State bar investigates Thomas over Stapley case - East Valley Tribune: News

State bar investigates Thomas over Stapley case

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Posted: Monday, March 9, 2009 5:02 pm

The state Bar of Arizona has launched a new ethics investigation against Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas over his prosecution of county supervisor Don Stapley.

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The Tribune confirmed the new investigation Monday — the same day the bar dropped the last of two old complaints brought against Thomas and his office.

Pat Giallanza, director of communications for the bar association, confirmed a new complaint has been lodged against Thomas regarding allegations he has a conflict of interest in his handling of the case against Stapley, a Mesa Republican. Giallanza said she cannot disclose who filed the complaint, when it was received or what specific allegations are made.

The state bar handles disciplinary actions against lawyers.

Thomas has been battling with the Board of Supervisors since Stapley’s indictment on 118 criminal charges was announced in December. The board has since stripped Thomas’ office of its power to represent the county in civil cases, claiming the prosecutor has a conflict of interest because the county attorney also provides civil legal advice to the board.

That same argument has been used in court filings by Stapley’s lawyers in the criminal case, seeking to have the county attorney’s office removed as the prosecutor.

Thomas is challenging both efforts in court.

Among the lawyers the board has hired to represent it in its battles against Thomas is Ed Novak, president of the state bar. Novak would not comment when contacted Monday.

Thomas spokesman Michael Scerbo blasted the new ethics investigation as “the same tactics the bar employed before — smear the county attorney’s office through the media.”

“It’s another facially frivolous investigation,” said Scerbo, adding Thomas has not been notified of the new complaint.

“It’s an example of a very powerful criminal defendant reaching out to his very powerful political friends.”

Paul Charlton, Stapley’s lawyer in the criminal case, said Monday he’s not the one who filed the complaint and had not seen it.

While she could not discuss the new complaint against Thomas, Giallanza said the bar is required to investigate complaints against lawyers and that the organization has not singled out Thomas or his office for retribution.

In fact, the bar brought in retired Judge Rebecca Albrecht last year to weigh the complaints against Thomas and his office that were unresolved at the time, Giallanza said.

Albrecht is the one who decided to drop the two bar complaints that were resolved Monday.

“The purpose of bringing her in was we felt the public perception was that the bar was not giving Andrew Thomas an impartial investigation,” Giallanza said. “We wanted to dispel that perception by putting it outside the hands of our lawyer regulation department and into a special investigator. Because of the high volume of publicity that Thomas was drawing on the investigations and because of the remarks that were being made about the bar association, we thought the process was better served by using the special investigator.”

At the time Albrecht was hired, Thomas had asked the state Supreme Court to block the bar from continuing to investigate him and his office. The court allowed the investigations to proceed.

Stapley is charged with perjury, forgery and filing false statements in the indictment, which alleges he failed since 1994 to list business and real estate deals on financial disclosure forms he is required to file as an elected official. He has pleaded not guilty.

Thomas spent much of last year in a public feud with the bar, which investigated 13 separate complaints against him and his office. Thomas claimed the bar actions were brought to intimidate him after he accused Judge Timothy Ryan of Maricopa County Superior Court of bias in a dispute over the handling of cases involving illegal immigrants accused of serious felonies.

That criticism resulted in one of the complaints dismissed Monday.

The second complaint that was dismissed involved the 2007 arrest of two top executives of the Phoenix New Times after the weekly newspaper reported that a private attorney hired by Thomas, Dennis Wilenchik, attempted to have improper contact with the judge in the case. The newspaper executives were arrested on allegations they divulged confidential grand jury information. They were later released and the charges dropped.

The bar complaints became entwined in the Stapley prosecution in December. Thomas’ office asked that the judge assigned to the criminal case, Kenneth Fields, be removed because he had filed the bar complaint over the New Times matter. While Fields’ letter singled out Wilenchik, Thomas argued the bar used it to make him the target of the ethics investigation.

Thomas’ efforts to have Fields removed from the case have yet to be resolved.

In a statement issued Monday, Thomas claimed it cost his office about $573,000 in legal fees to defend against the bar complaints — bills that will be paid by the taxpayers.

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