By Matthew Hendley
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Phuong followed that mistake with another. When the bookmakers he'd placed the bet with arrived to collect their money, Phuong told them to collect the money from a friend of theirs who owed him money.
The bookmakers, two Vietnamese-Chinese men in their 30s who are reputed to have dealt roughly with their all-Asian clientele, didn't like that response.
The men pulled out wallets and flopped them open for Phuong to see.
Each of them possessed badges from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
"We're deputies now," Phuong says he was told. "And if you don't give us that money right now, we're going to put you in jail."
Phuong says he paid every penny.
To understand how two alleged sports bookmakers with suspected ties to Asian organized crime found their way into Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Executive Posse, it is instructive to first consider the night in February when Arpaio sang "My Way" for a restaurant full of people.
The occasion was Chinese New Year, and Great Wall Cuisine, a restaurant at 35th Avenue and Camelback Road, was chock-full of luminaries from the local Asian-American community. Elected officials were scattered among the 300 guests as well, and were asked to sing for the entire room. As Madeline Ong-Sakata later described it for Asian SUNews, Arpaio won the night's karaoke competition with his rendition of the Sinatra classic. His prize: a certificate for a free dinner.
It was just another weird scene in the increasingly weird consequence of Joe Arpaio's political hubris.
Arpaio has campaigned nearly nonstop since he took office in January 1993, ostensibly to spread his message of getting tough on crime, a stump speech he delivers nearly every day to service clubs and at retirement homes.
As he's pursued greater visibility and influence, however, others have increasingly sought to influence him. His sky-high poll numbers--he likes to brag that the only people who disapprove of him are in his jails--have local politicos elbowing others out of the way to gain his largess.
Such an environment produces sessions like the one at Great Wall Cuisine, where the state's most popular politician is rewarded for singing with a plate of chow mein, gratis.
It's a testament to how rapidly Arpaio's star has risen.
In 1992, Arpaio was enduring his 10th year as a retired federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent. He kept busy by helping out at Starworld Travel, his wife's Scottsdale agency, while suffering withdrawal from public life.
Arpaio rescued himself from obscurity by running for office against Tom Agnos, a well-respected sheriff whose credibility had been wrecked by the bungled investigation into the murder of six Buddhist monks and three others in a west Valley temple in 1991.
One of Arpaio's first goals--aside from making the jails a place for "punishment" even though 70 percent of his inmates await trial under an assumption of innocence--was to build up the citizen posse. The Sheriff's Office now has nearly 50 posses of various stripe; some are organized by region, others, like the Search and Rescue Posse, according to expertise.
The posses have been hugely popular. But a year ago, New Times reported that they have become a colossal drain of money and resources, and that despite the throngs who have answered the sheriff's call for volunteers--now approaching 3,000--only a handful, perhaps as few as 100, actually participate regularly in what deputies call "Joe Shows"--publicity stunts.
Deputies complain that the posses are, first and foremost, politically expedient for Arpaio. They warn that an emphasis on law enforcement has been lost in the search for greater numbers and greater media impact. Inadequate background checks have resulted in several undesirables obtaining badges.
New Times recently learned that a member of Arpaio's Executive Posse, Kenny Tat, is suspected by law enforcement agencies to have links with Asian organized crime. Yet somehow he and a colleague, Tom Tat, received badges from Sheriff Arpaio.
The Tats' ability to gain those badges, even though they speak little English and have no law enforcement training, may have less to do with an overburdened Sheriff's Office than with the misguided ambitions of the Arpaio supporter who recruited the Tats.
That supporter is Manny Wong, publisher of the local Asian-American Times. Wong now admits he may have made a mistake when he vouched for the Tats and got them into the Executive Posse.
He says he was not only aware of Kenny Tat's alleged tie to a notorious California Asian gang, Wah Ching, but since they were given badges, Wong has learned of their alleged bookmaking.
Phuong says the Tats used their badges to intimidate him and others when they lost bets in the Tats' sports-gambling operation, which they reportedly run out of a restaurant.
That restaurant happens to be Great Wall Cuisine, where in February Arpaio warbled his way to a free plate of food.
The Executive Posse. Governor J. Fife Symington III's on it, and so is Phoenix City Councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood. KFYI-AM talk-radio owner Fred Weber is, too, and he's put red and blue running lights in his luxury car. Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza was a member until he objected to the use of posse members to help with drug busts, a move many cops saw as dangerous.