Racketeering Lawsuit Against Maricopa County by Thomas and Arpaio is Weak Conspiracy Theory
The first reason why the racketeering lawsuit filed today against county leaders is probably going nowhere:
It's being handled by Lisa Aubuchon, the deputy county attorney who has consistently blown politically sensitive cases for Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas. Under Aubuchon's leadership, Thomas lost the criminal cases against: Dan Pochoda, legal director for the Arizona branch of the American Civil Liberties Union; Thomas Lovejoy, the Chandler cop who left his K9 partner in a hot car; Ajo Al's restaurant; and, indirectly, County Supervisor Don Stapley. (Thomas ultimately transferred the Stapley case to Yavapai County, but it could be argued that Aubuchon -- and Thomas, natch -- laid the groundwork for that failure).
Even without our ad hominem argument, this federal lawsuit by Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio has holes you could drive a bus through.
|Image: Ray Stern|
|Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas at today's news conference.|
Taken by themselves, some of the allegations are intriguing. For instance, Barbara Mundell, the presiding judge for Superior Court, hand-picked retired Judge Kenneth Fields for the Stapley case last December. That seemed weird because Fields had criticized Thomas publicly before Mundell's decision. At the least, the selection of Fields creates an appearance of possible bias.
It also seems reasonable to question the relationship of local lawyer Thomas Irvine and the county officials planning to build a $347 million court tower. It's disconcerting to see local county officials enriching their lawyer buddies -- like when Thomas hired his former boss, Dennis Wilenchik, to serve as a special prosecutor in his infamous case against New Times, for example.
The big problem for Thomas in this RICO lawsuit is simply that it doesn't contain enough facts to support claims of a grand conspiracy. The "CO" in RICO stands for Corrupt Organizations, and we're apparently supposed to believe everyone named in the suit is part of a Mafia-like group. The list of syndicate members includes:
*All five County Supervisors.
*County Manager David Smith
*Deputy County Manager Sandi Wilson
*Wade Swanson of the General Litigation Office
*Anna Baca, retired Superior Court judge
*Gary Donahoe, criminal presiding judge
*Kenneth Fields, retired Superior Court judge
*Local lawyers Thomas Irvine and Edward Novak
According to the lawsuit, this group -- with unknown accomplices -- worked to provide funding for the court tower "in exchange" for blocking the criminal prosecution of Stapley and the other defendants, and also in exchange for "other illicit services."
This reasoning seems flawed on its premise. The lawsuit states that the Board of Supervisors approved spending the $347 million for the new tower in a series of votes between 2007 and 2009. Yet Stapley wasn't charged until December 2008, and indications that others on the above list were being investigated came after that.
In other words, Thomas' lawsuit acknowledges that court tower funding was being approved a year before anyone's criminal investigation needed hindering. So much for the motive.
Without an obvious conspiracy to tie it together, the lawsuit is a mish-mash of every fight in the last three years between Thomas and Arpaio and the judges and county leaders. In a Freudian slip that speaks to the high emotions in the county feud, Aubuchon notes in her pleading that Irvine and Novak attended a hearing in the Stapley case "and laughed at the prosecutor [Aubuchon] as she was verbally assailed" by Stapley's defense attorney.
Thomas' written "evidence" for a corrupt organization of judges and county officials is heavily biased. For example, he claims that Mundell and Fields conspire routinely to "level false ethical allegations" against Thomas and his employees in an attempt to intimidate them. Clearly, the unfortunate federal judge who ends up handling this case will first be required to determine if the ethical allegations against Thomas are, indeed, false, before deciding that a pattern of false allegations supports the conspiracy.
In fact, the federal judge is being asked by Thomas to re-decide most of the Superior Court decisions that weren't in Thomas' favor, such as the Donahoe decision to kick Thomas and Arpaio off the court tower case because of a conflict of interest. In another example, Thomas claims that county officials tried to extort him by threatening to file a bar complaint unless he disclosed whether his employees were writing anonymous, negative blog posts about the Board of Supervisors. Legal experts contacted by New Times following the disclosure demand by county officials said the county had every right to see writings by employees of the County Attorney's Office, which supposedly still serves as the Board of Supervisors' lawyer on some matters.
It seems overly optimistic of Thomas and Arpaio to expect a federal judge to see everything their way. And if, as they say, they aren't getting love from the judiciary on the local level, why would they think they'd do any better in a federal arena?
Judging by a scathing response e-mailed to New Times and other members of the media, county leaders aren't cowed by this lawsuit:
As reported by the media, the latest federal action filed by the County Attorney is just a "sore losers lawsuit" by Andrew Thomas to attack his clients and waste public resources. The County Attorney has lost every time he has sued the Board of Supervisors, and we expect the result to be no different this time.
Thomas' announcement today is issued on the same day that the Arizona Supreme Court has affirmed a Maricopa County Superior Court ruling that Thomas' prior investigation of the Board of Supervisors had the "appearance of evil." It appears that Thomas' announcement is a disguised attempt to divert attention away from his own unethical conduct and his latest loss on appeal.
The Board intends to vigorously defend against Thomas' latest round of patently false allegations. Indeed, if the past is any predictor of the outcome of actions against the Board of Supervisors and the Superior Court, then the Board and the Court will both prevail, again.
Despite the obvious flaws in what they are attempting, Arpaio and Thomas are taking their claims seriously. In a news conference today at Thomas' office, Arpaio said he'd never seen such problems within the criminal justice system.
"I've been told there's a Good Old Boy Network," the sheriff said. "Right now, you have the 'Good Old Boy Corrupt Network."
Thomas declined our offer to state verbally which parts of the lawsuit he thought were the most damning against the Supervisors and judges.
"The facts speak for themselves," he said. "It's not a pretty picture."
He's right about one thing: this is an ugly mess. It seems like any impartial judge would have to look at the big picture and try to answer tough, chicken-or-the-egg questions like:
*Did the Board fire Thomas as its attorney to protect Stapley or because it had honest concerns about Thomas representing it after the December 2008 indictment of Stapley?
*Of the alleged conflicts of interest on both sides, which is worse?
*Is Fields biased against Thomas, and if so, did that bias influence his decision to dismiss nearly half of the charges against Stapley, resulting in Stapley's victory?
*Did Thomas' employees publish critical essays about their client, the county?
*Do the plans for the court tower really include travertine and marble for building materials? (At this point in the planning, the county says, no marble is included and only a touch of travertine).
One thing's for sure: it will be refreshing to hear an outside opinion.