The panel that disbarred former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas found he conspired with Sheriff Joe Arpaio to commit crimes, a fact that the sheriff will likely have to contend with as federal investigators look into whether he abused his power.
The historic corruption trial targeted only Thomas and two of his deputy prosecutors, but the sheriff and his office were cited prominently in the panel’s 247-page report, and witness testimony seemed to put the sheriff himself on trial, linking Arpaio to a series of events that led to Thomas’ downfall.
Legal observers say the disciplinary proceedings and subsequent findings of Arpaio’s pivotal role in the scandal should strengthen any case the federal government is building against him or his office, and put him on notice that he could soon be facing some sort of reckoning.
The panel concluded there was enough evidence from other sources to make the determination that Arpaio, his former chief deputy David Hendershott, Thomas and his former deputy Lisa Aubuchon, worked in unison to frame retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe.
“That’s their opinion,” Arpaio told the Arizona Capitol Times.
But former U.S. Attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton said the finding was striking because the panel said the conspiracy could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal trial.
“That clearly places the ball in the Department of Justice’s court. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to ignore such a finding,” Charlton said.
Arpaio said he isn’t worried about the federal government’s response to the report because the information in it has been public for years.
He declined further comment because the Sheriff’s Office has been sued by people who were the target of Thomas’ failed investigations and criminal cases that led to his disbarment.
Charlton said the Department of Justice has an obligation to either act on the findings or explain why it won’t act since the disciplinary case was so extraordinary and so important.
Charlton said he would be “most concerned” if he were the subject of such a finding.
Former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, who sparred regularly with Arpaio during his time in office, said the panel’s strongly worded report on its findings will add to the strength of any case federal officials are now building.
“I’m sure it got their attention, but it doesn’t mean there are potential criminal charges coming out of it,” Romley said.
The report itself will only be a supplement to an overall investigation.
“The real substance comes from the testimony,” he said.
The report mentions that 48 witnesses testified during the eight-week hearing, and many of them were sheriff’s deputies, deputy county attorneys and investigators with the County Attorney’s Office who took principled stands against the demands of Thomas and Aubuchon, and by extension, Arpaio and Hendershott.
Donahoe’s civil attorney, Michael Manning, said further evidence in the form of testimony from Sheriff’s Office employees and a large batch of office emails, which are in the hands of federal investigators probing abuse of power allegations, will show Arpaio was a fully invested partner with Thomas in all of the events that were the subject of the disciplinary hearings.
“I don’t think there is anyone that … followed what happened here that believes that Joe wasn’t pulling the puppet strings here. It’s so clear to anyone who has followed the evidence that Joe did pull the puppet strings on Thomas and Aubuchon,” said Manning, who has won large jury awards in wrongful death suits against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
Jack MacIntyre, a spokesman for Arpaio’s office, said he isn’t certain which emails Manning is talking about because the agency has turned over 60,000 pages of emails to the federal government and in civil discovery, and only withheld or opposed ones that fell under attorney- client privilege.
“We’ve been an open book,” MacIntyre said.
Thomas and Aubuchon were disbarred April 10 and another former deputy county attorney, Rachel Alexander, was suspended for six months and a day.
The panel found that Thomas and Aubuchon waged a war of retaliation against Thomas’ and Arpaio’s political enemies for years.
The panel’s report provided in minute detail the evidence against the three attorneys.
Figuring prominently throughout the narrative was Arpaio, especially when it came to Donahoe.
“Chief Hendershott said that he had met with Mr. Thomas, Ms. Aubuchon, and Sheriff Arpaio, and that Sheriff Arpaio came up with the idea of charging the judge,” the report read, citing Hendershott’s testimony in October.
The panel found Thomas and Aubuchon violated seven ethical rules in connection with the prosecution of Donahoe. Two of those rule violations were for “violation of a criminal law,” which in this case involved perjury and a federal law that makes it illegal to conspire against a person’s constitutional rights.
Thomas charged Donahoe with bribery, hindering prosecution and obstructing a criminal investigation on Dec. 9, 2009. The charges stemmed from the judge disqualifying the County Attorney’s Office from investigating the financing of a planned downtown courthouse and other legal decisions that were unfavorable to the county attorney and sheriff.
Donahoe had previously scheduled a hearing on the day he was charged to hear arguments on the dispute between the county and Thomas over his authority to appoint special prosecutors to investigate County Supervisor Don Stapley.
Investigators from the County Attorney and Sheriff’s Office testified that there had been no investigation of Donahoe that could legitimately lead to charges, and that Aubuchon and Hendershott were insistent that the charges be filed immediately.
The text from an old State Bar of Arizona complaint Hendershott filed against Donahoe was copied onto the criminal complaint and served as the basis for the charges, but none of the investigators would attest to the truthfulness in court. Aubuchon eventually found a detective, Gabe Almanza, who reluctantly signed the criminal complaint.
“Mr. Thomas and Ms. Aubuchon are criminally accountable for the conduct of Detective Almanza because they knowingly caused him to sign and file a false sworn document and/or they ratified his conduct after he had signed the complaint,” the panel wrote.
The panel concluded there was absolutely no evidence to charge Donahoe and the only reason it was done was to prevent him from holding the hearing involving Stapley.
The panel said the most telling evidence of that was the testimony of Sheriff’s Office detective Brandon Luth, who said that Aubuchon appeared pleased and happy when she got the news that Donahoe canceled the hearing and Hendershott responded to the news by saying “checkmate.”
And since the lawyers and lawmen tried to prevent Donahoe from doing his job, they violated federal law against conspiring to prevent someone from exercising their constitutional rights, the panel found.
“Were this a criminal case, we are confident that the evidence would establish this conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt,” the panel wrote.
Thomas said in a press conference Wednesday that the “conspiracy” was nothing more than law enforcement professionals discussing whether to charge someone with a crime, an event that occurs thousands of times a year.