Former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson now admits he did hire a real estate broker to attempt to purchase the ranch property of Robert Stapleton, a disabled Vietnam combat veteran who faced jail time for zoning violations.
Johnson, developer of the housing project next to Stapleton’s home, had previously denied in multiple interviews with the Goldwater Institute that he ever attempted to acquire Stapleton’s land. He also had denied hiring or authorizing anyone named Larry Hering to secure the purchase.
However, after the Goldwater Institute published a story about the City of Phoenix’s criminal prosecution of Stapleton over zoning violations – a case Stapleton attributes to his unwillingness to sell to the politically powerful former mayor – Johnson called to acknowledge he did hire Hering and did try to buy Stapleton’s land.
After the story was published October 11, Hering confronted Johnson over his denials in what Hering described as a heated, 45-minute conversation. In that phone conversation, Johnson initially insisted he’d never hired Hering to make any purchase offer to Stapleton. However, after Hering emphasized to Johnson that he had a real estate contract that Johnson had personally signed in February 2006, Johnson’s tone suddenly changed, according to Hering’s account of the Oct. 19 conversation. Johnson said he would contact the Goldwater Institute and explain he’d been mistaken in earlier interviews.
Hering said he did approach Stapleton on Johnson’s behalf with a single offer for $200,000, which Stapleton rejected. Hering denied as “absurd” Stapleton’s allegations, made both in court records and in interviews with the Goldwater Institute, that Hering warned bad things would happen and a “stone wall” would fall if Stapleton refused to sell.
“That’s the part of your article that makes me look like a goon, that I was there with a ball bat to break his legs if he didn’t sign the contract,” Hering told the Goldwater Institute. “It’s absurd. The whole thing is absurd.”
The Goldwater Institute had attempted to contact Hering prior to publication of the story, but was unable to locate him, in part because his name was misspelled in court records, and because Johnson denied knowing or employing him. In a series of interviews prior to publication of the article, Johnson insisted repeatedly that he never wanted Stapleton’s property and never authorized anyone to attempt to purchase it. He said the name Larry Hering sounded vaguely familiar, but that he’d never authorized him or anyone else to approach Stapleton about selling his land.
On October 19, after his heated conversation with Hering, Johnson called the Goldwater Institute admitting, “I gave you some bad information.”
By then, Hering’s son, Chris, had contacted the Goldwater Institute asking that he be allowed to tell his side of the story.
“I did make an offer,” Johnson said. “He (Hering) was kind of mad. He’s now read the story because I told him about the story, and he said ‘I did it because you told me to.’ I’ve known Larry for a long time and if he says I told him to go over and make those offers, you can pretty much bet I told him to go over and make those offers.”
Hering provided a copy of the contract signed by Johnson and dated February 10, 2006, to the Goldwater Institute.
The Goldwater Institute’s story about Stapleton is part of an ongoing investigation into city courts, and whether defendants can receive true due process because of the way those courts are structured. Unlike judges at every other level of the judiciary in Arizona, city court judges do not answer to voters. Instead, they are hired and retained, and can be fired, by city councils. This makes city court judges vulnerable to political pressure from the council and other city officials, the Goldwater Institute reported in July.
Stapleton moved to a small ranch property north of Phoenix in 1971, shortly after returning from Vietnam. The city annexed the area a year later, but largely left him alone for the next 30 years.
In August 2006, Phoenix prosecutors filed six criminal misdemeanor charges against Stapleton alleging his property was out of compliance with various provisions of the city zoning code. Among the allegations were that he had excessive vegetation on his ranch, and did not park his vehicles on a dust-proof surface.
Each of those charges carried maximum penalties of up to six months in jail and $2,500 in fines. Stapleton was eventually convicted in Phoenix city court of five of the six charge, fined $15,000 and put on probation. Prosecutors later sought to have Stapleton jailed, claiming he’d failed to abide by the terms of his probation, which included keeping his property in compliance with neighborhood zoning codes.
Stapleton unsuccessfully fought the charges, first in Phoenix Municipal Court and later in Maricopa County Superior Court, the Arizona Court of Appeals, the federal U.S. District Court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The crux of his defense was that he was being unfairly targeted for prosecution by the city because he’d refused Johnson’s attempts to buy his property. Stapleton claimed both in court documents and in interviews with the Goldwater Institute that a man named Larry Hering (spelled Herring in court records) approached him in early 2006 claiming to represent Johnson’s company, Berkana on 7th Street LLC.
