Sheriff’s deputies have attempted to question the creators of a legal defense fund for indicted Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley, asking them whether they were promised anything in return, the Tribune has learned.
Deputies began contacting those involved in the seven-member trust on Friday. The Stapley Legal Expense Trust was created earlier this month to raise money to help pay for Stapley’s defense against the 118 charges he faces as the result of an indictment announced in December by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas.
Of the six trustees reached by the Tribune, all but one confirmed that sheriff’s investigators had either spoken with them or made attempts to contact them.
Stapley’s lawyers blasted the attempts to question his supporters as a blatant attempt at intimidation and further evidence that Thomas should not be able to handle the prosecution because he has shown a bias against the Mesa Republican.
“The idea of a prosecutor or law enforcement officer intimidating those who step forward to aid a defendant in his defense is repugnant to ordered justice,” Stapley’s lawyers argued in a motion filed late Wednesday seeking to have the county attorney’s office forced off the case.
Ernie Baird, former Republican majority leader in the state House of Representatives and a member of the Stapley trust, said two deputies showed up at his home about 4:30 p.m. Friday. Baird said his wife told the investigators to contact him at his law office.
The deputies telephoned Baird and questioned him as to how he knows Stapley and whether he was promised anything in return for his involvement in the defense fund.
Baird said he refused to cooperate and is “outraged” that deputies would attempt to question him for getting involved in a legal trust fund to help Stapley fight the charges against him.
“I don’t have a thing to hide, but I really am outraged,” Baird said, adding he told deputies it is “none of your business” when asked how he knows Stapley and the others involved in the legal fund.
“This is not the Soviet Union, and we do have free rights of assembly and association with other people,” Baird said he told the deputy. “I don’t see what business it is of yours or the sheriff’s.”
Baird said he got to know Stapley, a Mesa Republican, while serving in the Legislature, where he represented the Paradise Valley area from 1991 to 1997. Baird added he was asked to help with the defense fund by Merwin Grant, a longtime friend and law school roommate, and has never discussed the legal account directly with Stapley.
“It seems like to me that this is an attempt at intimidation,” Baird told the Tribune, adding he and Arpaio have long been friends. “It doesn’t bother me because I’m a lawyer and I know they’re out of line. But I was insulted by it and I told the guy, ‘I think this is an abuse of power.’ Why does he (Arpaio) have to sic some deputies to ask me questions implying I’ve done something wrong?”
Arpaio said Wednesday he could not comment on why his agency attempted to question those involved in the Stapley defense fund.
“We have to do our job,” Arpaio said. “I’m not going to comment on him (Stapley), whether he raises money for his defense, although it is kind of unusual. When we do something we go full force.”
Deputies also attempted to contact former Secretary of State Betsey Bayless, also a trustee on the fund, she said. Bayless, who served with Stapley on the Board of Supervisors in the 1990s, said when she got home late Friday night she found a business card from a sheriff’s deputy stuck in her door. She has not been contacted since. Bayless said she was asked to serve on the trust board by Stapley.
Bayless, the CEO of the Maricopa Integrated Health System, said she is easy to contact and does not see the need for deputies to try to question her at her home.
“I don’t feel outrage,” she said. “I just feel this is unnecessary and not professional.”
Another trustee of the legal fund, Timothy Olson, said he also was contacted Friday, asked how he knew Stapley and whether he was promised anything in return for his work on the trust.
Olson, a longtime neighbor of Stapley, initially told the investigator to call back later. The deputy did, about 11:30 p.m., Olson said, adding he said he didn’t want to discuss the matter and ended the conversation.
He has not heard from the sheriff’s office since.
Grant, who organized the legal fund, said he has not been contacted.
Stapley and Grant got to know each other while Grant was serving on boards related to the county’s health system. Grant said he volunteered to help Stapley raise money for his legal defense.
Grant and the others contacted by the Tribune said they do not expect anything in return for helping Stapley raise money for his defense.
Chandler grocer Eddie Basha, another member of the trust, said through a spokeswoman that deputies attempted to contact him late Friday at the company headquarters. But Basha was home sick and has not spoken to investigators.
Trust member Susan Bitter Smith, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year, said she was interviewed Tuesday by a deputy who wanted to know how whether she was promised anything in return for getting involved with the trust. She was not, she said.
The seventh member of the trust, David Johnson, could not be reached for comment.
Stapley’s indictment charges he failed to report land deals and other business interests in financial disclosure statements he is required to file as an elected official.
In the motion filed Wednesday, Stapley lawyer Paul Charlton argues Thomas and Arpaio are interfering with Stapley’s ability to mount a legal defense by trying to intimidate those who created the legal fund. The interviews are part of a pattern by Thomas and Arpaio to smear the supervisor through public statements, he said.
Charlton also blasted the search warrant served last week on land businesses affiliated with Conley Wolfswinkel, who was convicted of fraud in the 1990s. The Sheriff’s affidavit seeking the search warrant is more akin to a press release than a legal document, Charlton said. The affidavit was released to the media in response to public records requests.
The legal defense fund was created through a trust agreement earlier this month. A Web site associated with the fund, http://www.defenddonstapley.com/, says the group has three objectives: to show support for “someone with an excellent reputation who has dedicated much of his adult life in service to our communities;” to assist with the “inevitable and enormous legal fees;” and “to encourage others to stand up to intimidation and make a choice.”