PHOENIX —It’s been a couple of tough weeks for Maricopa County’s Joe Arpaio, America’s self-proclaimed “toughest” sheriff.
An internal-affairs investigation revealed abuse and mismanagement—forcing the departure of one of Arpaio’s top chiefs; an investigation by Arizona’s attorney general exposed potential illegal campaign activity; and a separate county budget probe determined that the sheriff’s office misspent $99 million in taxpayer money.
None of these issues have resulted in criminal charges— yet.
Mounting criticism recently caused Arpaio to appoint an independent investigator— his Pinal County counterpart, Sheriff Paul Babeu—to carry out an internal-affairs inquiry.
The probe did not focus on criminal conduct or Arpaio himself, but rather on allegations of misconduct and abuse among some of Arpaio’s top commanders.
Babeu, who was supported by Arpaio during his election campaign, said at a press conference Tuesday that the Maricopa County sheriff was “deceived” by those he trusted and didn’t know what was going on.
The inquiry led to the firing or resignation of three members of Arpaio’s command staff, including his long-time chief deputy, David Hendershott.
Federal Grand-Jury Probe
Even as the various investigations have raised questions about how Arpaio runs his agency, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI are reviewing the revelations in connection with their own federal grand-jury probe, begun two years ago, of abuse of power by Arpaio’s office.
The DOJ probe could answer fundamental questions about Arpaio: How much did the head of the 3,400-person sheriff’s department know about wrongdoing by his employees and how directly was he involved?
“It defies common sense that Joe did not know,” said former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, a Republican and long-time critic of Arpaio. “It’s almost comical—the public ultimately should not stand for it.”
Romley said he was surprised there hasn’t been more of a public uproar over the recent findings about the apparent misuse of taxpayer dollars, abuse of power and possible illegal campaign activities.
One person raising the volume, though, is Don Stapley, a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. He and another supervisor, Mary Rose Wilcox, have accused Arpaio’s office of initiating investigations against them in retaliation for criticizing the sheriff’s anti-immigrant sweeps and questioning how he handled his budget.
Stapley recently wrote to President 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 staged media show arrest, publicly humiliated, damaged politically and nearly ruined financially."
“We need your help to rid Arizona and our nation of this modern-day Bull Connor and his corrupt cronies,” Stapley went on. Connor was the racist Alabama lawman who abetted attacks on the anti-segregation Freedom Riders 50 years ago this week.
Wilcox, meanwhile, met with DOJ officials in Washington D.C. on Wednesday and urged them to speed up their investigation and take administrative control of the jail system.
Wilcox recalled an unsettling meeting with Arpaio: “I started questioning immigration. That’s why he came to our board one day and basically told me I would be sorry for what I was doing.”
$99 Million in Misspent Jail Funds
A six-month investigation by county budget officials revealed that the supervisors’ concerns were not unfounded. Arpaio’s office was found to have misspent $99 million from two jails funds over eight years to finance unauthorized law-enforcement activities—including the sheriff’s controversial immigration sweeps.
Robert Sherwood, a spokesperson at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona, confirmed that the DOJ is looking at Arpaio’s unauthorized spending, as well as the recent findings of the Pinal sheriff’s noncriminal probe.
Babeu’s 1,000-page report, with many sections blacked out, stemmed from a memo written by Deputy Chief Frank Munnell and submitted to Arpaio last fall. The memo detailed years of accusations of misconduct and mismanagement by Hendershott, as well as violations of office policies by Deputy Chief Larry Black and Capt. Joel Fox.
Employees told investigators that they had informed Arpaio about some of the problems. Rather than look into the allegations, however, Arpaio asked Hendershott about them, the report said, noting the pair’s close relationship.
“He let me down and the entire sheriff’s office,” Arpaio said during Tuesday’s press conference. “I heard some critics say that either I have been asleep at the wheel or I’m simply incompetent. I assure you that I’m neither. No one is beyond being fooled by people placed in a position of trust,” he said, adding that Hendershott was solely responsible for his unethical behavior.
Hendershott started working for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in 1978. He retired in 1999 but was soon rehired as Arpaio’s number two—allowing him to collect a salary as a civilian employee as well as his county retirement benefits.
Corrupted Anti-Corruption Unit
In recent years, Hendershott, oversaw the Maricopa County Anti-Corruption Effort (MACE), a task force that investigated public officials such as judges and county supervisors.
Hendershott’s management of the MACE unit “was contrary to sound law-enforcement practice,” Babeu’s report says.
In one episode, Hendershott tried to force deputies to prepare a search warrant of the Board of Supervisors. When told there was no probable cause, the report says, Hendershott threatened to “machine gun” the deputies and later kicked them off the unit.
According to the report, Hendershott used $25,000 from two citizen volunteer groups to send family members and friends on a trip to Alaska for a baseball tournament. The funds were meant to assist the sheriff’s office.
No charges have been filed against Hendershott, Black or Fox. Babeu’s internal investigation was of limited scope, focusing on possible violations of policies, not on criminal behavior.
But a separate investigation could lead to charges for illegal campaign activities.
Arpaio Campaign Fund “Troubling”
That probe found that the Sheriff Command’s Association (SCA), an employee group in Arpaio’s office, had raised tens of thousands of dollars from his supporters and deputies for a slush fund that violated Arizona’s campaign-finance laws.
The money was funneled to the Republican Party to pay for a controversial advertisement against Dan Saban, Arpaio’s opponent in 2008. Hendershott was behind the fund, according to documents released by the Arizona Attorney General’s office.
“The information was very troubling, and it was substantial,” said Romley, the former Maricopa County Attorney and a consultant on the probe.
However, Attorney General Tom Horne—a Republican who took over the probe from his Democratic predecessor, Terry Goddard—said he had decided not to pursue indictments, noting that the federal government was also looking into the matter He proceeded to close the SCA inquiry and submit the findings to the DOJ.
At a press conference this week, Arpaio declined to address the SCA allegations.
Paul Charlton, a former U.S. attorney who also represents Stapley, said of the findings, “There’s two possibilities I see, and neither are good for [Arpaio].” 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,” Charlton said.
Arpaio’s agency is also the subject of a separate DOJ civil rights probe of racial profiling during his immigration sweeps. Last month, attorneys in a related lawsuit presented new evidence about racial bias by Arpaio’s office, including racially derogatory e-mails circulated among some employees involved in the raids.
Asked during the press conference whether he was considering resigning, Arpaio was defiant. “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.”