‘All Kinds of Horrible Things Happened’: Investigating the Biggest Ethical Misconduct Case in the Nation
by Matt Masich
The Docket: Just what did Andrew Thomas do to cause such a commotion in Arizona?
Gleason: Thomas took office as county attorney in 2005 and almost immediately became closely associated with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and he just as quickly began a very strained relationship with the county board of supervisors. Maricopa County is enormous—4 million people, $2.5 billion budget—and Joe Arpaio is a rock star there. Thomas ran on immigration issues, saying he’s going to be tough on immigration just like Sheriff Joe.
What authority did Thomas have as county attorney?
He had enormous authority. County attorneys in Arizona are in charge of criminal prosecution, as well as handling civil matters and representing the board of supervisors.
Like a combination of district attorney and city/county attorney in Colorado?
Yes. Well, in 2005 and 2006, Thomas begins issuing press releases criticizing the courts and the board of supervisors. Anyone who didn’t agree with him immediately became an enemy and a target. You have this massive law enforcement organization run by Arpaio, and you have a county attorney with enormous power and jurisdiction. You put the two together and you have this absolute reign of terror. Thomas very publicly defamed judges and supervisors, threatened them with criminal charges, investigated them, had officers follow them and sit in front of their homes, got search warrants, intimidated their families and staff.
Didn’t somebody try to stop him?
From 2005 to 2010, I believe there were 17 bar allegations filed against him—the Arizona Supreme Court has delegated lawyer regulation to the state bar—and all those cases were dismissed after Thomas took a scorched-earth approach to defending them.
Thomas was reelected in 2008, and Don Stapley [a county supervisor who later became board chairman] was his biggest target, because Stapley dug in his heels and said, "You’re not going to push us around—we run the county, you don’t." Thomas charges Chairman Stapley with 118 counts of [bogus] financial disclosure issues that had never been charged before in the history of Arizona. At least 40 counts were charges they knew were beyond the statute of limitations.
In 2009, all kinds of horrible things happened: Stapley is charged with even more counts of criminal charges [also bogus], and another supervisor is charged with no probable cause. By the end of 2009, Thomas and his circle’s goal was to shut the county down. If they charged one more of the five county supervisors, their view was they would get a receivership appointed for the county and get what they wanted. They would essentially eliminate the board of supervisors by charging a majority—three of the five supervisors.
Is that when they called you in?
Not quite yet. By the end of 2009, the justice system also came under fire. Without any investigation, Thomas’ office charged Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe with hindering, obstruction, and bribery, all because he had the audacity to rule against Thomas and Arpaio. There was absolutely no probable cause at all for the criminal charges. When we interviewed Donahoe about this later, he wept throughout the whole conversation—and this is a guy who has seen murder trial after murder trial.
In early 2010, the Arizona chief justice and court administrator called me and said they needed help. I had been working with Arizona for about two years before that, helping them adopt Colorado’s attorney regulation system. When I was called in, they wanted an outsider because there was really nobody in Arizona who wasn’t touched by this—hundreds of lawyers were picketing the county building, judges are going to jail. When we arrived there, in my view, the judicial system in Arizona was teetering on the brink. The judges were terrified—they were meeting in the bathroom to talk—and they were waiting for the SWAT team to arrive at any moment to arrest them on trumped-up charges.
I was appointed as special prosecutor at the end of March 2010. I didn’t want Colorado to pay one nickel, so Arizona has reimbursed us for every penny we spent. We figured we’d be down there for a few months. I had no idea we’d be down there for two years. Jim Coyle and Chip Mortimer ran this office in Colorado, and I took Jamie Sudler with me to Phoenix.
What was it like when you arrived in Arizona?
Right around then, Thomas stepped down as county attorney to run for attorney general. But shortly after I was appointed, I got a letter from Arpaio saying that if I came there, essentially, he was going to put me in jail. They also filed a restraining order against me. We expected to be arrested at any time. They were following us within a few days of being down there, and they wanted us to know that. Their goal was to intimidate—and if that didn’t work, retaliate. They wanted to run us out of Arizona.
How did you approach the case?
I was a cop for 11 years, and a homicide cop for several years. I know cops and how they think, so I knew the key to most of this was to convince the cops to talk to us—but to convince Maricopa County sheriff’s officers to talk to us would mean risking their professional lives. Almost immediately, we connected with Mark Stribling, a former homicide cop in Phoenix, who had worked for Andrew Thomas as commander of the investigations division in the Maricopa County Attorney’s office. We talked for a couple of hours about our police careers, and he laid out the story of what had happened over the last five years. Another key person we interviewed was Sgt. Brandon Luth with the Maricopa Anti-Corruption Enforcement unit, or MACE unit, which Arpaio and Thomas created and used to intimidate. I called his cellphone every day for a month before he returned my call. We ended up conducting around 100 interviews, and virtually every person would weep; the personal trauma they’d experienced was astonishing to us.
How long did the investigation take?
It took from March to November 2010, and we filed a formal complaint in February 2011, alleging 33 separate counts of misconduct against Thomas and two deputy county attorneys, Lisa Aubuchon and Rachel Alexander. We were originally told to expect a trial date in February 2012, but that summer Thomas’ lawyers pushed for it to happen as soon as possible, so it was scheduled for September 2011. We had dozens and dozens of depositions to do, so almost immediately we had to move to Arizona. Jamie and I, who were billing Arizona a nominal hourly rate, billed 80 to 90 hours per week for months. It was an eight-week trial. I did the hour-long opening statement, and Jamie, who is a great trial lawyer, took it from there. The testimony that came out at trial was even worse than we knew—there were two or three smoking guns that we didn’t even know existed because there were just so many witnesses and documents.
In April, the Arizona Supreme Court’s disciplinary panel ordered disbarments for Thomas and Aubuchon, and a six-month suspension for Alexander.
Where do those cases stand now?
Thomas didn’t appeal, and they’ve issued the final order for disbarment. He’s done. The other two have appealed, and we have one more case—during our trial, we discovered there was a fourth lawyer [Peter Spaw] in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office who we believe engaged in misconduct by aiding the other three.
Do the effects of this case resonate beyond Arizona?
It resonated around the country because, for one, Arpaio is an international figure. Then you have Thomas, a Harvard Law graduate who was destined to become attorney general, and had his sights on being a U.S. senator or more, who implodes in a catastrophic way, taking with him other lawyers. And the magnitude of the misconduct is noteworthy, as well as the number of victims.
Could the same thing happen elsewhere, or is it unique to Arizona?
It was the theory of absolute power, and they’d had it for years. You had one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the country and one of the largest sheriff’s offices in the country, and you had two people who were consumed with power. If you get in their way, not only are you arrested, you’re charged, because they’re hooked hip to hip. If the cops and prosecutors are corrupt, who’s going to stop them?
What’s to stop that from happening in Colorado?
It’s the culture. We have a history of spectacular district attorneys, like Bill Ritter, Norm Early, Dale Tooley, Don Quick, and Bob Gallagher, who understand the limitation of their power. They have a job to do, but they’re going to do it within the rules. When you have a DA invoke that culture in his or her office, then it’s not often you have that kind of problem. What happened in Maricopa County was really unusual. Ben Gershman, a legal professor at Pace University and expert in prosecutorial misconduct, will tell you there’s never been a case like this before, and probably never will be another. D
Matt Masich is a writer with Colorado Life Magazine. Prior to that, he was a reporter for Law Week Colorado, covering the Colorado Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, bar associations, appellate courts, and the business of law.