A Maricopa County Superior Court judge has taken the first steps in what should result in the public finally getting a look at text messages Bob Stump sent and received during last year’s election.
In a formal order, Judge Randall Warner named former judge David Cole to review what was recovered from an examination of the utility regulator’s state-issued phone by the Attorney General’s Office. Cole is now free to review what the prosecutor’s office was able to reconstruct of long-deleted messages.
That list of messages includes communications with Republican candidates, the head of an organization that spent more than $300,000 from unnamed sources to get them nominated, and the executive of a utility that may have helped fund that effort.
But it has yet to be determined how many of the messages Cole determines are public will see the light of day.
“If corporation commissioner Stump has any claim that they’re privileged or that they’re somehow private, or something like that, they would assert that,” said Dan Barr. He is the attorney for the Checks and Balances Project which filed suit for the texts earlier this year.
At that point, it would be up to Warner to decide who is correct.
The other issue becomes how quickly all that can occur.
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, which currently has Stump’s phone, has told Capitol Media Services that a forensic examination of the phone has turned up “thousands of texts.”
But what Barr wants is a much smaller subset: The texts to and from the 18 phones, and only for the period from July 12, 2013, to March 11 of this year when it submitted the public records request. He said no one from the Attorney General’s Office has told him how many meet both criteria and would be given to Cole.
The Checks and Balances Project, funded at least in part by companies that manufacture and install solar equipment, is questioning the role Stump played in the campaigns last year of Doug Little and Tom Forese. They defeated Lucy Mason and Vernon Parker, two other Republicans who were running in the primary on a platform of promoting the use of more solar energy.
Little and Forese later went on to defeat Democrat challengers and currently sit on the five-member panel.
Of note are about 100 texts between Stump and Scot Mussi, head of the Free Enterprise Club. Barr said he is particularly interested in 46 right before the 2014 primary, during the time the group spent more than $300,000 in that race to help get Little and Forese the GOP nomination.
The Free Enterprise Club is organized as a “social welfare” organization, a category Mussi contends allows it to keep the names of its donors secret. But by law, any of its efforts on behalf of Little and Forese had to be totally independent of either candidate or any go-between.
Stump also exchanged 54 texts with Barbara Lockwood, an executive of Arizona Public Service.
APS did not put any money directly into the campaign. But utility officials have refused to confirm or deny donations to Save Our Future Now or the Free Enterprise Club, which together spent more than $3 million for commission candidates they supported and against those they oppose.
The only reason Barr knows of the texts is that Verizon Wireless keeps a log which shows both senders and recipients. That log was provided to him by the commission.
Verizon does not archive the contents. And Stump insisted there was no way to retrieve the texts as he had discarded the state-issued phone he was using at the time, a move he has since admitted was a mistake.
But the Attorney General’s Office says it has found a way to retrieve old texts from the phone, including not only those that Stump deleted but even those from that prior state-issued phone which Stump threw out.
Stump has insisted he did nothing wrong, saying his correspondence with Mussi in particular was over personal matters.
He also lashed out at the Checks and Balances Project, saying it “brazenly published my mother and friends’ private cell numbers on the Internet.” And Stump, asked about the appointment of Cole to review the messages, said he said he will fight any effort to allow the group to “download intimate, private texts between family and friends.”
Barr said any objections that Stump makes to the release of particular texts puts him in what could be a difficult legal position.
“The way it is in public records cases, I’m always sort of arguing blind,” he said.
That’s because Barr is not allowed to review the messages, even in confidence, to be able to argue to Warner that the contents should be disclosed. Instead, he has to use what amounts to circumstantial evidence.
“For instance, if he’s arguing attorney-client privilege and he’s talking to a friend who’s an attorney, but he’s not representing him, I would say that privilege doesn’t apply here,” Barr explained.
Stump insisted that whatever does get disclosed will not show any wrongdoing.
“You’ll recall Geraldo Rivera’s investigation of Al Capone’s vault,” Stump said, referring to a much-hyped 1986 live TV production of the opening of the mobster’s vault found beneath a Chicago hotel. “It was empty.”
The same, Stump said, will be true here.
“Once Arizonans recognize that Checks and Balances dark-money clowns concocted a conspiracy out of thin air, they’ll recognize them for who they are: a fringe group with zero credibility,” he said.