PHOENIX (CN) – Maricopa County’s chief information officer claims Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the former county attorney targeted him in a baseless criminal investigation after he advocated consolidating IT systems to trim the county budget. Stephen Wetzel’s federal complaint is the latest in a string of lawsuits accusing Arpaio, his chief deputy and others of abusing the powers of their office.
Plaintiffs in previous defamation complaints against Arpaio and his crew include four judges.
Wetzel claims then-Deputy County Attorney Lisa Aubuchon, a defendant, sought a baseless indictment against him “on six felony counts: two counts of theft; two counts of violation of duties and liabilities of custodian of public monies; and two counts of tampering with a public record.”
Wetzel says he first saw the unsealed records from grand jury testimony on Aug. 12, 2010, showing Arpaio’s and then-County Attorney Andrew Thomas’s “vindictive” attempts to indict him. Thomas also is a defendant in Wetzel’s 31-page complaint.
Wetzel says the bogus charges “arose out of the actions taken by county management to ‘sweep’ for illegal listening devices in county offices in December 2008 and January 2009.”
Wetzel says Aubuchon alleged that Wetzel “had authorized the search for these devices, illegally used public monies to conduct the ‘sweeps’ and was allegedly involved in creating fraudulent documents justifying the expenses incurred for the ‘sweeps.'”
In January 2010, Thomas and Aubuchon “empanelled this grand jury to use as one of their tools of intimidation in the ever-escalating war raging between the Sheriff’s Office, the County Attorney’s Office and county government,” according to the complaint.
The other targets were County Supervisor Andrew Kunasek, County Manager David Smith, Deputy County Manager Sandi Wilson, Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe, and Thomas Irvine, a lawyer who represented the county, according to the complaint.
Wetzel says there had been “enmity between county management and the sheriff and county attorney since the economic downturn began” because the county had to trim its budget, and the sheriff’s and attorney’s offices considered themselves “immune from the budget dilemma.”
Wetzel says he made a presentation to the Board of Supervisors advocating the consolidation of IT systems countywide. The sheriff’s and attorney’s offices “were adamantly opposed to consolidation, though Stephen was not suggesting that law enforcement or criminal justice departments be included in any consolidation strategy,” according to the complaint.
Wetzel adds that Chief Deputy David Hendershott, also a defendant, wrongly believed that Wetzel had access to Sheriff’s Office emails and network traffic.
On March 3, 2010, the grand jury rejected the presentation made by Aubuchon and Hendershott because it “was as muddled, political and ‘incomprehensible’ as it was to the independent prosecutors that later reviewed the ‘case,'” and ordered defendants to “end the inquiry,” according to the complaint.
A Superior Court judge unsealed the grand jury proceedings records “in the furtherance of justice,” Wetzel says in his complaint.
He says it is “highly unusual for grand jurors to summarily reject a prosecutor’s presentation of evidence and their urgings that the grand jurors indict their targets,” but even after the grand jury voted to terminate the inquiry, the defendants continued to pursue felony charges against him
On March 10, 2010, Thomas and Arpaio referred their alleged “sweeps investigation” of Wetzel and others to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, which “never agreed to act as the lackey for Arpaio and Thomas, so it sent the matters to Dennis K. Burke, United States Attorney for the District of Arizona, for review,” according to the complaint.
Wetzel says Burke told then-County Attorney Rick Romley on Oct. 22, 2010 that Burke found “there is a total lack of evidence of the commission of any federal crimes by the individuals” in the nine matters brought to his attention, including the actions involving the “sweeps” that was the subject of the grand jury investigation of Wetzel.
Hendershott and Thomas, who left his position as county attorney for an unsuccessful run for Arizona attorney general, made false statements to the media after the grand jury testimony was rejected, “insisting that the ‘sweeps’ case and others were valid, that they remained under review by the Department of Justice and were ongoing, and that they had taken on ‘corruption’ in the county,” Wetzel’s complaint states.
Wetzel claims that after Aubuchon was fired from the attorney’s office, she too made “various public defamatory comments to the media, accusing Stephen of criminal misconduct, and reasserting the alleged validity of the charges sought against Stephen and others, even though the grand jury had rejected those same charges.”
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery is also named as a defendant in the complaint.
Wetzel seeks general damages, punitive damages, and treble damages for conspiracy, abuse of power, defamation, racketeering, and constitutional violations.
He is represented by Michael Manning with Stinson, Morrison & Hecker.