The county's top officials took the public squabble triggered by the indictment of Supervisor Don Stapley to court Wednesday in a complaint challenging attempts to strip the county attorney of his power to provide legal advice to the Board of Supervisors.
County Attorney Andrew Thomas asked a judge to declare that the board broke the law last week when it voted to remove his office's authority to represent the county in civil cases. Thomas also is challenging the board's decision in early December to hire an outside law firm to advise it on how to handle what it perceives as a conflict of interest involving the county attorney.
The long-simmering tension between the board and Thomas erupted into a full-blown power struggle after Stapley was served with a 118-count indictment alleging that he failed to list properties and business interests on financial disclosure forms he is required to file.
In the complaint filed Wednesday, Thomas argues that the state constitution and laws make clear that he is the legal adviser to the board. The board does not have the discretion to usurp that power by hiring an outside law firm, according to the complaint.
The board hired private attorney Tom Irvine as its legal adviser shortly after the indictment of Stapley was announced. It has since hired former Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley to act as a consultant in dealing with its claims against Thomas.
"The board's acts demonstrate an abuse of power, which will have the effect of impeding and interfering with the powers and duties of the county attorney," Thomas states in the motion, which was filed by a private law firm he hired to represent his office in the matter.
Joining Thomas in the motion is county Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose agency investigated the criminal charges against Stapley.
Thomas' spokesman, Michael Scerbo, said the county attorney's office would have no comment beyond what is in the complaint.
Romley said the complaint was expected, adding that the court is the appropriate place to sort out whether Thomas can continue to act as the board's lawyer while he is prosecuting Stapley.
In a letter sent Monday to Thomas, Irvine argued that Thomas is breaking ethical rules of conduct for lawyers by prosecuting Stapley while refusing to step aside as the board's legal adviser.