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Joe Arpaio: America’s Toughest Sheriff or Most Corrupt?

Joe Arpaio: America?s Toughest Sheriff or Most Corrupt?

by Alex Friedmann

Joe M. Arpaio, the head lawman over Maricopa County, Arizona, bills himself as "America's Toughest Sheriff." While "toughest" may be subject to debate (literally -- in September, 2006 Arpaio debated L.A. County Sheriff Leroy Baca over who ran the strictest jail), there is little doubt that Sheriff Joe enjoys nationwide notoriety.

When most people hear Arpaio's name they think about the austere conditions at his infamous outdoor tent city jail: Prisoners forced to wear pink underwear and striped uniforms; temperatures of 100 degrees and above; no coffee, smoking or pornographic magazines allowed; chain gang work crews; and two meals a day that cost only $.30 per prisoner, with an emphasis on green bologna. Sheriff Joe likes to boast that he spends twice as much on meals for the dogs and cats he keeps in an air-conditioned rescue center. Most recently Arpaio removed Kool-Aid from the jail's menu.

When criminal justice advocates hear Arpaio's name, however, they think about someone who has little respect for civil, and human, rights. Consider the prisoners who have been killed or injured in the sheriff's lock-ups. In January, 1999, Maricopa County paid $8.25 million to settle a wrongful death suit filed by the estate of prisoner Scott Norberg, who was Tasered and placed in a restraint chair. That same year a jury awarded $1.5 million to Tim Griffin, a jail prisoner who was denied treatment for a perforated ulcer. On March 24, 2006, a federal jury returned a $9 million verdict against the county in a case involving a mentally ill prisoner, Chalres Agster III, who died after being forcibly restrained by deputies. Most recently, on September 11, 2006, Arpaio settled a lawsuit regarding a controversial "jail cam" that he had installed, which broadcast video of pre-trial detainees, including female prisoners, on the Internet.

The list of litigation against Arpaio goes on and on. Four other wrongful death suits against the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office are still pending -- including one involving the April 15, 2003 death of Brian Scott Crenshaw, a legally blind prisoner who was allegedly beaten into a coma by jail guards; he later died at a hospital. According to Sheriff Joe, Crenshaw fell off a bunk. A claim was also filed against the county following the January 23, 2005 death of Deborah Braillard, a diabetic prisoner at the Maricopa Co. jail who didn't receive insulin for three days. "It's part of business," Arpaio once quipped. "You don't stop the wheels of government because some civil liberties group is going to sue you." Apparently he doesn't stop the wheels of government even when they run over and kill people housed in his jails, either.

But there is another, more sinister side to Sheriff Arpaio that people seldom see. Political dirty tricks, vindictive actions against newspapers that print unflattering articles, secretive real estate holdings, and retaliation against his own employees are all hidden under the thin veneer of his law-and-order façade.

Down-and-Dirty Politics, Arpaio-style

In 2004, Arpaio faced a serious challenge in the primary election from retired police commander Dan Saban. Despite an obvious conflict of interest, Arpaio's staff began investigating dubious claims of sexual misconduct raised by Saban's foster mother, who accused him of having raped her 30 years before. The sheriff's office released details of the investigation to a Channel 15 reporter, Robert Koebel, who aired the damning story. Saban flatly denied the allegations and accused Arpaio's office of a political smear campaign. The rape charges were turned over to the Pima County Sheriff's Office, which declined to prosecute. Koebel was later fired after it was discovered he had made a donation to Arpaio's re-election campaign before airing the rape investigation.

The damage, however, had already been done; Arpaio narrowly won the primary and went on to win another term in the general election. After securing his political future, the payback began. On March 31, 2005, sheriff's deputies conducted a raid on a towing business owned by Lee Watkins. Watkins, a former state prison construction chief, had actively campaigned for one of Arpaio's challengers; his attorney described the sheriff's investigation as being politically motivated. Two weeks later, on April 14, Arpaio's henchmen raided the home of political activist Chuck Carpenter, who also had supported one of the sheriff's rivals.

Arpaio's opponents, not content with his election win, spearheaded an effort to recall the controversial sheriff. But on April 16, 2005, the Recall Arpaio campaign office was burglarized and a computer stolen that contained contact information for hundreds of recall supporters. Other items of value were reportedly left behind. Although rumors circulated that the sheriff's lackeys were behind the break-in, the crime remains unsolved. The recall campaign was unsuccessful.

