'America's toughest sheriff' shrugs off a rough month

May 3 2011 - 10:10am

PHOENIX -- April was a tough month for the man who likes to call himself America's toughest sheriff.

First, auditors found that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office took $99 million in tax money that was supposed to fund jails and improperly spent it on roundups of suspected illegal immigrants and investigations into the sheriff's political foes.

Then a federal judge ruled that Arpaio's deputies violated the constitutional rights of a legal immigrant and his U.S. citizen son by detaining them for several hours during one of the sheriff's controversial immigration raids.

Most significantly, Arpaio's longtime second-in-command, Chief Deputy David Hendershott, resigned after an internal corruption probe found he violated department policies in supervising investigations into Arpaio's critics. Federal prosecutors are also investigating the allegations and whether the sheriff has abused his power.

Arpaio, as he normally does, shrugs it all off.

"I think I had a great month," he said in an interview, citing nearly 200 arrests in an operation during which volunteer "posse" members flew over the desert outside Phoenix looking for illegal immigrants. "Everything will be straightened out and we will keep moving forward."

The 78-year-old Republican sheriff, who plans to run for his sixth term in 2012 if he doesn't run for the seat held by retiring U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, noted that his poll numbers remain strong.

"People still come to me every day for my endorsement," Arpaio said. "If I'm so bad off, why does everyone want my endorsement?"

Arpaio is best known nowadays for his tough approach to illegal immigration, but most of his recent woes stemmed from a lengthy feud with the Republican-dominated Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which has battled with him over his budget.

At one point, Arpaio had 56 different county employees under criminal investigation. He sent deputies to the homes of low-level workers on weekends and arrested two county supervisors on charges that never stood up in court.

Don Stapley, a Republican and one of the supervisors arrested by Arpaio's deputies, said the sheriff has taken a milder tone lately and is clearly aware of the legal threat of the federal investigation into his office.

"There's a sense of relief, in general, but there continues to be real frustration among people that he's still there," Stapley said. "He's very wily and very popular, and that makes it difficult for anyone to challenge his authority."

In the waning days of the Bush administration, federal prosecutors began looking into complaints from local elected officials of both parties that Arpaio was abusing his power by arresting political opponents on trumped-up charges. One television station documented more than two dozen instances in which Arpaio's office arrested critics -- including two journalists and an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union -- who were never convicted in court.

After a judge dismissed complaints from Arpaio and his ally, former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, against politicians, Arpaio and Thomas announced they were filing charges against the judge. (The charges were quickly dismissed.)

At the peak of the furor last year, a top commander in Arpaio's office wrote a 68-page memo blaming Hendershott for the situation and listing dozens of allegations -- from nepotism to benefiting from department contracts -- against the sheriff's longtime right-hand man and two other top aides.

The memo landed on the front page of the Arizona Republic. Arpaio immediately placed Hendershott and the two other officials on leave and asked a close political ally, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, to launch an investigation into the allegations.

On April 11, Babeu sent a 1,000-page report to Arpaio detailing the investigation's findings. Arpaio fired Hendershott and the two other officials, Deputy Chief Larry Black and Capt. Joel Fox. Hendershott told Arpaio last week he would resign. Arpaio accepted the resignation and made it effective immediately.

Arpaio's office has released a heavily redacted, 280-page excerpt of the investigation and says it will release the full document after those named in it have exhausted their legal rights.

The excerpts show that investigators concluded that Hendershott was improperly involved in the department's public corruption probes. He also ordered investigators to use "unsound" tactics and write improper search warrants, the report said. It noted that Hendershott never said that the investigations were intentionally targeting Arpaio's foes.

Hendershott could not be reached for comment, but in his resignation letter he said the report "is unfortunately littered with hundreds of flaws, misstates facts and ignores motives and conflicts."

In the interview, Arpaio said he wasn't responsible for Hendershott's actions. "I supervise about 15,000 employees and I delegate," he said.

Not surprisingly, his critics aren't buying that. Chad Snow, an attorney who regularly protests against the sheriff, joined more than a dozen others at the Board of Supervisors' meeting last week, challenging Arpaio to publicly answer questions about his office's travails.

Snow said that Arpaio should have known what his top staff was doing. "Either he's totally incompetent," he said, "or he's complicit."

Arpaio dismissed complaints by Snow and others who, he noted, have never been elected to public office. "Every time I run for office there's tremendous controversy," the sheriff said. "But I keep getting re-elected by large margins."

(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.

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