By Jacques Billeaud
PHOENIX — 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.
In the first suit, former Supervisor Don Stapley agreed to accept $3.5 million to drop his case accusing Arpaio, former County Attorney Andrew Thomas and others of pursuing trumped-up criminal cases against him.
A separate $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.
Stapley's settlement brings closure to a string of lawsuits filed by numerous other high-ranking county officials and judges who claimed Arpaio and Thomas wrongfully targeted them in corruption investigations between 2008 and 2010.
In the newspaper executives' lawsuit, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin accused Arpaio's office of violating their constitutional rights.
"Who thinks you can arrest American journalists for what they write?" Lacey said Friday after the settlement's announcement. "It's just remarkable."
Lacey said that while the settlement was good news, he would like to see Arpaio held accountable for his actions.
"This guy has just run wild and the county has continued to write checks for his abuses without curtailing the abuses," he said.
Arpaio wasn't immediately available Friday for comment. 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.
Michael Manning, who represents both Stapley and the New Times executives, did not immediately return calls seeking comment. Thomas also didn't return calls.
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 Stapley deal brings the county's costs for settlements of officials' lawsuits 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 $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 New Times case, Thomas dispatched the grand jury investigation to a special prosecutor, but quickly dropped the charges. He 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.
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