Additionally, Arpaio has been accused of currying political favors by granting special treatment to high-profile prisoners. According to the Phoenix New Times, an independent weekly newspaper, when country music star Glen Campbell reported to serve ten days for DUI in July 2004, he was housed at the sheriff's air-conditioned Mesa facility rather than the tent city jail. Campbell stated he didn't wear pink underwear or a striped uniform; he had a one-man cell and was allowed to leave during the day to take care of business matters. He also gave a free concert at the tent jail while serving his short sentence, which generated a great deal of publicity for Arpaio in advance of the primary election.

Phoenix businessman Joseph Deihl II was also spared serving a 15-day sentence at the humiliating tent city jail in January 2004 following his conviction on a solicitation charge. He was instead housed at the Mesa facility, where he was allowed a cell phone and other perks. This was after Deihl's family donated over $11,000 to Arpaio's election campaign.

On November 3, 2004, Rob Koebel, the TV reporter who had aired the rape allegations against Arpaio's opponent in the primaries, headed to jail to serve a 12-day sentence for DUI. He, too, didn't stay at the tent city jail but was instead housed at the much more comfortable Mesa facility.

And earlier, in May 2003, Mandie Brooke Colangelo, the daughter of basketball hall-of-famer and sports team manager Jerry Colangelo, served time at the Mesa jail rather than a less-desirable, overcrowded lock-up. In apparent gratitude, eight months later her father sponsored an Arpaio fund-raiser that added $50,000 to the sheriff?s election coffers, according to campaign finance records.

The New Times further uncovered numerous illegal contributions to Arpaio?s election fund from 2001-2003, when his supporters donated more than the $350 limit allowed by law. No action was taken against the sheriff by the Maricopa County Elections Department. It likely didn't hurt that Don Overton, the son-in-law of elections director Karen Osborne, was employed as one of Arpaio's deputies, or that Overton's uncle, Tim Overton, was one of the sheriff's top aides.

Arpaio Fights Freedom of the Press

Arpaio repeatedly has been taken to task by the Phoenix New Times, which has reported extensively on his harsh jail regime -- particularly when it leads to prisoner deaths and large payouts from the resulting lawsuits.

In apparent retaliation, Arpaio's staff has refused to comply with formal public records requests submitted by the New Times, and the paper has filed two lawsuits against the sheriff's office in response.

Further, in September, 2004, Arpaio's deputies manhandled one of the newspaper's reporters, John Dougherty, who dared to ask the sheriff a question about the records request. Granted, Dougherty had written a number of critical columns regarding Arpaio, and had referred to him as a "brain-addled geezer" and "demented cretin." Lisa Allen MacPherson, public information officer for the sheriff?s office, stated they did not recognize the New Times, which has been publishing since 1970, as "a legitimate newspaper." Dougherty was also told he had been placed under criminal investigation at Arpaio's direction because he had published the sheriff's home address, which can be obtained through publicly-available records.

Arpaio has crossed swords with another Arizona newspaper, the West Valley View, which criticized the sheriff in an October 3, 2006 article for failing to inform the community about a pair of attempted child abductions. The inflammatory headline of the story read, "Sheriff as Dangerous as a Child Predator." Three weeks later Arpaio's county-appointed attorney, Dennis Wilenchik, sent a letter to the paper demanding a retraction, calling the headline "dangerous" because it was a personal attack on the sheriff. Arpaio had previously restricted the View"s access to press releases from the sheriff's office due to the newspaper's unflattering coverage. The View filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court and a judge ordered the sheriff to send press releases to the paper just as he does for other news organizations, terming Arpaio"s failure to provide such public information "petty."

Such pettiness is apparently at odds with the Maricopa County Sheriff
Office's website, which states they have a "very open policy when it comes to the media." The site also quotes Arpaio as saying, "we have nothing to hide and nothing to fear." America's Toughest Sheriff apparently does have something to hide, however: His suspicious real estate transactions.

Sheriff Joe's Secret Real Estate Holdings

During his investigation into various improprieties involving Arpaio, New Times reporter John Dougherty came across some interesting information: America's Toughest Sheriff is apparently a very shrewd investor, as he and his wife, Ava, own more than $2 million in real estate holdings. What's more, the Arpaios have paid around $690,000 in cash to purchase three properties since 1995 -- which is impressive considering the sheriff's annual salary of $78,000 and federal retirement pay of approximately $65,000.

The true scope of Arpaio's commercial and residential real estate portfolio is unknown because most of the records have been sealed pursuant to a court order. Under Arizona law, records can be sealed to protect the home addresses of law enforcement, judicial and other criminal justice-related officials. Sheriff Joe obtained such a court order in July 2001; however, rather than sealing only those real estate records related to his personal residence, all records concerning Arpaio's property, including deeds, mortgages and titles, were made confidential. The New Times filed suit to unseal the records but lost in Superior Court.

