
During a hearing in February, Aubuchon sought clarification as to whether that copy would also be covered in the protective order in the civil case.
The Tribune obtained the deposition from the sheriff's office through a public records request for documents related to the search warrant. At that time, Grant had not ruled on the status of the copy obtained in the search.
Prosecutors have since withdrawn their motion to unseal the copy of the deposition covered under the protective order in the civil case.
But a visibly angry Grant made it clear he was not swayed by the distinction between the protective order assigned to the deposition in the civil case and the copy obtained in the search.
"When there is a protective order in place, what do you think that means?" Grant asked Aubuchon during the hearing, originally set to hear her motion to unseal the deposition. "Come on."
Aubuchon told the judge that at the time the Wolfswinkel deposition was released, she was not under any order by the court not to release a copy obtained in the search.
In a statement issued Thursday, the county attorney's office said the sheriff acted appropriately in releasing the deposition in response to the Tribune's records request.
Wolfswinkel's lawyers have filed a motion for sanctions against the county attorney, demanding that all copies of the deposition be returned and that no further copies be released. Grant did block further release of the deposition until after a hearing on the Wolfswinkel motion.
Lee Johnson, a Wolfswinkel lawyer, said the intention of keeping the deposition sealed is to protect confidential business information, not to block the ongoing criminal investigation of Stapley, a Mesa Republican, and his relationship with Wolfswinkel.
An offer was made by company attorneys to release to prosecutors all aspects of the document that dealt with Stapley, Johnson said.
"The protective order just simply prohibits the willy-nilly dissemination to the public where there is no need to know," Johnson said. "If there is a need to know or if there is a need to use it in evidence, that's always going to get weighed by the court."
Wolfswinkel said in the deposition that Stapley came to him about 2004 with information that developer George Johnson was willing to sell his water and sewer company in Pinal County for $50 million.
Stapley had been urging Mesa officials to annex into Pinal County and buy Johnson Utilities, and he learned Johnson's price in those discussions, according to Wolfswinkel.
Wolfswinkel was convicted on federal fraud and conspiracy charges in 1993. He now acts as a consultant to land investment companies owned primarily by his sons.
The high stakes of the hearing Thursday were evident by the flock of lawyers involved in the Stapley case who attended.
Among them were Paul Charlton, Stapley's defense attorney in the criminal case, and Grant Woods, the former state attorney general now working for Wolfswinkel to void the search warrants that have been served on corporations owned by the family. Also attending was Ed Novak, a lawyer hired by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to advise it on conflict-of-interest issues that have arisen since Stapley was indicted.
The 118 criminal charges against Stapley allege that he failed to properly list land transactions and other business deals in which he is involved on financial disclosure statements he is required to file. Among the deals prosecutors allege were not appropriate was a series of land transactions involving Wolfswinkel that began in 2003.