Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley will be arraigned Friday on the 118 criminal charges he faces as lawyers on both sides continue to haggle over whether the prosecutor and judge should be bumped off the case for bias.
The indictment announced last month alleges Stapley failed to list businesses and land deals on financial disclosure statements he is required to file as an elected official. But the legal proceedings have stalled because of separate motions alleging bias filed by prosecutors and defense lawyers.
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas is seeking to have Judge Kenneth Fields removed from the case, arguing Fields has shown bias against Thomas by, among other things, initiating a state bar complaint against him.
Stapley’s defense lawyers are trying to have Thomas disqualified as the prosecutor in the case because he has shown bias against Stapley through improper public statements, and has a conflict of interest since his office provides legal advice to the Board of Supervisors.
Neither of those issues is likely to be resolved at the arraignment.
In a motion filed Wednesday, Stapley lawyer Paul Charlton renewed his request that a judge force Thomas off the case. Charlton specifically slammed the recent search by sheriff’s deputies at the Tempe headquarters of land development firms associated with Conley Wolfswinkel, who was convicted of fraud in the early 1990’s.
Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio have linked Wolfswinkel to the Stapley case since announcing it last month. Stapley was involved in a series of land deals with Wolfswinkel-connected companies at least since 2003. The sheriff’s affidavit for a search warrant says Stapley began receiving payments of $10,000 per month from Wolfswinkel companies in 2002.
The affidavit characterizes the case as a bribery investigation.
Among the charges against Stapley are allegations he did not properly disclose the deals with Wolfswinkel companies. Conley Wolfswinkel is a consultant to companies owned primarily by his sons.
Charlton argued in his motion that there is nothing in the sheriff’s affidavit to back claims of potential bribery. Rather, the sheriff’s affidavit seeking the search warrant is more akin to a press release than a legal document, according to the filing.
“The baseless affidavit smears both Mr. Stapley and the Wolfswinkels without setting forth any fact or any basis supporting any public offense, including bribery or fraudulent schemes,” the motion states.
It adds that any payments received by Stapley from Wolfswinkel companies are related to legal business activity.
Stapley has never voted on an issue involving Wolfswinkel companies that came to the Board of Supervisors, Charlton said in the motion.
In fact, Stapley sought legal advice from a deputy Maricopa County attorney when he filed a notice declaring a conflict of interest on an agenda item involving a Wolfswinkel-connected company in December 2006, Charlton states.
That consultation is further proof that Thomas should not be allowed to prosecute Stapley, the motion argues. The county attorney’s office cannot prosecute Stapley for business deals that he disclosed to attorneys in the office as part of his official duties, it states.
But Thomas counters in his own court document, also filed Wednesday, that any advice Stapley may have gotten prior to declaring a conflict of interest in 2006 is irrelevant to the charges he faces.
Stapley is not being charged for a conflict of interest, prosecutor Lisa Aubuchon says in the response.
“He is being prosecuted for failing to disclose to the public substantial real estate deals, sizeable financial payments from convicted felon Conley Wolfswinkel, and numerous other financial matters in his financial disclosure forms,” Aubuchon said in the court filing.
It also says the county attorney’s office is not aware of any conversations Stapley may have had with a deputy county attorney in declaring a conflict of interest in 2006. The agency does not provide personal legal advice to Stapley or other supervisors as to how they should fill out their disclosure statements, Aubuchon wrote.
In fact, the business relationship that Stapley raised in relation to his 2006 recusal from voting was not disclosed on his financial reports, meaning Stapley may have implicated himself in additional charges through his own court motion, according to Aubuchon.
If a judge finds Thomas has a conflict of interest and he is forced off the case, another county attorney could be asked to handle the prosecution. Attorney General Terry Goddard has refused to handle cases investigated by the sheriff’s office. That is because Goddard and his agency have been under investigation by Arpaio and Thomas in an unrelated matter for nearly two years.
Aside from the defense motion to have Thomas removed from the case, prosecutors are seeking to have Fields removed as the judge. Thomas claims that Fields has shown bias against his office and him personally through public statements and a complaint filed with the State Bar of Arizona. The bar complaint was in response to an investigation by Arpaio and a special prosecutor appointed by Thomas that led to the arrest in 2007 of two top executives of the Phoenix New Times.
Fields refused to voluntarily recuse himself from the case. Thomas is asking that he be removed for cause. The dispute over the judge forced the delay of Stapley’s arraignment, which will be handled by a judge who has no prior involvement with the case.
Charlton is asking that the issue of whether Thomas has a conflict be resolved first. If Thomas is removed, that would render moot the question of whether Fields has a grudge against him, according to Charlton.