The Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence stands just a mile away from Pinal County headquarters where Prisoner No. 217505 once occupied the seat of power.
Trapped inside the gates of a castle he helped build, former County Manager Stanley Griffis is consumed with feelings of anger and betrayal — not because he is innocent, Griffis says, but because his closest colleagues and associates have refused to acknowledge their role in the events that led to his incarceration.
Though he pleaded guilty in late January to six felony counts of fraud, theft and tax fraud, Griffis now insists that the $427,000 he withdrew from a public fund earmarked for East Valley road improvements was offered to him by contributing developers, and that other county officials were fully aware he had taken the money.
“A lot of people knew about this,” Griffis, who began serving a 3-1/2-year sentence on May 10, told the Tribune last week in a telephone interview. “They don’t have the right to lie about it.”
But those former associates, including Pinal County Chairwoman Sandie Smith, D-District 2, and area land speculator Conley Wolfswinkel, himself the bearer of $2 billion in unpaid civil fraud judgments, say the county’s former top administrator is indulging in sheer fantasy.
“That’s about as far-fetched as anything I’ve ever heard,” Wolfswinkel said of Griffis’ contention that he merely accepted the money as a “management fee” in exchange for personally overseeing what is known as the Superstition Valley Transportation Fund.
Smith maintains that she knew nothing of Griffis’ illegal dealings, adding that the county Board of Supervisors initiated an investigation of Griffis shortly after accusations of wrongdoing surfaced.
“As soon as we found out something was wrong, we did something about it,” she said.
Former Maricopa County Prosecutor Richard Romley was hired by the board to investigate allegations that Griffis illegally used Pinal County Sheriff’s Office posse funds in 2005 to buy $21,000 worth of weapons and ammunition for his personal use.
Romley said he found no evidence contradicting the county supervisors’ claim that they were oblivious to Griffis’ schemes.
Even Griffis acknowledged that he was the only county official to benefit personally from the transportation fund. Still, he said the notion that his actions went unobserved by elected officials is false and defies common sense.
“Sandie Smith has what I call a ‘convenient memory,’ ” Griffis said.
Griffis’ post-sentencing demeanor stands in stark contrast to the apologetic and soft-spoken tone he exhibited when addressing Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Thomas O’Toole just prior to his May 10 sentencing.
The 64-year-old, who served as county manager for 16 years before retiring in early 2006 after the weapons purchase scandal erupted, told O’Toole that all of his accomplishments as manager had been “wiped away by all of the bad things I have done.”
He added: “I can’t express how ashamed I am.”
But last week, Griffis said he accepted the guilty plea because he is in poor health, could not afford a lengthy trial and did not want Romley to pursue criminal charges against members of his family.
“It was an economic decision, not a legal decision,” he said.
Romley said Griffis had never tried to convince investigators that the money he took from the transportation fund was a fee or commission, despite being given a chance to explain his actions.
If he had, it would not have made things any easier for Griffis, Romley added, because it’s likely the money would have been seen as an illegal bribe.
“It would not have been anything other than just another crime I could have charged him with,” he said.
Griffis did agree that as county manager, taking money from developers presented a conflict of interest.
“I don’t think I was entitled to it,” he said, adding that in retrospect he isn’t sure why he took the money.
However, Wolfswinkel said area developers did not offer Griffis payment of any sort.
He said the fund was set up for one purpose: to pool developer money for roadwork projects to improve traffic conditions in the fast-growing Superstition Valley area, which includes Apache Junction and the Hunt Highway corridor southeast of Queen Creek.
“We were as shocked as anyone was,” Wolfswinkel said about the revelation that Griffis had set up a private bank account for the money, to which he had sole access. “We thought we were dealing with the county.”
In all, Pinal County officials say the transportation fund has generated about $21 million, the bulk of which has been used for legitimate road improvement projects.
Still, many have criticized the county for failing to keep closer track of the money.
Wolfswinkel said he realized the extent of the problem when the county could not locate records of his own contributions.
“We had made payments, and the county could not confirm that we had paid the money,” he said.
After concluding his investigation, Romley provided the Board of Supervisors with a list of administrative changes to improve financial oversight and accountability.
Smith said the board did not even wait for those recommendations to implement changes designed to prevent another incident, more evidence that it was not a party to Griffis’ crimes.
Romley indicated that Griffis is not credible because he has a propensity for being dishonest. Griffis also pleaded guilty in January to using his county credit card illegally, committing tax fraud and attempting to “spike” his state pension by illegally converting vacation and sick time into pay.
“This is Stan Griffis talking,” Romley said.
But Griffis said Romley painted him as the criminal mastermind who fooled everyone in order to strengthen the prosecution’s argument for a harsher prison sentence and create the appearance that all of Pinal County’s corruption has been exposed.
“Truth and justice has nothing to do with life,” Griffis said. “It’s all about winning.”