Failed criminal investigations of politicians and judges by America’s self-proclaimed toughest sheriff were put under a microscope in a disciplinary hearing launched Monday against a former prosecutor who brought the cases to court.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio isn’t the subject of the disciplinary case, but his investigations of county officials and judges took center stage at the hearing for his ally, former county attorney Andrew Thomas.
Thomas is accused of bringing criminal cases against two county officials to embarrass them and charging a judge with bribery when Thomas knew the charges were false. All three cases collapsed in court.
“If you disagreed with, ruled against or represented someone in one of the disputes, the evidence will show retaliation by Mr. Thomas,” said John Gleason, an attorney leading the disciplinary case on behalf of the State Bar of Arizona.
Arpaio and Thomas contend that they were trying to root out corruption in county government. County officials say the investigations were baseless and an abuse of power.
The sheriff wouldn’t face any punishments if Thomas is found to have violated ethical rules. But the investigations by Arpaio and Thomas have been contentious, and the hearing could provide the first official comment from the state’s legal establishment on whether their investigations were trumped up.
Arpaio was expected to testify. His office declined to comment on the disciplinary hearing’s focus on its investigations.
Lawyers pressing for the discipline case said that the officials, judges and attorneys who crossed Thomas and Arpaio in political disputes were often targeted for investigations and, in some cases, were criminally charged.
County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox was accused of voting on contracts involving a group that had given her loans and never filing conflict-of-interest statements. County Supervisor Don Stapley was accused of getting mortgage loans under fraudulent pretenses. And Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe was charged with hindering prosecution, obstruction of justice and bribery.
All three cases were dismissed after a judge ruled that Thomas prosecuted one of the three officials for political gain and had a conflict of interest in pressing the case.
Thomas, who has called the disciplinary case a political witch hunt by the state’s political establishment, wasn’t in court as his attorneys planned to respond to the allegations in their opening arguments.
Donald Wilson, the attorney for Thomas, said there was no truth to the allegation that his client filed cases against county officials because he wanted to embarrass them. He said he was trying to smoke out public corruption and was met with stiff resistance from county officials.
“He was stonewalled and stymied,” Wilson said. “He confronted bitter and powerful antagonists.”
If an ethics panel finds that Thomas and one of his former deputies, Lisa Aubuchon, violated the professional rules of conduct, they could face a wide range of punishments, including an informal reprimand, censure, suspension or disbarment.
Gleason said witnesses will testify that Aubuchon had told investigators that if they couldn’t prosecute the targeted officials in court, “we will prosecute them in the media.”
Edward Moriarity, who represents Aubuchon, said his client was a faithful public servant who acted in good faith in bringing the cases to court.
“She believed in the system,” Moriarity said. “She believed in her work. She wouldn’t file the cases if she didn’t believe them.”
Gleason focused on the sheriff’s public corruption squad that investigated the officials.
He said officers within Arpaio’s special squad had deep concerns about their investigations because they started probes based on information in newspaper articles, not on actual evidence of crimes. Investigators, for instance, flagged financial disclosure allegations against Stapley as falling outside the statute of limitations, yet prosecutors still won an indictment against Stapley, Gleason said.
Gleason also said Donahoe, then the county’s chief presiding criminal judge, was charged with bribery after he disqualified Thomas’ office from its investigation into the construction of a court building. He was about to hold a hearing on Thomas’ request to appoint special prosecutors to handle investigations against the officials.
That hearing was called off after the bribery charges were filed. David Hendershott, then the No. 2 official in the sheriff’s office, responded by saying “checkmate” when he learned the hearing was canceled, Gleason said.
The three-person panel that will decide the disciplinary case against the three former prosecutors consists of Presiding Disciplinary Judge William O’Neil, Scottsdale attorney Mark Sifferman and the Rev. John C.N. Hall, who is the rector of an Episcopal church in Chandler.