Paying the Price

The sheriff's not talking, but records reveal that taxpayers are spending big bucks to defend controversial jail operations

Sheriff Joe Arpaio continues to grab airtime whenever he can, whether it's to announce that inmates will help stuff county elections envelopes or to call in his posse to investigate pet abuse.

But what the sheriff hasn't been talking about is how much money county taxpayers have had to shell out as a result of his jail policies.

Since 1993, when Arpaio took over as Maricopa County sheriff, taxpayers have spent nearly $1 million defending Arpaio against legal action or paying off claims against his office, according to county risk-management records.

In June, the county quietly settled one high-profile claim of excessive force against the sheriff's office. It paid former inmate Eric Johnson $150,000 for his broken arm, sustained when jail guards twisted it up behind his back. Private lawyers under contract to defend Arpaio were paid another $65,565.

The Johnson case garnered national press attention, because it seemed to symbolize the danger of Arpaio's notion of incarceration.

On November 2, 1994, while awaiting trial for traffic citations, Johnson cursed at a guard. That guard and two others dragged Johnson out of his cell, slammed him against a wall and twisted his arm behind his back until it snapped. The entire incident was captured on videotape.

The case caught the attention of The CBS Evening News. Shown the tape during the TV interview, Arpaio dismissed the incident, saying that his guards must have had a reason to rough up the inmate. Later, Arpaio conducted an internal investigation that cleared the guards of wrongdoing. Johnson sued.

Sheriff's officials have said publicly in recent weeks that jail claims have cost the county only about $100,000. But county records show that taxpayers are on the hook for substantially more.

Since Arpaio took office in 1993, more than 800 lawsuits have been filed by inmates against his office. Most have been brought by inmates acting as their own attorneys and have been dismissed by the courts. But at least 88 remain active, including several high-profile cases filed by veteran attorneys.

About two dozen cases, including Johnson's, have been settled, with payments for claims totaling $456,371, according to a list provided by the county.

That list, however, is not complete. Missing, for example, is the case of Kevin Holschlag, who hanged himself in 1994 when guards assigned to monitor him were instead watching a videotape of Arpaio's television appearances. Holschlag's family sued, and was paid $50,000 last year.

Moreover, records show that the county also already has paid $348,931 to attorney Paul Lazarus to defend it in a lawsuit brought by the family of Scott Norberg. Norberg's family is asking $20 million in the asphyxiation death of the former Tempe football star. On June 1, 1996, Norberg was tackled by jail guards and held in a position that prevented him from breathing.

In recent months, depositions from two county employees have rocked the case and given weight to the Norbergs' contention that it was jailers, not their son, who were out of control.

In another well-publicized case, Richard Post is seeking millions of dollars in damages for the night he spent in jail in 1996. The paraplegic was pulled out of his wheelchair and strapped into a restraint chair so tightly that his neck was broken. As a result, Post's right arm is useless.

If the county loses the big-bucks cases, taxpayers will have to pay only the first million dollars in losses, says county risk manager Les Boyce. After that, the county's excess-loss insurance takes over.

In the Norberg case, that excess loss would be paid by the Insurance Company of the West.

Two weeks ago, the Insurance Company of the West asked attorney Paul Holloway to begin attending hearings in the Norberg case on its behalf.

Does anyone in county officialdom wonder--or worry--whether the county jails under Arpaio's regime are becoming a hefty financial liability for the taxpayers?

Arpaio spokeswoman Lisa Allen refused to pass a request for an interview from New Times to the sheriff so he could speak directly about the lawsuits facing his office. "The sheriff doesn't know the numbers," Allen says, directing questions to Jack MacIntyre, a former county attorney who was hired by Arpaio as his intergovernmental liaison.

MacIntyre doesn't consider the $150,000 paid to Johnson a large amount.
"It's certainly not a bell-ringer," he says, adding that he hasn't noticed a larger number of lawsuits against Arpaio than previous sheriffs. He attributes the number of lawsuits--800 in five years--to a litigious society. "It's part of the operation of government that government is a target, because government has deep pockets."

County risk manager Les Boyce says he evaluates each case on its own merits, and hasn't thought about an overall trend in lawsuits against the sheriff's office.

County spokesman Al Bravo says he doubts any county official will say anything perceived as a criticism of Arpaio, not with the county pushing a $900 million bond initiative to build more jails.

"Nobody's going to say anything before the jail tax vote in November," Bravo says.

Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: tortega@newtimes.com

 
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