Mutiny At The County

Sheriff Arpaio's deputies say his vaunted posse does little more than waste money and slake their boss's thirst for publicity

* Richard Mysliwiec, 1994 Jeep Posse Man of the Year. The Sheriff's Office says he was asked to leave the posse after officials realized their original background check had failed to turn up a 1993 arrest for theft.

* Sandor Benyik, who was kicked out of the Operations Posse in January when the Mesa Police Department informed the Sheriff's Office that he had been arrested for child molestation.

* Mike Donnelly, a member of the Litchfield Park Posse, was found in possession of a stolen 1995 GMC Jimmy that he'd outfitted with an emergency light bar. Stolen hand-held radios--their serial numbers scratched off--were also found in the vehicle. Donnelly told investigators he didn't think it was unusual that he'd paid only $250 to somebody in a river bottom for a $30,000 automobile. The vehicle was returned to its owner and, despite a deputy's report that in his opinion Donnelly knew the vehicle was stolen, the county attorney returned the case for more investigation.

Although a list of posse members released by the Sheriff's Office five months later still includes Donnelly, a spokesman says that's because of a computer error, and that Donnelly was asked to leave the posse immediately after he was found in possession of the vehicle.

It's apparent that Joe Arpaio believes there's no such thing as bad publicity. Arpaio craves publicity like a smoker craves nicotine.

Attorney General Grant Woods was livid in 1993 when he discovered that New Times had lured him to be photographed buying a hot dog from an escapee from Arpaio's jail system. The embarrassing photo was reprinted in several national publications.

A short time later, Arpaio cornered a New Times writer to complain that he hadn't been asked to pose.

Arpaio has built a well-paid staff that's consumed with the task of getting him press coverage. It's another story, however, when a reporter asks for facts to back up what the sheriff says.

"You're burying us with your [records] requests," Lisa Allen gripes to a New Times reporter one sunny March morning.

Behind her, the Sheriff's Office is doing some burying of its own--a chain gang is filling in the last foot of soil on the grave of some nameless pauper at the county's potter's field.

Allen, a former TV reporter, is the sheriff's "community relations coordinator," and she's paid $46,000 a year to massage national and international media.

Arpaio's executive assistant, Tom Bearup, gets a whopping $76,000 to "coordinate public affairs activity," and two public information officers make $50,000 each to handle local press.

Allen and Bearup watch contentedly as reporters swarm over Arpaio's cemetery media event. Journalists have been summoned in an attempt to quell clergy criticism of Arpaio's latest PR stunt--a program dubbed "Scared Stiff," which uses chain gangs to bury indigents (something jail inmates have done for years). Allen had written to the clergy members, inviting them to the burial and explaining that the Sheriff's Office couldn't prevent journalists from photographing them with the sheriff. The ministers recognized that Allen was attempting to use them as props in a photo opportunity, and although two attend the burials, they refuse to be photographed with the sheriff.

That doesn't prevent the interments from turning into another Arpaio media love fest. Camera operators jockey for the best angles; one drops prone to get the best shot of chains jangling as the inmates walk by. "I saw one of the inmates cry!" a reporter says excitedly, scribbling in a notepad.

On that evening's news, the chain-gang controversy will be told on Arpaio's terms. No reporters will raise thornier questions about the political motivations behind "Scared Stiff," which, not coincidentally, was unveiled the day America's Toughest Sheriff hit the bookshelves.

News organizations have been slow to report developments that disparage Arpaio, even if the reporting would have required a single phone call.

Last August, the Department of Justice notified Arpaio that it would investigate charges of abuse in his jails, including allegations of physical abuse of inmates by staff, covering up instances of abuse, and withholding access to lawyers and medical care.

After New Times broke the story of the investigation, however, other Valley media waited ten days before deciding it was newsworthy.

Arpaio says he isn't concerned about the investigation, but when it comes to shielding himself from lawsuits, he says he needs all the protection he can get.

Protection from lawsuits is the pretext under which the Sheriff's Office purchases video compilations of Arpaio's TV appearances, at a cost to taxpayers of about $900 each month.

Arpaio pays for this service from state funds earmarked specifically for jail facilities. After New Times disclosed that the Jail Enhancement Fund was being tapped to pay for the videos--among other questionable uses--the county attorney asked the state auditor general to investigate.

Arpaio claims the video service protects his agency from litigation. But when he's asked what criteria the video service use to decide which shows to record, he answers: "When I talk."

Sheriff Arpaio not only acknowledges the huge amount of training going to the posse, he boasts about it. A particularly tedious chapter in his book dwells on the stages of a posse member's education, from the initial interview, background check and legal-issues classes to advanced weapons training. It's all free, Arpaio says, with volunteers teaching volunteers, so the more's the better.

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