Barkana, a company controlled by Johnson, acquired the 2.9 acres next to Stapleton’s property at 7th Street and Roberts Road beginning in January 2006. At the time, Johnson was planning to build a 47-unit condominium development. He later changed his plans and is now building 29 detached single-family homes on the site.
Stapleton has long maintained in documents filed both in his criminal case and in zoning hearings related to Johnson’s development that Hering made him several offers before warning his that his client – Johnson – could make trouble.
“Mr. Herring admonished me in a friendly way that the former Mayor was best friends with the then current Mayor, Mr. (Phil) Gordon, and that they could get anything they wanted and that if I didn’t concede, a ‘wall’ would fall on me,” Stapleton said in documents related to his criminal case and Johnson’s zoning applications.
The criminal charges were filed by the city about six months later.
Hering told the Goldwater Institute that his primary occupation is as an environmental engineer and real estate investor. He also holds a real estate broker’s license, but rarely gets involved in transactions he is not a part of.
Hering produced an environmental engineering report for part of the Berkana property in December 2005. In January 2006, Johnson reached a partnership agreement with the owners of that land, which separated Stapleton’s property from 7th Street, and formed Berkana on 7th Street.
Johnson also wanted to acquire an adjacent property immediately north of the site, then owned by Wayne Perkins. Because Hering had already dealt with Perkins on the environmental assessment, and he had a real estate broker’s license, Johnson asked him to approach Perkins about selling his land. Hering and Johnson reached a referral agreement in which Hering would bring the parties together, but their own lawyers would work out the terms of the land deal.
About that same time, Johnson said he also wanted to purchase Stapleton’s property and signed the contract with Hering to make the offer.
Hering said he only made one offer to Stapleton, for $200,000, and not the multiple offers that Stapleton claims. Stapleton made it clear from the beginning he would not sell.
“He says, ‘I bought here and I’m going to die here,’” Hering said in recounting Stapleton’s reply to the offer. “That was pretty direct to me.”
Hering said he does not recall if he told Stapleton that his client, Johnson, was friends with then-Mayor Gordon.
“I’m sure I told him that Paul was a past mayor. Whether I told him he (Johnson) was friends with the current mayor, I don’t know. But I will tell you, he sure the hell is,” Hering said. “I can’t tell you in that level of detail what I said to Stapleton. But I never threatened the guy. I never gave him four offers, all that nonsense of four offers. None of that ever happened.
“I never threatened him with anything and I only presented one offer to him.”
Stapleton said he stands by his version of the conversation, including the comment about a wall falling, when contacted about Hering’s assertions.
“I didn’t even take it as a threat at the time,” Stapleton said, adding his conversations with Hering had always been pleasant. “It was just a very odd statement.”
It was only after the city began prosecuting him on criminal zoning charges that the statement seemed relevant, Stapleton said.
“It was very clear that the stone wall was falling,” he said.
As to the number of offers, Stapleton said he and Hering had discussed various prices for his land previously, but only once did Hering show up with a written contract.
The Goldwater Institute’s original story also quoted an affidavit from Stapleton’s neighbor, Gary Russell, stating he too was approached by a man claiming to be Berkana’s representative in the spring of 2006. The man, who is not identified in the affidavit, sought Russell’s aid in forcing Stapleton to sell by asking Russell to contact the city with zoning complaints about Stapleton’s property. If, as a consequence, Berkana was able to acquire Stapleton’s property at a favorable price, it would also purchase Russell’s, he was told.
Hering said he was not the person described in the affidavit and has never met Russell. Aside from the two transactions involving Perkins and Stapleton, Hering said he did not do any other real estate business for Berkana. He has done four environmental engineering reports on the property; in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2015. All of his dealings with Berkana on those engineering projects were done with Justin Johnson, Paul’s son and the current developer of the site. His only dealings with Paul Johnson were the two real estate transactions, he said.
“I don’t work for Paul Johnson anymore upon my own reason, which has got nothing to do with this,” Hering said. “Working for Paul is a nightmare. Working for Justin was great. Working for Paul, everything he ever touched was a problem except this. And now this has come to haunt me. So 100 percent of the time I dealt with this guy, I had nightmares.”
Johnson claimed in his most recent conversation with the Goldwater Institute that he did not make the connection when asked about Larry Hering because Hering’s work for Berkana had been almost exclusively as an environmental engineer, not a real estate broker. He also said he didn’t remember attempting to buy Stapleton’s property.
“I’m responsible for that,” Johnson said. “I should have remembered and obviously I didn’t. And that’s not anybody’s fault but mine. And if there’s any credibility issue for me because of that, I own it.”
Johnson does still say he never authorized anyone to pressure or threaten Stapleton.
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