Soft Cell

Special handling for a federal prosecutor's drunken-driving case sparks controversy in sheriff's ranks

The county jail at Dysart and Bell roads in Surprise hadn't seen an inmate since 1994. Sheriff Joe Arpaio closed the small facility that year because it was inefficient. He was short on detention officers and he didn't want to waste the taxpayers' money.

But five years later, for just 24 hours, the Dysart and Bell jail was quietly reopened. On the swampy late afternoon of Friday, August 13, 1999, as the rest of the inmate population sweated it out in Tent City or the county's overcrowded, understaffed jails, two Maricopa County Sheriff's Office sergeants on weekend overtime pay drove to the jail, unlocked it, cranked up the air and waited for their one and only inmate, assistant U.S. attorney Lisa J. Roberts, who'd been convicted of drunken driving.

While celebrities, police, prosecutors and judges are often given protective custody to do their time, several past and present detention officers and deputies interviewed for this story say they had never heard of a decommissioned county jail -- it had been turned into a training facility -- being opened for one inmate, nor had they ever heard of higher-echelon officers being brought from other facilities and paid overtime to guard a single inmate.

Together, those two supervisors were paid more than $700 for their day's work -- a week's salary for an entry-level detention officer who watches 120 prisoners at the county's Madison Street Jail.

And the timing has some deputies, detention officers and Arpaio's detractors particularly incensed, enough so that they are widely discussing it as Arpaio comes up for reelection. Roberts served her easy time for the DUI conviction just as the U.S. Attorney's Office was investigating Arpaio's chief deputy, David Hendershott, on allegations that he embezzled funds from the office's sale of pink underwear and that he ordered surveillance on political enemies.

Two weeks after Roberts' stint in the training center, the U.S. Attorney's Office sent Hendershott a letter saying there was insufficient evidence to justify continuing the investigation.

Federal officials say Roberts was not working on the Hendershott investigation and that it's ridiculous to link her DUI case to the Hendershott matter. Still, Roberts was treated differently by the county from other DUI defendants. And she refused to discuss her DUI case, a personal matter, with New Times, instead referring all calls to a U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman.

Cathy Colbert, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix, denies that Roberts, who prosecutes illegal-alien cases, received any preferential treatment.

"Where is the special treatment?" Colbert asks. "She got a DUI, she sat in open court, she has a conviction, she had to do jail time and she went to serve her time where she was told to serve her time. Her career was threatened and she was humiliated. . . . She did everything right and now she's being embarrassed again."

Lisa Allen, spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, also denies any impropriety.

"It was just as easy for us to isolate her there as it was to isolate her anywhere else," Allen says. "We didn't have anywhere to put her. And it was no big deal because we had people working out of the facility anyway."

Technically, she's right -- there are people working out of the facility. Although the jail is closed, the other half of the building still serves as the District 3 substation.

But the patrol officers working out of the substation in Surprise have no access to the jail area. Indeed, when patrol officers asked supervisors what was going on August 13 and 14 in the empty jail next door, they say they were told to stop asking questions.

"When I asked about it, I was told by a lieutenant: 'Just don't worry about it, you don't want to get involved, let it go,'" says Sergeant Darrell Smith, who retired in July as the day-shift supervisor in District 3. "I had never seen anything like it. My uniformed officers were denied any information on what was going on in that jail."

What was going on, according to two detention supervisors who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, was that two other supervisors with close ties to Hendershott were quietly dispatched to oversee Roberts. And, according to these sources, it was Hendershott who gave the assignment, although there is no record of that.

Hendershott was not available for comment. One of the two men who guarded Roberts didn't return calls for this story; the other couldn't be reached.

Allen, however, confirms that the two supervisors were paid overtime to guard Roberts.

On February 28 of last year, Roberts was pulled over by a Scottsdale police officer. According to the officer's report, Roberts was driving 25 miles over the speed limit down Scottsdale Road between Shea Boulevard and Gainey Ranch Road. Officers smelled alcohol, and Roberts was found to have a blood-alcohol level in excess of the legal limit.

She pleaded not guilty. Then, more than five months later, Roberts accepted a plea agreement. In Scottsdale Municipal Court, she agreed to pay $444 in fines, enter substance abuse counseling and spend 24 hours in jail.

It was the first conviction for Roberts, a respected attorney who had just moved to Phoenix from Boston the year before. The punishment was in line with that of many first-time offenders, and certainly more severe than DUI sentences of the past.

Not unusual, either, was her attorney's request that she be allowed to serve her sentence outside the general jail population. Judges, cops, prosecutors and celebrities who run afoul of the law are often put in what's called "administrative segregation," the department's term for protective custody. Or, they're allowed to do their time at smaller county facilities such as those in Mesa or Avondale.

But never, as far as anyone interviewed could tell, has someone been given her own jail with her own high-ranking detention officers.

"I've never heard of anything like it," says Chris Gerberry, president of the Maricopa County Deputies Association and a vocal Arpaio critic who has a wrongful-termination suit against Arpaio pending in court. "It absolutely stinks of favoritism."

In fact, Roberts was at first scheduled to serve her sentence in Wickenburg, according to court records. Records don't reflect why she went to the training facility instead.

Allen and Colbert, on the other hand, think those criticizing the case are involved in a political witch hunt of which Roberts is the only real victim.

"Arpaio's enemies are grasping at straws by trying to say this is a big deal," Colbert says. "There is nothing here. We're stunned that people would even try to make the connection."

But why wasn't she isolated in Tent City like many inmates? Or locked up in the women's facility at Estrella Jail? Or sent to Avondale or Mesa?

Allen dismissed all the apparent options:

Of serving at Madison: "The tanks we have at Madison are crowded with rather yucky, dangerous people."

Of Estrella: "That's pre-trial for women. She couldn't go there."

As for Tent City, she says, "The isolation tanks are taken up by people who have disobeyed the rules. They're in lockdown. You have four people to a cell, too. There's no room for her."

Gerberry, Smith and several other detention officers and deputies say Allen's comments are ludicrous.

"Look, it's crazy," Smith says. "Maybe you put them in an administration hall, whatever. It can be done all kinds of ways without going out to the middle of nowhere and hiding everything and paying supervisor-level people a ton of overtime. It doesn't make sense."

Gerberry says it certainly looks fishy. The U.S. attorney was investigating Hendershott, then Hendershott does something nice for somebody within the U.S. Attorney's Office, he says.

Wrong, Allen says.

Or, just silly, Colbert says. If the sheriff's office was doing the U.S. attorney a favor, she says, neither Roberts nor anyone else in the department knew it was a favor. Few in the U.S. Attorney's Office knew about Roberts' DUI, she says.

Moreover, she says, Roberts had nothing to do with the Hendershott investigation, nor was Roberts even aware Hendershott was being investigated. Assistant U.S. attorneys often don't know what cases other attorneys are working on, she says.

And "absolutely, unequivocally," Colbert says, Jose de Jesus Rivera, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona and Roberts' boss, no way involved himself in Roberts' DUI case.

"It was absolutely a personal issue," Colbert says.

Roberts, she says, was just told where to go to serve her time, "and that's what she did."

"How can it be a benefit if the person who is supposedly benefited didn't know she was receiving a benefit? She didn't know anything about that facility. She just went to the address she was told to go to and then did her time."

"Whatever it was," Smith says, "it irritates you when you know how short-staffed the detention facilities are. To waste so much money and be secretive about it, it just looks bad. It just really ends up looking like preferential treatment."

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