The few Arpaio real estate documents that were not purged, apparently by accident, revealed a $250,000 cash purchase of two commercial spaces in a Scottsdale strip mall and the $440,000 cash purchase of a two-story commercial building in Fountain Hills. Records related to six other properties owned by the Arpaios are sealed, and the sheriff has refused requests to provide details about his real estate transactions. The property records of Arpaio's top aide, David Hendershott, are also confidential.

The commercial real estate documents of ordinary citizens, who don't enjoy the exalted position that Sheriff Joe occupies, are publicly available, of course. Evidently Arpaio does not just uphold the law. He?s above the law.

Rewarding the Loyal, Punishing the Disloyal

Arpaio has ruled over the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office as if it were his personal fiefdom -- and woe to anyone who angers the king. On November 6, 2002, the county agreed to pay $200,000 to settle a wrongful termination suit filed by former sheriff's employee Steve Barnes, who served as vice president of the Deputies' Law Enforcement Association. Barnes had disclosed that Arpaio's office was involved in wire-tapping another former employee, Tom Bearup, and had put county attorney Rick Romley under surveillance. Bearup was running for sheriff against Arpaio at the time.

In the November, 2004 primary election, several members of the sheriff's SWAT team supported Dan Saban, Arpaio's opponent. Soon afterwards those employees, including two commanders, were transferred off the elite team ? and the SWAT team itself was disbanded after two other members who were wounded in a shootout publicly criticized Arpaio's leadership.

According to extensive research by the East Valley Tribune, deputies who supported Saban in the primary subsequently received less favorable job assignments, while employees who supported Arpaio and donated to the sheriff?s campaign received promotions. Following the 2004 election more than 150 deputies and jail guards were transferred to different positions. "This is flat-out punishment," said Chris Gerberry, president of the Maricopa County Deputies/Detention Officer Association.

Brian Livingston, executive director of the Arizona Police Association, agreed, stating, "If employees speak out against the sheriff, they can almost be assured that an internal investigation will be undertaken and any prime position they have will be in jeopardy of being lost."

Arpaio is, however, generous to those employees he favors. In the wrongful death case of Charles Agster III mentioned above, the deputies who were involved in Agster's death were rewarded with promotions. "What kind of system is that? What does that tell you about the culture of the sheriff's department?" asked Michael Manning, the attorney who represented Agster's parents in their successful lawsuit.

Arpaio keeps tight control over a small group of close aides -- his inner circle at the sheriff's office. When one of those employees, Leo Richard Driving Hawk, was convicted of felony fraud charges in August 2005, Arpaio still kept him on the payroll for over four months, possibly to keep his mouth shut about what he knew regarding the sheriff?s activities.

Previously, in November 2003, Arpaio let his deputies engage in sexual acts with prostitutes, including disrobing and fondling them, during an undercover sting operation that resulted in dozens of arrests.

Prosecutors threw out sixty of the cases due to the deputies' improper conduct. True to form, it seems that Sheriff Joe is willing to break the
law in order to enforce the law.

Tide Turning Against America's Toughest Sheriff?

While Arpaio claims he has high public approval ratings, not everyone likes the Arizona lawman. The sheriff's draconian jail has been condemned by Amnesty International. There are several anti-Arpaio websites, including and, the latter run by "mothers and women whose loved ones and friends have been abused or neglected by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his employees ...."

Over the past several years a dozen people have been prosecuted for making death threats against the controversial sheriff. Even Matt Salmon, director of the Arizona Republican Party, has said of Arpaio (also a Republican, of course), "I don't respect him," and "I don't think he's playing with a full deck." Various law enforcement agencies have voted no confidence in Arpaio's performance as sheriff, and in 2004 he won re-election with only 56% of the ballot, hardly a show of overwhelming public support. However, he has the highest approval ratings of any elected official in Arizona.

If more Maricopa County residents were aware of Arpaio's behind-the-scenes political tricks, his retaliation against his own employees, his disrespect for the law and his suspicious personal real estate dealings, they might lose respect for -- and refuse to re-elect -- America's self-proclaimed "Toughest Sheriff." Or not.

Note: Special thanks to the excellent reporting done by the Phoenix New Times, which contributed greatly to this article. Coverage of Arpaio's ethically-questionable behavior is sorely lacking in Phoenix's mainstream paper, the Arizona Republic -- possibly because that publication's deputy editorial page editor, Phil Boas, is Sheriff Arpaio's son-in-law.

Sources: East Valley Tribune, West Valley View, Phoenix New Times, Arizona Republic, Sonoran News,

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