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Arizona county settles 2 lawsuits vs. sheriff

Arizona county settles 2 lawsuits vs. sheriff

December 20th, 2013 in News

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona's most populous county agreed Friday to pay more than $7 million to settle lawsuits by a former Maricopa County official and two newspaper executives accusing Sheriff Joe Arpaio of abuse of power.

The county is settling former Supervisor Don Stapley's suit against Arpaio, former County Attorney Andrew Thomas and others for $3.5 million after they brought two unsuccessful criminal cases against him.

A $3.75 million settlement was reached with executives of the Phoenix New Times, who sued Arpaio's office after they were arrested in 2007 for publishing information about a secret grand jury subpoena demanding information on its stories and online readers.

Arpaio wasn't immediately available Friday for comment on the settlements. But one of his aides, Deputy Chief Jack MacIntyre, said, "It was an economic decision by the county Board of Supervisors" and it made "better economic sense" than going to court.

MacIntyre said the New Times executives originally demanded about $90 million to settle their lawsuit and Stapley sought more than $20 million.

"It's really good to close those two pages and move forward," MacIntyre added.

Thomas and Michael Manning, who represents both Stapley and the New Times executives, did not immediately return calls seeking comment on the settlements.

A joint statement by the four county supervisors said, "We are convinced that settlement of Mr. Stapley's suit protects the taxpayers from even larger cost down the road, and hopefully closes the final chapter in what has been a very sad and damaging period in our county's history."

The Stapley lawsuit cost county taxpayers about $1.8 million, officials said, while the New Times case cost nearly $438,000 in legal fees and expenses.

The county's outside insurance company decided to contribute roughly $300,000 to the settlement rather than continue the litigation, officials said.

The Stapley settlement will conclude a spate of civil litigation by officials who claimed they were wrongfully targeted in corruption investigations by Arpaio's and Thomas' offices between 2008 and 2010. It will bring the county's settlement costs to at least $7.7 million.

The county has appealed a $975,000 settlement with Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox. The county also has forked over an additional $5.5 million in legal fees and other costs in the lawsuits.

Officials and judges who filed the lawsuits say they were targeted because they were in legal and political disputes with the sheriff and Thomas over cuts to agency budgets, a plan to build a new court complex and other issues. Arpaio and Thomas contended they were trying to root out corruption in county government.

Between 2008 and 2009, criminal charges were filed against Stapley, Wilcox and a judge, but those prosecutions quickly collapsed in court. Thomas and another prosecutor were eventually disbarred. Arpaio's office was accused of shoddy police work that targeted political adversaries, including officials and judges who were investigated but weren't charged with crimes.

In the first of two cases against Stapley, he was accused of making omissions and misstatements on financial disclosure forms, but those charges were dismissed because the county never properly put in place financial disclosure rules. In the second case, Stapley was accused of getting mortgage loans under fraudulent pretenses and misusing campaign funds he raised to run for president of a national association of county officials.

A prosecutor from a neighboring county who was later asked to review Stapley's second case concluded that Stapley had committed seven felony violations and that there was enough evidence to go forward with a prosecution. That prosecutor ultimately recommended the case not be pursued further, citing concerns about the conduct of Arpaio's and Thomas' offices.

In the lawsuit brought by the Phoenix New Times executives, Arpaio's office was accused of violating the constitutional rights of Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin by arresting them in 2007 after the newspaper disclosed a grand jury subpoena. The investigation reportedly targeted a story on Arpaio's real estate holdings.

Thomas, who had dispatched the grand jury investigation involving the New Times to a special prosecutor, quickly dropped the charges, but maintained the newspaper had broken state law when it published Arpaio's address in 2004 and then revealed the subpoena. Thomas was named in the New Times lawsuit but was later dismissed from it.