Arizona taxpayers asked to pay $126 million for misconduct of elected officials and county employees

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A legal free-for-all has broken out in Maricopa County, the fourth largest county in the U.S. The fight features a cast of characters, including elected politicians, judges and government officials who have been at odds for years, and now want damages exceeding $100 million from Arizona taxpayers.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, called America's Toughest Sheriff, is at the center of all the lawsuits, yet he is the only one not suing anyone. Critics hate him, fans love him.

The latest volley in the war, called a notice of claim, an advance notice of a lawsuit, was filed by former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff’s Chief Deputy David Hendershott. The pair are asking for $37.5 million in damages they say they suffered during years of abuse by the Board of Supervisors and others.

Meanwhile, Thomas’ former Deputy County attorney Lisa Aubuchon has amended an earlier claim she filed for $10 million in damages, and is now asking for $22.5 million.

The joint claim, totaling $60 million, was filed on Monday against former County Attorney Rick Romley and his employees and representatives, and the Maricopa Board of Supervisors. The three claim that county employees participated in theft, perjury, fraud, retaliation, defamation, racketeering violations, misuse of power and influence and abuse of process.

The claimants, plus Sheriff Joe Arpaio, are the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and a federal grand jury, reviewing allegations of abuse of power for instituting corruption probes against the Board of Supervisors, their lawyers and Superior Court judges over a course of two years.

Three of those judges, and two county officials, filed their own lawsuits against Arpaio and Thomas on Nov. 23, claiming that as a result of the investigations, they suffered mental anguish, ruined reputations, physical maladies and a loss of consortium. The group is asking Maricopa County taxpayers for $56 million in damages.

That lawsuit was filed in Maricopa County Superior Court by plaintiffs Judge Gary Donahoe, former judges Barbara Mundell and Anna Baca, Deputy County Manager Sandi Wilson, and Susan Schuermann, executive assistant to Supervisor Don Stapley.

Attorney Michael Manning, who is representing three of the plaintiffs, told the Arizona Republic News that “Reputations are so fragile. And, each of these clients suffered a significant negative impact to their reputations. In any promotion, transfer, or honor that is applied for, each will now be obliged to report that he/she was a target of a criminal conspiracy investigation. Even though the investigation was utterly meritless and vindictive, that disclosure will be the end to later opportunities in life for all three of these clients.”

The Arizona Republic News summarized the lawsuits as follows:

-Deputy County Manager Sandi Wilson claims Arpaio and Thomas targeted her after she recommended budget cuts to their agencies. She alleges Thomas and Aubuchon continued to defame and harass her even after they left office. She had offered to settle for written apologies or $2 million.

-Gary Donahoe alleges Thomas and Hendershott filed a criminal complaint against him to create a conflict of interest that would force him off of cases involving other legal battles between Thomas, Arpaio and other county officials. Donahoe’s complaint alleges their investigation into the county’s court tower project “was simply the Trojan Horse for Arpaio and Thomas’s assault on their political enemies. The only ‘crime’ committed by Judge Donahoe was to issue a ruling adverse to Arpaio and Thomas. Among other allegations, Donahoe claims Arpaio and Thomas ignored a grand jury decision to kill the case against Donahoe and continued to publicly portray the judge as the subject of a criminal investigation and chose a man who allegedly threatened to kill the judge as the process server designated to deliver the complaint to the judge. Donahoe had offered to settle for $4.75 million.

-Former judges Barbara Mundell and Anna Baca allege Arpaio and Thomas named them in a “baseless” civil racketeering lawsuit to “intimidate, harass, discredit and humiliate” them. They also claim Arpaio and Thomas intentionally tarnished their reputations and character through press releases, TV interviews and internet postings. Each had offered to settle for $4.75 million.

-Stapley’s assistant, Susan Schuermann, also filed a lawsuit alleging that prosecutors and investigators tapped her phones, followed her, sent sheriff’s deputies to patrol her street and publicly denigrated Schuermann to intimidate her into cooperating with their criminal investigation into Stapley. Hendershott also threatened to put Schuermann under criminal investigation if she failed to help, her lawsuit claims. She had offered to settle for $1.75 million.

On Dec. 28, County Supervisor Don Stapley also filed his own lawsuit against the county, alleging that Arpaio and Thomas wrongfully investigated him on civil and criminal charges. Although the lawsuit asked for unspecified damages, his earlier notice of claim asked for $10 million. His attorney, Merwin Grant, said Stapley had been “significantly damaged” by the investigations and that the lawsuit was necessary “to clear his name, to attempt to mitigate damages.”

All totaled, the various claims being pursued by officials amount to $126 million, and if paid, would come from the pockets of taxpayers.

County Manager David Smith says he is confident that a resolution to all the legal issues will be found. He had hoped to hire noted mediator Kenneth Feinberg, who handled the distribution of funds to 9/11 victims, until he was appointed by President Obama to head up the claims resolution process for the BP oil spill.

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