The escalating legal battles between county officials that erupted after the indictment of Supervisor Don Stapley have converged on the Mesa Republican’s secretary, who is now the subject of a criminal investigation and is being represented by a lawyer appointed by the county.
The investigation is to determine whether Susan Schuerman, Stapley’s secretary, used county resources to conduct Stapley’s private business, according to a letter from County Attorney Andrew Thomas.
Schuerman is named as the statutory agent on a company co-owned by Stapley, Arroyo Pacific Partners LLC. She listed her county phone and fax numbers on company documents filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission.
But the broader dispute raised by Thomas is whether county taxpayers should pay for a lawyer to represent Schuerman, and who gets to make that decision.
For now, the issue of whether Schuerman is entitled to a county-paid lawyer has been put on hold. The lawyer appointed to represent her, Stephen Dichter, said he hopes to eventually get paid but will represent Schuerman for free if that’s what it takes.
“While I don’t intend to do this pro bono, it might end up this way,” Dichter said. “I’m not going to take a powder on her.”
Schuerman refused to discuss her relationship to Stapley’s business when contacted by the Tribune. She referred questions to Dichter, who was appointed to represent her in a roundabout way by acting county manager Sandi Wilson.
Stapley faces 118 criminal charges in the indictment announced in December by Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose agency investigated the case. The longtime supervisor is accused of failing to list extensive real estate and business dealings on financial disclosure forms he is required to file as an elected official.
In the weeks following the announcement, the five-member board voted to strip Thomas of his ability to represent the county in civil cases, arguing he has a conflict of interest in part because of his prosecution of Stapley. The board also hired attorney Thomas Irvine and his firm to give it legal advice in dealing with conflict-of-interest issues involving the county attorney’s office.
Thomas has challenged those actions in court, arguing the powers of the county attorney to act as both prosecutor and the county’s legal counsel are set in the state’s constitution and statutes.
Last month, Wilson sent a letter to private law firms that contract with the county warning them they risk not being paid if they accept work through the county attorney’s office. Earlier this month, Thomas sent a similar letter to the county’s private legal vendors warning them the board’s actions are illegal and they may not be paid for contract work he did not approve.
All of that legal wrangling came together on Schuerman.
When sheriff’s detectives sought to interview Schuerman, Dichter was appointed by Wilson to represent her. That appointment went through Irvine.
Government employees who get dragged into legal proceedings as a result of their official duties are routinely appointed lawyers to protect their interests, Irvine said.
Government workers are not entitled to taxpayer-paid lawyers to protect them in a criminal investigation.
Thomas raised the specter that Schuerman is the target of a criminal investigation in a Feb. 13 letter to a lawyer in the same law firm as Irvine. Thomas also warned he would bring legal action against the Board of Supervisors if he found they were authorizing county money to pay for private criminal defense lawyers.
By the time Dichter was appointed, two other lawyers had resigned as her county-hired lawyer, he said. So rather than leave her on her own again, he decided to continue representing her with the understanding that he might never be paid, he said.
That issue is something that needs to be settled between Thomas, Wilson, Irvine and, most likely, through the courts, Dichter said.
Barnett Lotstein, special assistant county attorney, said prosecutors do not object to Dichter giving legal advice to Schuerman as long as his bills are not being paid by taxpayers.