Maricopa County in turmoil: Thomas, Arpaio vs. supervisors, judges - East Valley Tribune: News

Maricopa County in turmoil: Thomas, Arpaio vs. supervisors, judges

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Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2009 6:46 pm | Updated: 12:27 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

An ongoing showdown involving two of Maricopa County's top elected officials, the county's Board of Supervisors and the judges that preside over the county's courts has escalated into a high-stakes standoff involving criminal charges, search warrants and political posturing that appears to grow more complex by the day.

Interactive timeline: A County in Turmoil

An ongoing showdown involving two of Maricopa County's top elected officials, the county's Board of Supervisors and the judges that preside over the county's courts has escalated into a high-stakes standoff involving criminal charges, search warrants and political posturing that appears to grow more complex by the day.

Interactive timeline

Stapley indicted; Thomas to prosecute

Sheriff raids charity linked to Wilcox

The latest twist occurred Thursday, when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio sent his deputies to the Phoenix offices of Chicanos Por La Causa, an organization that provides services and assistance to the disadvantaged, with search warrants looking for evidence related to an indictment against County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox - all done while the group was holding a conference in its offices.

That came a day after County Attorney Andrew Thomas filed criminal charges against Judge Gary Donahoe of Maricopa County Superior Court, alleging Donahoe committed bribery while hindering the prosecution of Supervisor Don Stapley and covering up an investigation into funding of a $340 million court tower.

And that came just two days after Wilcox and Stapley were indicted in separate cases. Wilcox stands accused of not disclosing conflicts of interest and Stapley is accused of using funds that were intended for a run for the presidency of the National Association of Counties for personal use.

The week's whirlwind of activity is just the latest in a year of bad blood between Thomas and Arpaio on one side and the board, county managers and Superior Court on the other.

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 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.

Thomas claimed in a federal racketeering lawsuit filed last week that those rulings were meant to shield Stapley, the board and county managers from scrutiny in exchange for their building the court tower.

Some observers are convinced the situation has ruined the trust of the public.

"The first thing that comes to mind is who's in charge?" said Tom Freestone, a Mesa Republican who served 15 years on the Board of Supervisors and has been elected to a wide range of offices from state senator to justice of the peace.

Freestone said he believes people are getting fed up with the "roadblocks, the fighting and jockeying," because their interests aren't served.

"Everything needs to settle down. If there are things that need to go to court, let it go to court," Freestone said. "And if you go out there and ask anybody, they've lost total confidence in all of county government."

But Thomas and Arpaio say they are not playing politics, just doing their job, and they have evidence to show the wrongdoing.

"We are going to get to the bottom of this," Thomas said.

Arpaio said, "Sometimes you have to do what you have to do."

Thomas alleged in the federal suit that his relationship with top judges began to deteriorate in 2007 when they butted heads over illegal immigration issues.

Things got worse when Thomas indicted Stapley on 118 counts alleging he didn't file required financial disclosures. That indictment has since been dismissed.

A few weeks after the indictment, the board stripped Thomas of his authority to represent it in civil cases, saying he had a conflict of interest in prosecuting a member to whom he gave legal advice.

The board created a new office in March to represent the county in civil cases, bypassing Thomas.

Thomas, maintaining he had no conflict of interest, farmed out the Stapley indictment to Yavapai County to prosecute, but Judge Kenneth Fields threw out almost half the charges, and Yavapai dismissed the rest while the case was on appeal.

The most recent case against Stapley came to light when he was arrested by the sheriff's office three days after the dismissal.

Yavapai County didn't have the resources to take that case, so Thomas sought special prosecutors from a Washington, D.C., law firm to take the case.

The Board of Supervisors refused to ratify the appointment, saying Thomas did not follow procurement procedures.

County officials said Thomas can hire the special prosecutors once he follows the law and county procedures.

Thomas said other judges and county officials are under investigation for protecting Stapley and obstructing investigations, but he wouldn't say whether more people would be charged soon.

"We are going to continue to address the deep-seated corruption that we perceive and have found in Maricopa County government," Thomas said.

Thomas said Donahoe didn't commit bribery in the traditional sense where there is a direct exchange of money, but the judge's actions are just as illegal.

The state's broad bribery statute defines the crime as accepting something of value in exchange for an official act, Thomas said.

The statute also states that it has to be done with "corrupt intent."

"Here you have a judge who shut down a court-tower investigation, and the Superior Court is going to receive a $340 million court tower," Thomas said.

Thomas said Donahoe was going to hold a hearing Wednesday that could have shut down more investigations, but he canceled it after he was served with the criminal complaint.

Donahoe's secretary said he was unavailable for comment, and he did not return a message seeking comment. A court spokeswoman did not return a message seeking comment.

Besides issuing rulings unfavorable to Thomas and Arpaio, Donahoe most recently threw detention officer Adam Stoddard into jail after Stoddard defied Donahoe's order to publicly apologize to a defense attorney for looking through her papers during a court proceeding.

Stoddard was released Thursday while the Court of Appeals ponders the case.

Donahoe, however, has signed search warrants for the sheriff's office for raids of businesses in search of employer sanctions law violations, including a raid of the Mesa Public Library.

View a larger version of this timeline.

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