County's anti-corruption effort throws wide net - East Valley Tribune: News

County's anti-corruption effort throws wide net

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Posted: Saturday, December 6, 2008 6:58 pm | Updated: 10:57 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

David Petersen thought he was clear of his legal troubles when he cut a plea deal with Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. But then the former state treasurer found out he was being targeted by MACE.

Stapley indicted over land deals, $10M loan

It has been 20 months since Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas launched an investigation of Petersen's plea deal through their then-new collaboration to root out public corruption.

It had been the most high-profile case handled by MACE - Maricopa County's Anti-Corruption Effort - until Tuesday, when a 118-count indictment was announced against County Supervisor Don Stapley.

Stapley, R-District 2 of Mesa, Gilbert and Scottsdale, is charged with failing to list properties and income on financial disclosure statements he is required to file as an elected official. Among the charges are multiple counts of perjury, forgery and false swearing, all felonies.

Other cases that have garnered headlines include the MACE investigations of the Maricopa County Community College District and a Mesa-based towing company that had lucrative contracts with cities throughout the East Valley.

But after almost two years, MACE has yet to get a single conviction. One indictment has been thrown out. Two other cases, besides the Stapley indictment, are making their way through the courts. The rest remain under investigation.

Both Arpaio and Thomas say the special unit that investigates public officials who break the law is necessary.

"Who else in the state has the stomach to do what I'm doing?" Thomas said Friday in a joint news conference with Arpaio. "I don't know of anyone else who would have the stomach for this. But we're going to finish what we started."

For MACE, it started largely with Petersen.

Goddard's office spent eight months investigating the Republican treasurer, but found no evidence he had abused his position. In October 2006, the investigation was resolved when Petersen pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor and was put on probation.

The following April, Arpaio and Thomas launched an investigation to determine whether Petersen got a soft plea deal in return for approving a $1.9 million payment of state funds to Goddard's office. The money was for legal fees in an unrelated civil case.

"It was surreal," Petersen said Friday. "It was like, this doesn't happen to a law-abiding citizen. This isn't justice. I thought it was over."

Petersen said he has racked up thousands of dollars in legal bills as the investigation has dragged on. The MACE investigation also prompted Goddard to refer all cases his office was handling that were investigated by the sheriff's office to other agencies. Goddard has branded the investigation a political witch hunt, and said the payment of legal fees was mandated by law.

To Phoenix attorney Craig Mehrens, the much-publicized investigations against public officials being conducted under the guise of MACE are particularly dangerous. Mehrens represented Sandra Dowling, the former Maricopa County schools superintendent who was indicted in 2006 on 25 criminal counts after an investigation by the sheriff's office. The case ended earlier this year when Dowling pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor. Goddard's office originally prosecuted Dowling, but then sent the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office for final disposition after the MACE investigation into the Petersen plea was launched.

Mehrens said Arpaio and Thomas are abusing their offices by grabbing headlines with investigations of public officials who have not committed a crime, or bringing charges that amount to filling out paperwork improperly. When public officials are indicted, or even when a criminal investigation is announced, they face the loss of their reputations and the likelihood of being voted out by suspicious voters, he said.

"The danger is what's happening in this county is people are absolutely petrified of Joe Arpaio because of the power he has and how he's using it," Mehrens said. "If he decides he doesn't like you, he's going to find a way to crush you.

"This is a prosecutor and a sheriff who are abusing the process. It's just frightening."

Arpaio defended his tactics, saying his MACE deputies are doing their jobs in investigating allegations of wrongdoing by public officials.

MACE became a workable collaboration four years ago, when Thomas was elected and replaced former County Attorney Richard Romley, Arpaio said. Arpaio and Romley had openly feuded for years, even though both are Republicans. Until Thomas was elected, Arpaio worked closely with Goddard in several high-profile cases, including the prosecution of Dowling.

But Arpaio's relationship with Thomas has been a close one, and when allegations of public corruption surfaced they joined forces through MACE, Arpaio said.

"These are very complicated issues when you talk about corruption and white-collar crime," Arpaio said. "When you talk about these cases, you need as much legal advice as you can get, so why not work together during the process?"

Cases involving public officials require expertise in both criminal and election law, said Barnett Lotstein, special assistant county attorney. They also tend to involve complex financial transactions that take time to unravel, he said.

That is why many of the MACE investigations have dragged on for years, he said.

In most criminal cases, "everyone knows there was a crime but not who did it," Lotstein said. "In a white-collar case, everybody knows who did it. The question is, is it a crime?"

Prosecuting politicians also has added complications, he said.

A stock argument made by defense lawyers is that the prosecution is political, he said. That argument rarely arises in most criminal cases, he added.

MACE pairs investigators and prosecutors who are well versed in both financial fraud and election laws, he said.

Arpaio and Thomas scoffed at the suggestion that the Stapley case or others investigated by MACE are publicity ploys to boost their political profiles. Arpaio particularly thrives on the nationwide media attention he receives with policies such as issuing pink underwear to jail inmates.

Thomas noted that he, Arpaio and Stapley are all Republicans. Arpaio said that all three of them also were re-elected by comfortable margins in November.

"We just got re-elected," Arpaio said. "What am I running for? I can get re-elected on pink underwear."

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