Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

U.S.: “Toughest Sheriff” in Legal Crosshairs

Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Arizona, May 18 2011 (IPS) - The United States’ self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff” has made international headlines for housing inmates at outdoor tent facilities and conducting immigration sweeps in Latino neighbourhoods.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation into abuse of power. Credit: Valeria Fernandez/IPS

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation into abuse of power. Credit: Valeria Fernandez/IPS

But the state of Arizona’s controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is facing more than controversy now.

An internal investigation that shed light on corruption and nepotism, and a budget audit that revealed 100 million dollars in misspending within his agency are fuelling calls from critics for his resignation.

Recent evidence also emerged of racially derogatory emails circulated among his officers, stemming from a civil lawsuit that accuses his office of racial profiling during immigration sweeps. The emails made fun of Mexican immigrants, with the picture of a mock driver’s license from a fictional state called “Mexifornia”.

The 78-year-old sheriff appears to have no intention of stepping down any time soon. After being in power for 18 years, he still wants to run for re-election.

“I’m not going to resign, as long as the people want me and elect me. Whether it’s this position or maybe another position, I’m not leaving,” he said at a recent press conference.

Arpaio did not respond to an IPS request for comment.

For over a decade, Arpaio has remained popular with Maricopa County voters, appealing to their frustration with the lack of federal action on immigration by enforcing state laws aimed at undocumented immigrants.

His controversial tactics placed him at the centre of a civil rights investigation for alleged racial profiling. He has dismissed this claim, saying that he is being targeted as a “poster child” by a liberal presidential administration, even though the probe started under president George W. Bush.

But Arpaio’s immigration enforcement is not what could cost him his job.

The recent revelations could be giving political momentum to a two- year long ongoing grand jury criminal investigation led by the U.S. Department of Justice that is focusing on abuse of power by his office.

“President Obama we appeal to you. Help Arizona get back to normalcy,” said Maricopa County Board Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox.

Last week, members of the group Maricopa County Citizens for Safety and Accountability (MCSA) joined her in a press conference to call for Arpaio’s resignation and his indictment by the federal government.

The group not only spoke about alleged human and civil rights violations as a result of his immigration policies, but concerns about ethical violations within his agency and misappropriations of a taxpayer fund used to finance other activities like his immigration sweeps.

“This is corruption at its core. You have the top law-enforcement officer elected in Maricopa County breaking the law, creating a culture of corruption, misusing our taxpayers dollars upwards of 100 million dollars,” said Randy Parraz, a co-founder of MCSA.

A few weeks ago, Arpaio announced that he had fired three people within his command staff, among them his right-hand man, Chief David Hendershott, as a result of an internal investigation that he commissioned revealing corruption and nepotism. He said he was deceived by people in a position of trust.

But the group is demanding that Arpaio himself be held accountable.

“Joe Arpaio would have us believe these were the workings of some of his rogue chief deputies acting alone, not with his knowledge. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said attorney Chad Snow, one of the founders of MCSA. “Joe Arpaio had his hand in every single one of these abuses.”

Snow referred specifically to the workings of Arpaio’s anti- corruption unit, which he allegedly used to arrest and press charges against his political opponents. Supervisor Wilcox and supervisor Don Stapley, both critical of his immigration enforcement and his use of funding administered by the county, said they were targeted for political retaliation.

Stapley recently wrote to President Barack Obama, urging him to support grand jury indictments in the Arpaio probe. “I am a first- hand witness to the crimes committed,” Stapley wrote, “having been falsely charged, subjected to a staged media show arrest, publicly humiliated, damaged politically and nearly ruined financially.”

Paul Charlton, a former U.S. attorney who also represents Stapley, said either the sheriff didn’t know what was going on in his department, making him ineffective and incompetent, or he did know and is “as culpable as Hendershott”.

This is not the first time that Arpaio’s agency has been investigated by the Department of Justice. In 1995, the agency initiated a probe following complaints of mistreatment in his jails, but it ended in a suit that was dismissed by Janet Napolitano, the former U.S. attorney general who is now the secretary of Homeland Security.

Attorney Michael Manning, who handled five lawsuits against the sheriff’s office, won over 20 million dollars in settlements for his clients in connection with abuse in Arpaio’s jails. He regretted that the Justice Department didn’t take action the first time around to stop what he described as a “culture of cruelty” within the Maricopa County jails.

Manning said in a recent interview that Maricopa taxpayers are going to start changing their minds about the popular sheriff once they realise how much he has cost them.

According to Maricopa County Risk Management records, over 6,300 claims and lawsuits have been filed against Arpaio’s agency since 1993, at a cost of 50 million dollars.

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