Thomas, Arpaio defend their war as judge is charged with obstructing justice

By Nick R. Martin | December 10th, 2009 | 5:00 am | 16 Comments »

Gary Donahoe's charges

Gary Donahoe

Maricopa County’s top prosecutor, Andrew Thomas, looked at a wall of television cameras on Wednesday and asked reporters not to take his next statement the wrong way.

“Quite candidly, you’re not going to find many prosecutors with the guts to prosecute judges,” said the county attorney.

He was obviously frustrated at the questions he had been getting. For nearly an hour, Thomas sputtered and sighed as he tried to explain why he had just filed criminal charges against one of the most powerful judges in Maricopa County, Gary Donahoe.

The task wasn’t easy. Thomas and his ally, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, painted themselves as the crime fighters trying to root out what they called “deep-seated corruption” in Maricopa County, the kind that supposedly has stood in the way of justice being served for the “people of a free republic.”

But both men face mounting questions about their own credibility and whether they are using their law enforcement powers to settle political scores. In a room full of reporters, the skepticism about the charges against Donahoe, who had recently jailed one of Arpaio’s officers and who was about to rule whether Thomas could hire special prosecutors from outside the state, was almost overbearing.

Those charges came just a day after Thomas and Arpaio announced criminal indictments against two more of their adversaries, Maricopa County supervisors Don Stapley and Mary Rose Wilcox. Both have voted in recent months to curb the powers and spending of the county attorney and sheriff.

After being peppered at the news conference with questions about his and Arpaio’s motives for the criminal charges, Thomas held his hands open toward the group.

“If we could just step back for a moment,” he said. “Consider how extraordinary this situation is.”

The issue, he told the journalists, was not whether he is using his prosecutorial powers against his foes – because he denied that was the case. The real issue, Thomas said, is corruption in the Maricopa County Superior Court.

“Just look at the evidence,” Thomas said. “Look at what’s before you.”

At one point, he said he was not sure he was explaining himself very well and asked for the journalists to help him.

“I would just urge you to consider the evidence,” he said. “It is a hard thing to believe that members of the judiciary would be engaged in this conduct.”

The allegations

The charges filed Wednesday [PDF] accused the judge of three felonies: hindering a prosecution, obstructing justice and taking bribes.

All three were related to the construction of a new $340 million court tower, the most expensive capital project in Maricopa County history. The building was approved by the Board of Supervisors in a series of votes in 2007 and 2008 and it broke ground earlier this year. Since then, the sheriff’s and county attorney’s offices have begun to investigate its financing.

But Arpaio and Thomas alleged that Donahoe worked with private attorneys and other county officials to illegally block the investigation. In the complaint against him, prosecutors said Donahoe kicked the county attorney’s office off the case because it had a conflict of interest, and then refused to send the investigation to outside prosecutors.

The charges essentially accuse the judge of doing this so he and the Superior Court could benefit from the new tower, which will include state-of-the-art offices and dozens of new courtrooms.

Through a court spokeswoman, Donahoe declined to comment about the allegations. The charging papers require him to appear in court within 10 days as well as get his fingerprints and mugshot taken by the sheriff’s office.

More charges to come

The accusations are nothing new. In the past 10 days, Thomas and Arpaio have said them over and over through various outlets. From lawsuits to news releases to complaints filed with state agencies, the two men have launched a full assault on Donahoe and any other county official who has challenged them in the past year.

On Nov. 30, for example, the sheriff’s office sent a complaint about Donahoe to the state’s committee on judicial conduct. Much of the text used in what’s known as a “probable cause statement” for the criminal charges Wednesday appeared to be taken verbatim from the judicial complaint [PDF].

Additionally, Arpaio and Thomas made similar allegations in a wide-ranging federal lawsuit they filed on Dec. 1. In the suit, four judges, all five members of the Board of Supervisors, the county’s top two appointed officials, a leading attorney for the county and two private lawyers were accused of engaging in a massive conspiracy against the sheriff and county attorney.

In total, 14 people were sued by Arpaio and Thomas, and since then, three of them have also been charged with crimes by Thomas’ office.

At the news conference, Thomas hinted that charges may be pending for the other 11, saying all of them were under “active criminal investigation.”

“No one is above the law,” he said. “There may well be other cases.”

Despite having just called his third news conference in two weeks about the allegations, Thomas also said he was “not going to try this in the media” and declined to talk specifics about the other investigations.

Extraordinary times

Arpaio said very little during the ordeal, standing stone-faced at the side of the lectern and letting Thomas do most of the talking.

“It’s sad that this is going on,” Arpaio said at one point. “We’re both trying to do our job, just trying to do our job. But we’re tired of the stonewalling.”

He also responded to questions about a hotline set up specifically for people to tell the Department of Justice about civil rights violations by the sheriff. It’s part of one of several ongoing criminal and civil investigations by the DOJ into Arpaio’s office, none of which have so far produced any results.

“I said two years ago – call the FBI, call the FBI,” Arpaio said. “Maybe they’ll share those calls with us. I doubt it.”

By the end of it, the two men were looking tired and the questions had died down. Thomas stepped back in.

“These are extraordinary events,” he said, “and extraordinary times in our state.”

The two men soon left the room.