The lawyer hired by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to advise it on conflict-of-interest issues that arose after the indictment of Supervisor Don Stapley once worked for the developer at the core of the criminal investigation, the Tribune has learned.
Thomas Irvine, who was hired by the board in December to provide legal advice in its battles with Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, filed an $83 million notice of claim against Pinal County in 2005 on behalf of a water and sewer company owned by the family of Tempe-based developer Conley Wolfswinkel.
Investigators continue to probe the connections between Wolfswinkel and Stapley, a Mesa Republican, as part of what they describe as an ongoing investigation into potential bribery. Numerous search warrants have been served by Maricopa County sheriff's deputies on Wolfswinkel-connected businesses since late January.
A 118-count indictment against Stapley was announced in December by Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. It alleges the supervisor repeatedly failed to properly disclose business and real estate deals on financial disclosure reports he is required to file, including several transactions involving Wolfswinkel-related companies.
Irvine said Tuesday his past representation of Sonoran Utility Services, a Wolfswinkel company, does not create a conflict of interest for him as he provides civil legal advice to the Board of Supervisors on how to deal with Thomas and the sheriff's ongoing investigation.
Irvine said his October 2005 work on behalf of Sonoran is the only time he has represented a Wolfswinkel venture, as far as he knows, and that he has no current legal relationship with the family or its businesses. In any case, his current legal work for Maricopa County has no relationship to the ongoing investigation into the business ties between Stapley and Wolfswinkel, Irvine said.
"It had nothing to do with any of the present issues," Irvine said of his work on behalf of Sonoran. "Five years later somebody is jumping up and down and yelling about something that they assert to be a conflict that we don't even know to be a conflict. That's the worst sort of bizarre connect-the-dots that you can imagine."
But Barnett Lotstein, special assistant county attorney, said Irvine's history as a Wolfswinkel lawyer is enough to shake the public's confidence in his credibility as he advises the board on issues dealing with the ongoing investigation.
The county attorney's office has filed a lawsuit challenging the decision by the Board of Supervisors to strip Thomas of his ability to represent the county in civil lawsuits, and its decision to hire Irvine and former Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley to provide advice.
Prosecutors sent a letter to Irvine Dec. 29 asking that he disclose whether he has ever worked as a lawyer for either the Wolfswinkel family or Stapley. Irvine never responded to the letter, Lotstein said.
Among the issues Irvine has advised the board on since he was hired is how to deal with multiple public records requests filed by the sheriff's office seeking county documents as part of its investigation of Stapley. The board in January adopted a policy that requires all county agencies seeking county records to go through an internal procedure rather than filing requests under the state's public records law. The policy leaves it up to the county manager whether the records request will be approved. Thomas is challenging that policy.
"In our mind, one of the objectives in the board retaining Mr. Irvine is to put a barrier to our investigation," Lotstein said when told of Irvine's past relationship with the Wolfswinkel family. "The fact that he represented Mr. Wolfswinkel and the fact that Wolfswinkel is at the center of the inquiry related to Stapley, he should reveal exactly what his relationship is."
David Hendershott, chief deputy in the sheriff's office, said Irvine's representation of the board, particularly on the public records issues, has given him an "absolutely controlling role" in guiding how the criminal investigation into Stapley proceeds.
"It is extremely concerning that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has taken a position to fail to assist law enforcement in this investigation," Hendershott said. "They have hired a number of lawyers whose sole purpose appears to be obstructing our criminal investigations looking into matters that as good public policy would demand that they should willingly cooperate with."
The claim filed by Irvine against Pinal County involved Sonoran's contracts to provide water and sewer service to subdivisions planned in the area of Maricopa through county-created improvement districts. After Maricopa incorporated, the town and county began pressuring Sonoran to abandon those agreements, according to the claim filed by Irvine.
The claim sought $83 million in damages.
Irvine said he was brought into the case to prepare the notice of claim, the first step in bringing a lawsuit against a government entity. After the notice was filed, he ended his representation and the case proceeded with other lawyers hired by the utility, Irvine said.
Lee Johnson, a Wolfswinkel lawyer, said a lawsuit was filed against the county, but that it was settled last year when the claims were dropped. The county did not pay any money to Sonoran as part of the settlement, Johnson said.
Johnson added he knows of no other legal work that Irvine did for any Wolfswinkel-related company.