PHOENIX - An Arizona ethics panel on Tuesday moved to disbar Maricopa County's former top prosecutor for failed corruption investigations he and America's self-proclaimed toughest sheriff conducted, targeting officials with whom they were having political and legal disputes.
The three-member panel found that former County Attorney Andrew Thomas violated the professional rules of conduct for lawyers in bringing criminal charges against two county officials and a judge in December 2009.
All three cases were dismissed after a judge ruled that Thomas prosecuted one of the officials for political gain and had a conflict of interest in pressing the case. Other county officials and judges who were at odds with Thomas and his top ally, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, in disputes also were investigated by the pair, but weren't charged with crimes.
Lawyers pressing the case against Thomas said officials, judges and attorneys who crossed Thomas and Arpaio in disputes were often targeted for investigations.
Thomas and Arpaio contended they were trying to root out corruption in county government, while the targets of the prosecutions said the cases were trumped up.
The decision marked the first official comment by the state's legal establishment on the validity of the investigations.
Arpaio does not face any punishments in the disciplinary case, but investigations of county officials and judges by the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad took center stage at hearings in the Thomas case.
Separate from the attorney disciplinary case, a federal grand jury also has been investigating Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009 and is specifically examining the investigative work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad.
At Thomas' disciplinary hearing, the sheriff testified in September that he didn't follow the investigations closely and farmed out those cases to his then-top assistant. The former Arpaio aide had testified earlier that some allegations contained in the charges against the judge weren't in fact crimes.
Thomas was accused of bringing criminal cases against County Supervisors Don Stapley and Mary Rose Wilcox to embarrass them and filed bribery and obstruction of justice charges against then-Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe when Thomas knew the allegations were false.
Lawyers pressing the case against Thomas also said the charges against Stapley were barred by the statute of limitations.
Donahoe was charged with bribery after the judge disqualified Thomas' office from its investigation into a construction of a court building. The judge was about to hold a hearing on Thomas' request to appoint special prosecutors to handle investigations against the officials, but that hearing was called off after the charges were filed against the judge.
Thomas said the decision to charge the judge had nothing to do with the decisions the judge issued against his office.
During his testimony, Thomas defended the investigations and said one of his aides had warned that charging Stapley would hurt him politically, but he brought the charges against the county supervisor because it was the right thing to do.
Stapley was accused, among other things, of getting mortgage loans under fraudulent pretenses. Wilcox was accused of voting on contracts involving a group that had given her loans and never filing conflict-of-interest statements.
Thomas, a Harvard Law School graduate, served as the county's top prosecutor from more than five years before resigning in April 2010 to run an unsuccessful campaign for state attorney general.
Thomas was known for confronting illegal immigration, prosecuting metro Phoenix's Baseline Killer and Serial Shooter cases and pursuing criminal cases against county officials.
Thomas contacted ABC15 after Tuesday's hearing and issued the following statement:
Today, corruption has won and justice has lost. I brought corruption cases in good faith involving powerful people, and the political and legal establishment blatantly covered up and retaliated by targeting my law license. Arizona has some of the worst corruption in America, according to a recent national survey. The political witch hunt that's just ended makes things worse by sending a chilling message to prosecutors: Those who take on the powerful will lose their livelihood.