Appeals court: Ex-prosecutor Thomas can be sued

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX (AP) -- Former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and a top aide can be personally sued by a county supervisor who says they abused their power to harm him and his family, according to an appeals court ruling Friday.

The ruling from a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel upholds a district judge's decision that Thomas and Lisa Aubuchon can't claim immunity because they were acting as prosecutors.

The ruling says a federal racketeering lawsuit Thomas and Aubuchon filed against Supervisor Don Stapley and others in 2009 was outside their prosecutorial duties, so they can't claim the immunity normally afforded prosecutors. Because the federal law allowing racketeering suits doesn't give county prosecutors a special right to sue, they were acting as ordinary citizens, said the opinion by Circuit Judge William W. Fletcher.

The racketeering suit was dropped soon after it was filed, but it was part of an ongoing feud between Thomas, ally Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the other elected officials in Maricopa County, according to the three-judge panel's opinion. Arpaio and Thomas investigated Stapley, Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, and judges for alleged corruption after they clashed over policy and funding. Stapley, Wilcox and a sitting judge were indicted, but the charges were dropped.

"Defendants filed the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) suit as part of their long-running `political war' against members of the board of supervisors, judges, and others. The suit was essentially a harassing public-relations ploy," the ruling said.

Stapley, Wilcox, two executives and several judges sued after the racketeering lawsuit was dropped. Thomas and Aubuchon were later disbarred.

All but Stapley have settled their cases with the county, although Wilcox's $975,000 settlement is being appealed by the county and awaits a decision by the 9th Circuit. The county paid the other plaintiffs more than $4.2 million.

Stapley asked the county for $15 million to settle his case before filing suit, alleging Thomas illegally filed suit against him under the RICO Act. He would like to settle if possible, but also is looking forward to a trial set for January, said his lawyer, Michael Manning. The county, sheriff's office and Sheriff Joe Arpaio are also defendants.

"Filing this RICO complaint against these judges and these public officials was a tremendous affront to the system and to these individuals," Manning said. "Using racketeering and organized crime claims against judges and county supervisors because they were trying to do their job had a tremendously chilling effect."

Lawyers for Thomas did not immediately return calls seeking comment.