By Jacques Billeaud
PHOENIX — Failed criminal investigations of politicians and judges by America's self-proclaimed toughest sheriff were put under a microscope in a disciplinary hearing launched Monday against a former prosecutor who brought the cases to court.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio isn't the subject of the disciplinary case, but his investigations of county officials and judges took center stage at the hearing for his ally, former county attorney Andrew Thomas.
Thomas is accused of bringing criminal cases against two county officials to embarrass them and charging a judge with bribery when Thomas knew the charges were false. All three cases collapsed in court.
"If you disagreed with, ruled against or represented someone in one of the disputes, the evidence will show retaliation by Mr. Thomas," said John Gleason, an attorney leading the disciplinary case on behalf of the State Bar of Arizona.
Arpaio and Thomas contend that they were trying to root out corruption in county government. County officials say the investigations were baseless and an abuse of power.
The sheriff wouldn't face any punishments if Thomas is found to have violated ethical rules. But the investigations by Arpaio and Thomas have been contentious, and the hearing could provide the first official comment from the state's legal establishment on whether their investigations were trumped up.
Arpaio was expected to testify. His office declined to comment on the disciplinary hearing's focus on its investigations.
Lawyers pressing for the discipline case said that the officials, judges and attorneys who crossed Thomas and Arpaio in political disputes were often targeted for investigations and, in some cases, were criminally charged.
County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox was accused of voting on contracts involving a group that had given her loans and never filing conflict-of-interest statements. County Supervisor Don Stapley was accused of getting mortgage loans under fraudulent pretenses. And Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe was charged with hindering prosecution, obstruction of justice and bribery.
All three cases were dismissed after a judge ruled that Thomas prosecuted one of the three officials for political gain and had a conflict of interest in pressing the case.
Thomas, who has called the disciplinary case a political witch hunt by the state's political establishment, wasn't in court as his attorneys planned to respond to the allegations in their opening arguments.
Donald Wilson, the attorney for Thomas, said there was no truth to the allegation that his client filed cases against county officials because he wanted to embarrass them. He said he was trying to smoke out public corruption and was met with stiff resistance from county officials.
If an ethics panel finds that Thomas and one of his former deputies, Lisa Aubuchon, violated the professional rules of conduct, they could face a wide range of punishments, including an informal reprimand, censure, suspension or disbarment.
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Copyright 2011 Associated Press